I hate spiders. And terrorists. And clowns. And porcelain dolls. I despise people who abuse animals, kids and the elderly. I hate sushi and people who whine and the sound of chewing.
Just because I hate them and I dare say, just because that last one in my list makes me want to punch someone directly in the face, does not mean that people talking about these subjects should be considered hateful to me. I would like to believe that I am of a stronger personal constitution than that. And I do believe that the U.S. constitution is made of stronger stuff than that, with a First Amendment designed never to allow the comfort of the weak-minded to prevent vigorous debate or differences of opinion.
What Is Hate Speech?
Webster defines it as: speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people.
The American Bar Association defines it as: speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.
Or other traits? Does that mean if I think an idea is stupid, or better yet, asinine and dangerous, that I am not allowed to say as much without it being labeled hate speech to the originator of the idea? These are rhetorical questions, so no need to lob “hate speech” at the author via social media. I’ve experienced that already in the form of personal, vicious and rather disgusting threats of violence to myself and my family for an article published here that I did not even participate in.
So based on personal experience I can agree with Senator Ben Sasse, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the definition above that hate speech involves a threat of violence. Beyond that, I am not sure I can any further define the term than they were able to during Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday.
In their 2017 decision on Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court unanimously reasserted that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. But that does not keep it from playing into the American psyche on the daily — because here we are talking about it again during Congressional testimony.
Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday for the first of two days of testimony in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that affected upwards of 87 million Facebook users, amid a larger debate about privacy on the social network behemoth he founded.
In his opening bit of testimony, Zuckerberg said, “it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”
“Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform,” Sasse said. “Can you define hate speech?”
“Senator, I think that this is a really hard question. And I think it’s one of the reasons why we struggle with it. There are certain definitions that we have around, you know, calling for violence —” Zuckerberg said.
Sasse said they could agree on that, but he said he was more focused on the “psychological categories around speech.”
“You used language of safety and protection earlier,” Sasse said. “We see this happening on college campuses all across the country. It’s dangerous. Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts somebody else’s feelings.”
Sasse brought up the charged debate over abortion as an example, asking Zuckerberg to imagine pro-lifers being banished from discussing the issue on Facebook if their speech was deemed a threat.
“I certainly would not want that to be the case,” Zuckerberg said.
“But it might really be unsettling to people who’ve had an abortion to have an open debate about that, wouldn’t it?” Sasse asked.
“It might be, but I don’t think that would fit any of the definitions of what we have,” Zuckerberg said. “But I do generally agree with the point that you’re making, which is as we’re able to technologically shift towards especially having A.I. proactively look at content, I think that that’s going to create massive questions for society about what obligations we want to require companies to fulfill.”
I don’t know about you but the idea of Artificial Intelligence determining what may or may not hurt someone’s feelings scares the hell out of me. I can’t even tell from one moment to the next might hurt the feelings of someone who I know really well. Maybe they are having a particularly bad day, or they ran into their ex—the one that single-handedly helped them ruin their own life. Maybe thy just got a raise or had a great night with a new love or their kids did something amazing. All of these factors can determine how someone might handle a comment at any given time.
Everything Is Personal Now
One of the keys to great feedback is never to provide feedback on something a person has no ability to change. Race, for example. Or let’s look at a less objective one — attractiveness. Because that is a completely subjective trait but they still cannot do much to change whether or not you find them attractive, or funny, or interesting. Ideally, debate and feedback, though the topic may be personal to you, should never be personal. It seems that everything gets personal these days.
I try not to say mean things to people, though I do fail miserably from inside the confines of my car when dealing with horrible drivers. Come to think of it, I also fail miserably when a certain guy that I used to know is the subject of conversation — you know who you are, and you Sir are a _____! Feel free to fill in the expletive as you wish because I am certain I have used it at least three times myself.
But in general, I was taught not to be rude or “hateful” to people and I have tried very hard to live by those norms. But I understand that life is not always gentle or kind and that people are going to say some pretty disgusting and hurtful things. As long as they aren’t threatening anyone with actual physical harm, I’m still ready to fight of their right to say it.
An Informal Poll
I polled some friends and colleagues, from all corners of the political and socio-economic and ethnic spectrum, to see what their personal definition of hate speech was and these are some of the responses I received:
“You can define hate speech with the objective of spreading prejudice, hate, and incite violence towards a particular group of people (or person) and enhance diversity whether it is disability, ethnic, religious or race.”
“Why does it matter? Hate speech or whatever you care to call it is protected speech. The social justice machinery hates itself. Dead end road both legally and practically.”
“Speech that seeks to incite others to take harmful actions against others is hate speech, regardless of who delivers that speech.”
There were many others, but all seemed to agree that inciting any type of violence is an absolute non-starter. But what about those hurt feelings that Senator Sasse alluded to? In such a subjective and charged climate as we currently find ourselves, one man’s hurt feelings are another man’s hate speech.
I would even argue that in today’s climate, it is not simply enough to disagree, but we must break, shatter or otherwise discredit the opposing view — and labeling it as hateful certainly helps to do that since no one ever wants to be seen that way — making it a great strategy to silence people. The desire to prevent hurt feelings is more akin to censorship than civility. Tolerance is meant for things that make us uncomfortable rather than those things with which we already agree. Tolerance is hard. But tolerance, genuine tolerance, is a necessary component of the free speech we cherish.
So can we ever really hope to regulate or police those things that cause hurt feelings as Zuckerberg and others have suggested?
A better question would be: Should we?
Featured Image Courtesy of Pixabay
All emphasis added by the author