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Hate Speech

The speech that kills

Ursula Owen

By the time the New York radio station WABC fired its most popular talk show host, Bob Grant, he had spent a good 25 years vilifying Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities with impunity. He described the former mayor of New York, David Dinkins, as `a men's room attendant', called African-American churchgoers in Harlem `screaming savages', and advocated `drowning Haitian refugees'. He was finally sacked because on the day the plane carrying Clinton's Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, crashed, Grant speculated that Brown (who was black) might be the only survivor, `because I'm a pessimist'.

And this was finally too much, even for WABC, owned by the vast media conglomerate Capital City/Walt Disney. The shock jock had no difficulty finding another job: he was hired by a rival station only two weeks later.

Hate speech, as Americans call it, is a troubling matter for people who believe in free speech. It is abusive, insulting, intimidating and harassing. And it may lead to violence, hatred or discrimination; and it kills. The USA, as the least censored society in the world, has held firmly to the First Amendment and to Article l9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has meant that attempts to make provisions against hate speech have almost all been disallowed by the Supreme Court.

International law appears more contradictory. Article l9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that `everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference' and `everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression', though this is subject to restrictions necessary `for respect of the rights or reputations of others' or `for the protection of public order, or of public health or morals'. But Article 20 of the same Covenant states that `any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence must be prohibited'.

None of these statements have stopped the fierce debate on that difficult borderline between free speech and equality of respect. Free speech is thought of as sacred to a democratic society, as the freedom upon which all others depend. But in a world where the effects of speech that fosters hatred are all too visible, there are two difficult questions that must be asked about the defence of free expression: At what cost? And at the expense of whose pain?

It is, of course, dangerous to suggest the possibility of more censorship. The slippery slope argument – if we can censor this, what is to stop someone else censoring that – is hard to argue against. Censorship can kill and maim, for when people draw a cloak of secrecy over their actions, gross abuse may happen with impunity. In the United States, hate speech is typically defended as the price society has decided to pay for safeguarding free expression.

Historically, perhaps the most famous defence of the right to express hate occurred in the case of Skokie, Illinois, in l977 when a US neo-Nazi group tried to march on a public street in a community populated by many Holocaust survivors. The courts affirmed their right to do so, basing their judgement on the First Amendment. Such a ruling, they believed , was ultimately to the benefit of racial and other minorities, protecting their right to express their own views freely (See p57 Aryeh Neier).

Nevertheless, hate speech and censorship continue to have a troubled relationship. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin's now famous campaign to outlaw pornography was based on their view that pornography is in effect hate speech: it treats women as sexual objects and subordinates them in a vile way to men. Though they did not succeed in persuading the US courts, the Canadian legislature did introduce a severe censorship law. But the first authors to be banned under the new Canadian statute were not those the feminists had in mind. They were prominent homosexual authors, a radical black feminist accused of stirring up race hatred against white people and, for a time, Andrea Dworkin herself. Liberals who had warned against the dangers of censorship felt vindicated.

Censorship backfires: the biter gets bit. The powerful and painful paradox of laws against hate speech is that again and again they have been turned against the very people we would see as the victims of that same hate speech. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, laws against defamation and insult were used to persecute critics of the Communist regimes. In Turkey the law was used against Ismail besikçi, Turkish scholar, for his writings on the human rights abuses against the country's Kurdish population. The South African laws against racial hatred under apartheid were used systematically against the victims of the state's racist policies. Even Alex Haley's Roots was banned on the grounds that for black viewers `the polarisation of racial feelings was likely to be intensified'.

Nevertheless, in the l980s, in the United States, the home of free speech, a new form of censorship was born on college campuses. Alarmed at verbal attacks on women and minority students, some universities introduced so-called speech codes, forbidding remarks that were sexist or derogatory of a particular race or religion. All the great battles for extending liberty in the United States – anti-slavery, anti-segregation, rights of women – had involved parallel battles for the principle of free speech. Yet here were the same kinds of people who had affirmed these civil rights traditions suddenly saying openly they thought free speech was not an absolute right but a contingent and relative one – that speech must be restricted for the protection of vulnerable groups who were the target of hate speech. And with these codes the angry and often tiresome debate on `political correctness' was born.

PC has been pilloried and argued over for more than a decade now. It is all too easy to see how absurd some of its preoccupations are, though it had a sort of utopianism about it, and a touching, if rather authoritarian belief that behaviour, if properly conditioned, will improve. The problem with the ideal of political correctness is that, like so many censorships, it can turn so easily against what it is meant to protect, encouraging everyone to be on guard against everyone else.

