Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Guest Post: Why Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech

This is a guest blog post by George Lakoff (Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California)

George Lakoff

Freedom in a free society is supposed to be for all. Therefore, freedom rules out imposing on the freedom of others. You are free to walk down the street, but not to keep others from doing so. The imposition on the freedom of others can come in overt, immediate physical form — thugs coming to attack with weapons. Violence may be a kind of expression, but it certainly is not “free speech.”

Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects.

Here is the reason:

All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse. Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time.

That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech.

Hate speech can also change the brains of those with mild prejudice, moving it towards hate and threatening action. When hate is physically in your brain, then you think hate and feel hate, you are moved to act to carry out what you physically, in your neural system, think and feel.

That is why hate speech in not “mere” speech. And since it imposes on the freedom of others, it is not an instance of freedom.

The long–term, often crippling physical effects of hate speech on the neural systems of those hated does not have status in law, since our neural systems do not have status in our legal system — at least not yet. This is a gap between the law and the truth.

My own take:

The key difference between free speech and hate speech is that the former is moral communication in the most generic sense - the latter is immoral.  Moral communication does not target an entire people, race or religion by inciting opponents to violence.. And yes, that means words and cartoons can act as violent or murderous weapons! They embed themselves in the "neural circuitry", especially of those already with axes to grind, and incite them to take precipitous action.

And lest we take that as a freak exception let us recall how Rush Limbaugh once referred to Leftists as "cockroaches" e.g.


And the Nazis during the Third Reich regularly depicted the Jews in cartoons and films as "rats". E.g.


Was this free expression or free speech, given the horrific effect it had? Of course not! It was the most scurrilous, vile refuse and propaganda masquerading as speech. No form of propaganda is defensible, whether in books, film or cartoons. This is not free speech but hate speech. It defiles the user as it does the target, reducing each - via dehumanization. See the Nazi material produced on the Jews in the preceding link.

In his superb book, Morality and Human Nature, Robert J. McShea, in Chapter 14 (Moral Communication) makes clear the standards and norms we are talking about. It is a subtle read but one which I would recommend to all those who insist that there should be absolute freedom of speech to say whatever, insult and demean people at will - with no consequences.

McShea writes (p. 221):

"Moral communication is possible among us to the extent to which we share common genetic feelings and a common view of facts."

Did the Rwandan Hutus share common genetic feelings, e.g. with the Tutsis? Of course not! They dehumanized them via their "free speech" portrayals and depictions (via speech and cartoons) as cockroaches. This debasement paved the way for the 1994 Rwandan genocide and vividly disclosed the break with moral communication.   By extension, any depiction, say via cartoon, of a people (say  Muslims) or their sacred icons as practitioners of perversion or sexual license is an equal moral transgression and hence hate speech. In addition, such depictions violate the rubric of a common view of facts - hence cannot be regarded as moral communication.

My argument, and the author's, is that only moral communication is truly deserving of protection - not gratuitous speech that violates precepts of basic human respect.  This is why I am in total agreement with George Lakoff.

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