Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jun 14, 2017
Shades of grey: Perspectives on hate speech

Opening up a debate on hate speech is like opening a Pandora’s box. Overlapping problems, conceptual disconnect and polarised perspectives. The discourse on hate speech intersects with the concept of free speech. Traditionally, all speech is protected in the American constitution under the First Amendment. Similarly, European countries recognise free speech as a foundation of liberal democratic values. However, the degree to which these rights are protected vary from country to country. It is these varying degrees of protected speech which have produced numerous shades of grey on what constitutes hate speech.

Hate speech is interpreted differently around the world because of its subjective nature. Hateful words may not necessarily be directed towards a race, religion or gender. If a high school bully harasses fellow students and calls them names would it be considered hate speech? It is certainly filled with contempt. American hate speech expert Samuel Walker traces the genesis of the hate speech debate to the 1920s. The rise of fascist groups in the United States after the Nazi party came to power in Germany, caused major concern. Subsequently, in the 1940s a narrow category of speech labelled “fighting words” were identified as unprotected under the First Amendment. Fighting words are described as “Words which would likely make the person whom they are addressed commit an act of violence.”

Unlike American jurisprudence, Europeans do not extend the same sanctity to free speech. Take France for example which prohibits Holocaust denial and has strong laws against hate speech or Germany which has, on several occasions, banned National Socialists, Islamists and Communists organisations. The historical baggage carried by Western European countries reflects their conservatism and strict punishment against anti-semitic speech.

However, the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy led to the identification of some serious challenges faced by European societies today. The Danish newspaper received international backlash for publishing cartoons of the Prophet. Attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris reflect the shortcomings of a society which values freedom of expression and has Strict laws against hate speech. Today comedians, political satirists and commentators advocating for stricter immigration policies and religious reforms are criticised for their unpopular opinions. For example, in the United Kingdom, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband promised to outlaw any criticism of Islam, making it an aggravated crime.

The original intent of the term Islamophobia was to curb any hostility against Islam based on irrational fear. However, today any criticism of Islam is dismissed as Islamophobia. Constructive criticism isn’t irrational. A critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has cancelled several public events after receiving death threats by groups ranging from Muslim women to religious hardliners and non-muslims. Some critics argue that Ali’s speech stems from her hatred for Islam, others - mainly Muslims - consider her criticism as blasphemy. While blasphemy is a criminal offence in Islamic countries, under no circumstances would her speech be considered blasphemous in western societies by law.

This trend is witnessed today on American college campuses too. At University of Chicago, Palestinian advocacy student groups shut down a speech being delivered by Palestinian political analyst Baseem Eid for pro-Israel comments. During the event a student yelled out, "Do not speak on behalf of the Palestinians again!" In 2016, UC Berkley disinvited Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro for his views on Black Lives Matter. Not only does this kind of behaviour place limitations on critical thinking and fair debate, it also creates a culture where it is validated to use actual hate speech to protect one’s own value system.

In a diverse international society, there are bound to be definitional challenges to hate speech. An offshoot of this public discourse is the increasing backlash on criticism of religion being labeled as hate speech. While most social media giants encourage unpopular opinions to keep any debate balanced, there is a regressive hostility towards these opinions which are often labeled and countered with more hate speech.

There are no binaries in the debate over hate speech. However, the topic is a pot-pourri of confusions. Today, we face a threat from terrorist organisations, populist parties, left & right wing extremists and religious hardliners who use hate speech as a propaganda tool. The shades of grey get darker when we have to identify and control hate speech. In a world where communication and debates take place on social media, how can we identify which tweet or Facebook status spews hate and hurts sentiments and which don’t? The online space, which, at its inception was identified as the fifth estate is now at crossroads. Curbing speech might be useful in countering online extremism. However, if we continue expanding the scope of what hate speech consists we accept ourselves as incapable of criticism. Have we become so comfortable with our world view, that we feel the need to eliminate any idea which cannot be straitjacketed into it?

The author is a Research Intern at ORF, Delhi

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