Resistance to PC and its censorship came in a variety of forms. Free speechers such as the American Civil Liberties Union offer hard educative and political work as an antidote. They outlined eight steps to ensure that `all students may participate fully in campus life, including the adoption of affirmative action', and `courses in the history and meaning of prejudice'.

Ronald Dworkin believes free speech is what makes people feel human, makes them feel their lives matter: `Fair democracy requires that every competent adult have a vote in deciding what the majority's will is. And it requires further, that each citizen have not just a vote but a voice: a majority decision is not fair unless everyone has had a fair opportunity to express his or her attitudes or opinions or fears or tastes or presuppositions or prejudices or ideals, not just in the hope of influencing others, though that hope is crucially important, but also just to confirm his or her standing as responsible agent in, rather than a passive victim of, collective action. The majority has no right to impose its will on someone who is forbidden to raise a voice in protest or argument or objection before the decision is taken.'

He goes on: `The temptations to make exceptions to the principle – to declare that people have no right to pour the filth of pornography or race hatred into the culture in which we all must live – may be near overwhelming. But we cannot do that without forfeiting our moral title to force such people to bow to the collective judgements that do make their way into the statute books.'

In l993, at the time Dworkin was writing his defence of free speech, Umberto Eco was one of 40 European intellectuals who publicly called on all Europeans to be on their guard against the manoeuvres of the extreme right. In an interview (Index 1/1994), he says: `In order to be tolerant, one must first set the boundaries of the intolerable'. What, in his view, was intolerable? `I see nothing shocking,' he went on, `in a serious and incontrovertible work of scholarship establishing that the figure for genocide of the Jews by the Nazis was not 6 million but 6.5 or 5.5 million. What is intolerable is when something which purports to be a work of research loses all value by becoming something quite other; when it becomes a message suggesting that “if a few less Jews than we thought were killed, there was no crime”.'

What Eco and his fellow signatories were particularly disturbed by was the extent to which dangerous ideas on the Right, including racism and xenophobia, were becoming commonplace – and newly seductive. And it is for just such reasons that it is essential to continue this difficult debate about hate speech.

At the end of the Maastricht summit in December l991, the European Union's Council of Ministers issued a condemnation of racism and xenophobia, observing that `manifestations of fascism and xenophobia are steadily growing in Europe'. The report also comments on a paradox of history: that racism increased as democracy spread through the post-Communist world.

Free speech advocates claim there is little connection between hate speech laws and the lessening of ethnic and racial violence or tension. They argue that what is needed is more, rather than less, attention to the ideas of racial and religious superiority; that they must be confronted to be understood; that dialogue and democracy are more effective tools in understanding the anatomy of hate than silence; and for that reason, freedom of expression is necessary.

Though laudable in principle, it is arguable that these views lack force in the face of much twentieth-century history. They perhaps require us to believe too simply in the power of democracy and decency and above all rationality; in the ability of a long, slow onslaught on racism to have an effect; to believe, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that there is always progress, however slow. At the end of our century, we have once again in Europe been faced with an outburst of hatred and destruction based on racial, political and religious differences, which has all but destroyed a country – former Yugoslavia – at least temporarily. It is just half a century since the Holocaust. If that terrifying monument to the dark power of hate speech failed to alter consciousness constructively, what are we to say about the liberal belief in the human capacity to evolve morally?

In the face of such enormities, the political correctness debate has rather muddied the waters, diluting the wider implications of what hate can produce. For the most dangerous threat behind hate speech is surely that it can go beyond its immediate targets and create a culture of hate, a culture which makes it acceptable, respectable even, to hate on a far wider scale. Such a culture of hate is not easy to define, and does not necessarily have one trajectory, but its evolution is evident in the circumstances surrounding some events in recent history.

On 4 November l995, Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old law student. But what part was played by rightwing Israeli radicals chanting, `Rabin is a traitor! Rabin is a murderer!' at Likud rallies? Or by placards showing Rabin's features overlaid with the thin black circles of a rifle target? Or by the mainstream Israeli rabbincal leadership, who for months before the assassination had questioned the `Jewishness' of Rabin's land-for-peace policies, and solicited the learned opinions of their colleagues around the world as to whether – purely theoretically of course – the abandonment to Palestinian control of West Bank territory divinely promised to the Jews `might merit the death penalty'. Only one leading rabbi, Yoel Nun, spoke out loudly against the killing. He was denounced by some of the other sages, even had his life threatened, and was forced to resort to an escort of bodyguards to protect himself.

Words can turn into bullets, hate speech can kill and maim, just as censorship can. So, as dedicated opponents of censorship and proponents of free speech, we are forced to ask: is there a moment where the quantitative consequences of hate speech change qualitatively the arguments about how we must deal with it. And is there no distinction to be made between the words of those whose hate speech is a matter of conviction, however ignorant, deluded or prejudiced, and hate speech as propaganda, the calculated and systematic use of lies to sow fear, hate and violence in a population at large?

