George Hasara – Columnist
One might think that free speech had become a matter of “settled” civics, but apparently, it’s far from that. A clever linguistic sleight of hand, combining “hate” with “speech,” has given us a stand-alone category of “hate speech” which threatens to transform a First Amendment guarantee into a Constitutional suggestion. A typical definition of hate speech is one that Merriam-Webster provides: “Speech that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability).” There are a couple of points of particular interest with this description. First, why is hate only relevant if it involves a member of a designated group? What if someone has it in for accountants or baristas? I’ve met a few folks who were definitely clown-a-phobic. The second stumbling block is that concepts such as “insult” and “offend” can be so subjective as to be virtually meaningless. You may make an effort to be as courteous and respectful as possible to all you meet, but that doesn’t prevent some from being insulted and taking offense with your opinions. The beauty of free speech is not that it is good, proper, or even necessarily truthful, but only that it isn’t controlled by a third party. It’s a huge mistake to attempt to intellectually quarantine divergent thought under the guise of containing hate. There is no end to what one group or another might take offense with. Or, to be more precise, what the self-appointed representatives of a group will declare offensive. “Hate” is an extremely effective adjective to slap in front of “speech.” Other words such as “controversial,” “provocative” or even “insulting,” lack the emotional gravitas required to serve as a pretense for thought control. “Hate speech” is part of a lexicon of labels that are designed to circumvent logical discourse. Just call someone a racist, misogynist, Nazi, fascist, and you have won the argument – right? You need say no more because how can you possibly have a dialog with hate? Currently, social media appears to be the main testing ground concerning matters of free expression. While companies such as Facebook and Twitter are private entities and should be free to set whatever policies they choose, things get complicated in the application. They claim to be only platforms, and therefore free of liability, but act as publishers when they censor information or ban users. Imagine if your phone carrier suspended your service because their algorithm showed combinations of words that they deemed to be hate speech? There are already existing laws regarding inciting violence and communicating threats. It isn’t as if we lack a legal framework nor a core decency to deal with speech when it is used in the commission of a crime. The proverbial “yelling fire in a crowded theater” isn’t considered a free speech issue by any sane person. Do we really need someone to decide for us what we can say and what we can hear based on someone’s feelings being hurt? This manipulation of language is not a matter of protecting society against “hate,” but rather an attempt to suppress ideas one does not favor. Only time will tell if an Orwellian sounding phrase such as “controlled speech is free speech” makes its way into our vocabulary. Contact George at firstname.lastname@example.org.