The Problem With Hate-Speech Laws
Thoughtcrime is Alive and Well in the City of London
On May 10, a fifteen-year old boy who was engaging in a peaceful protest in front of the headquarters of the Church of Scientology in London was charged by police for the act of calling the Church a "cult". He was acting as part of an ongoing war declared by a group calling itself "Anonymous" against the Church of Scientology on January 21, 2008. This group claims that the Church of Scientology is a cult that manipulates its members into parting with both cash and personal freedoms, as well as using various legal and illegal scare-tactics to silence its critics. Anonymous, a group existing only as a distributed network of individuals united by their common goals, has staged various actions against the Church of Scientology since January, and the Church has responded with varying degrees of alarm and retribution. However, this article is not about Scientology or Anonymous's war. This article is about the connection between speech and thought, and the danger of hate-speech laws.
A New Name for Heresy
Once upon a time, in the bad old days, humans labored under the notion of "heresy", the idea that simply by holding certain beliefs, a person could offend spiritual beings capable of punishing humans forever. Certain ideas were argued over by religious clerics, and the ideas of the losers were outlawed. Holding these ideas in your head was considered one of the worst sins possible, second only to the sin of spreading them. People were censored, imprisoned, and killed, simply for holding the wrong ideas in their heads and communicating them.
Interestingly, the word heresy comes from "hairesis", a Greek word meaning "to choose". The word in a religious context is meant to imply a choice of one's own beliefs, as opposed to the package of "orthodox" beliefs handed down by "legitimate" authority.
The historical period called "The Enlightenment" is largely responsible for the political thought that gave birth to the modern age. Philosophers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke established new notions of knowledge, freedom, and ethics for a new age. The period was typified by an overall optimism about the future of humanity and the powers of human reason. People came to believe in a new way of viewing the world, and they considered new authorities to be "legitimate". With these new authorities came a new package of "orthodox" beliefs.
A New Orthodoxy
These new beliefs are now the foundation of the western world. Our political and social discourse refers to them as assumptions, ideas we have no need to question or confirm. Among these are beliefs few of us find any reason to argue with: the fundamental equality of all humans before the law, the right of humans to choose their own government, and the separation of the public and private spheres of life. But there are some other beliefs that seem to go along with this package, beliefs about which we are not in consensus. These are beliefs about topics like homosexuality, race, and religion.
The New Gods
In theory, under the ideals of modern western society, we are our own "legitimate" authority. As nations, communities, and individuals we are to bring about whatever ways of living we can agree upon. We get together, make our various arguments, pursue our various agendas, and come to an agreement. Our rule over ourselves was to take place through constant conflict and resolution. No less than Thomas Jefferson claimed that "Every generation needs a new revolution." This is what was supposed to happen.
A New Era of Peace
What actually happened was that people found out that perpetual revolution and conflict was bad for business. Capitalism, which was part of the package of beliefs in the new "orthodoxy" of post-Enlightenment western thought, needed a stable environment to function, and everyone needed capitalism to function. So a new technique was developed: in order to avoid certain types of conflict that interfere with the stability of society, that conflict was moved to the realm of legislation. Western society gradually decided to agree that if the world was not actually going to live up to our needs, we would legislate a world into existence that did, and so the dangers presented by perpetual revolution were redistributed to the legal realm, and issues that used to be decided by blood and fire began to be decided by talk and writing. Labor issues, civil rights, and class struggle became something that occurred in courtrooms and classrooms instead of in the streets and on the battlefield.
A Reality of Words
And so it came to pass that we began to live in a legislated reality that exists in laws and trial results. This level of abstraction seems like a step forward; after all, we wanted to become truly "civilized". But the result of this new reality is that the people who are actually affected by the issues decided in the laws and courtrooms are separated from the ability to cause change in the actual world they occupy. They instead must engage with an entire structure of power that is designed to force their very real conflicts into an abstracted realm, far away from anything that might disrupt society.
An Ignored Paradox
So, in order to protect society from the results of conflicts that are caused by the needs and desires of its members, its members are forced to ignore the realities of their needs and desires and instead be content with a legislated abstraction. Our "perpetual revolution" has been put into a la-la land made of words so that we can all be comfortable. And comfort is the last thing we need.