One has only to run through newspapers in former Yugoslavia to find examples of hate speech as propaganda. In l987, the Serbian newspapers published a photograph taken by a Belgrade reporter in Prekale, Kosovo, a Serbian province with a majority Albanian population. Under the headline, `The Mother from Prekale', it showed a Serbian woman working in the field, surrounded by her children. A gun hung from her shoulder. She needed the weapon, the papers revealed, to protect her and her children from Albanian terrorists, who were torturing and killing Serbs and raping their wives and daughters. The photograph attracted a lot of publicity, and shocked the whole of Serbia. Hundreds of similar photographs and newspaper articles, hours of TV programmes with news of the persecutions of Serbs in Kosovo resulted in nationwide terror and hatred of the Albanian Kosovans. A few years later, the photograph was revealed to be a clever fake, set up by the reporter who had himself supplied the gun on the woman's shoulder. By then it was all over. The propaganda – one can find similar examples from all the protagonists in the war, though the Croats and Serbs seem to have been the masters of this sordid craft – had done its work.

`When the homeland is at stake, I am prepared to lie,' a senior Croatian journalist bravely affirmed. `I feel no shame in lying if it is in the interest of Serbia and the Serbian people,' said the chief editor of Belgrade Television. `If it's necessary for Croatia, I'll lie,' said one of the leading commentators of Vecernji List, the Croatian daily with the highest circulation. Four years on, no-one on any side has any doubt as to the part played by the media in fomenting the war.

The US philosopher and political scientist Sidney Hook set out starkly his experience of the workings of expressions of hate. `I believe any people in the world, when roused to a fury of nationalistic resentment, and convinced that some individual or group is responsible for their continued and extreme misfortunes, can be led to do or countenance the same things the Germans did. I believe that if conditions in the US were ever to become as bad psychologically and economically as they were in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, systematic racial persecution might break out. It could happen to the Blacks, but it could happen to the Jews too, or any targeted group.'

Another important witness to the deadly mechanisms which seem so readily to transform neighbours into murderers is the Serbian novelist and Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric. Here he is, in his epic novel The Bridge on the Drina, written in Belgrade during Hitler's war, in the days of the Nazi concentration camp at Banjica, and the public hangings in Terazije, reflecting on what happened to his world after August 1914: `People were divided up into the persecuted and those who persecuted them. That wild beast which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free. The signal was given, the impediments eliminated. As so often happens in human history, violence and plunder were tacitly permitted, even killing, on condition that they could be perpetrated in the name of higher interests, under set slogans, and on a limited number of people, of a definite name and persuasion.'

If you drive through Bosnia now, you see in the scorched landscape and shattered villages a thoroughly up-to-date model of the pathological mechanism Andric described. Because this was civil war of a kind, its working is revealed all the more clearly. Here the `Others', whom propaganda hate speech had indicated as the legitimate object of your fears and fantasies, people you must drive away, slaughter, eliminate, are people well known to you – your neighbours, even kin by marriage – now made alien and terrifying by the unreason you have been infected with. The houses, streets and villages from which Muslims or Serbs were driven were not simply ruined by arson and looting; after the fighting they were systematically crushed and destroyed with bulldozers and dynamite. So hate speech results in the end in one of the ultimate forms of censorship: the obliteration of the memory of a place, as if those lives and communities had never been.

Is there a point of necessary intervention somewhere in the continuum between the ugly, offensive but more localised public expression of hatred and the successful establishment in a community or society of a culture of hatred in which the instigators of hatred become its authorisers, become authority itself? And, if so, what is to be done? There are no simple answers, but it's the job of magazines like Index, now addressing such a different world from the one in which it was founded, to be a pivotal forum for one of the most important debates of our time.

Finally, to compound an already complicated story, an arresting addendum to the story of Bob Grant, the New York radio shock-jock. What we discover here, in our unregenerate post-modern society, is that hate speech not only kills, it sells. Bob Grant's programme had been hugely successful. Advertisers loved it for its ratings. An ABC producer, on being asked whether Bob Grant's remarks were an example of free speech that must be protected under the First Amendment, or verbal pollution, said: `If the person has good ratings, a station has to overlook the garbage that he spews out. A radio station always fights for a host's constitutional rights if the show is profitable enough, and Grant had high ratings because he kept beating up on minorities. If his audience had been small, the managers would forget the constitution and declare him a bigot.' He added, `Radio is the only serious soap box the racists have. Our advertisers are aware that hate sells their products.'

This article is an edited version of the Iain Walker Memorial Lecture.


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