Life Matters, Reality is Real
We have real issues and real problems. These issues are about people's real lives. These issues are not words, they do not exist in a legislated reality, and their effects are not felt in the virtual space of political discourse. They exist in hunger, in pain, and in misery. These issues are avoided in the words used in our legislated reality; instead we discuss words like "rights" and "freedom", abstractions that no one can really define. This bears repeating: ideas like "rights", "freedom", "the economy" and "the government", are abstractions. They don't really exist. What really exists is people living in a world, and those people have certain concerns, none of which are abstract. Freedom is always the freedom to do something in the world, and rights are always granted, and therefore rights are actually privileges that can be revoked. The economy is a real exchange of real goods and services by real people that leads to real consequences in real lives, not abstractions like "Percentage Unemployed". There is no such thing as a "casualty"; there is only death, a real corpse of a real person with a name and a face. There is no "collateral damage" there is the murder of civilians and the destruction of their resources. Every layer of abstraction we put between ourselves and reality is another place where our access to our real concerns has been lost.
Conflict is Necessary
By virtue of the simple facts of existence, we do not all share each other's concerns, and in some cases our concerns are mutually exclusive. If the real concerns we live with give rise to real conflicts and then those conflicts are hidden away in abstractions and legislated realities, then we have no hope of actually dealing with them. We need to fight, and some people need to lose, and that is the way things are. It's not pretty, and it shouldn't be. We should not be able to hide our exploitation of others behind numbers and our slaughter of people, the ending of their lives and their possibilities, behind notions like "war". There is no "war". There is only death, and we need to see it and know that it is the consequence of our choices in order to understand the importance of those choices.
Bringing It Back Around
We have ranged far and wide in this discussion. The issue was hate-speech laws and their ilk, and now we may return to it, armed with an understanding of the issues at stake. If we would have this grand dream of civilization, we must focus on our real concerns, and those real concerns inevitably bring us into conflict. The justification for hate-speech laws has been given to us couched in terms of freedom. The argument goes something like this:
"People are supposed to be equal and free, and that means that their ability to feel equal and free must be protected. Speech that makes people feel unsafe or oppressed must therefore be suppressed because it infringes upon people's inherent equality and freedom".
Should we believe that this is the real justification for these laws? If they were equally enforced and if the notion of what kind of speech was actually threatening or oppressive was clear, then this might be the case. But I would have to point out that these laws are not used to protect everyone equally. For example, it is accepted practice in many modern, western nations to legally and socially suppress political ideas associated with National Socialism (Nazism). The rights of this political minority to not feel threatened or oppressed are not protected by hate-speech laws, and in fact they are normally suppressed in public forums. The terms "nazi" and "fascist", both technically terms denoting a person who supports a certain type of political system, are commonly used as insults, and no one calls the police or files a lawsuit.
In the religious sphere, we see a similar phenomenon. While it is acknowledged that there are many religions in the world that are polytheistic, whenever religion shows up in the public sphere it is almost always in terms of monotheism. Survey questions ask our public if they "believe in God", not if they "believe in the existence of gods" or whether they "pursue a spiritual path". Despite the fact that there are existing religions which call themselves pagan, heathen, and Satanist, those terms are used as insults constantly in the public sphere with complete impunity. When Jerry Falwell said of the 9/11 attacks, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen'", he was forced to apologize to the homosexuals and feminists and that is what was reported. Not a word was said about the pagans, who are just another religious minority, and the silence was ignored (except by the pagans).
So, if only some groups are being protected from feeling threatened or oppressed, it is plain that the justification for hate-speech laws is not entirely true. What has instead happened is that certain beliefs have become protected because protecting them avoids a certain level of conflict, and other beliefs are not protected because allowing them to be persecuted also avoids a certain level of conflict. The goal has nothing to do with freedom or equality or any other ideal but comfort, simple comfort. We want things stable, and so we want certain ideas to be pursued and others avoided, regardless of our ideals, even though we couch this selective protection in those ideals.
So let's look again at the case of the young man from London. He is being charged for calling Scientology a cult, in compliance with the "Public Order Act" which "prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting". Whether Scientology is a cult or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that in cases like this the concerns of one group are being protected at the expense of another, and that this selective protection is justified in terms of protecting the Scientologists from being insulted. If it had been a Christian group protesting an abortion clinic and calling them "murderers", would they have been charged on the same grounds?
We are in a dangerous situation. We have recreated the notion of "heresy" and "orthodoxy"; some ideas are protected, others persecuted, and lives can be destroyed for holding the wrong ideas. One only need consider the controversy over the words of Dr. James Watson in 2007, when he claimed to believe ideas we have agreed to persecute, to see that no one is immune to this legislation of our beliefs and concerns. We have re-instituted heresy, and its companion, inquisition, cannot be far behind.