In my first year editing the opinion section of my college newspaper, myself and a fellow editor published a letter written by a member of the school’s staff that took aim at the atmosphere of political correctness on campus. Using every conservative trope in the book, this Iowa State Dining Systems Support Specialist urged students to rescue free thought from thought-policing liberals pledged to destroy it.
“Political correctness has run amok at Iowa State, stifling dissent,” he wrote. “Diversity is fought for in all areas except thought, creating a suffocating environment for those who want to think, question and test everything.”
At the time, the decision to run the letter was not a difficult one. Despite the fact that its author trucked in some problematic tropes, like comparing homosexuality to bestiality, or comparing being transgendered to having body dysmorphia, I felt that my opposition to parts of its message was no excuse to neglect my duty to free speech and public discourse. To not publish it smelled of censorship to me, and I had no interest in censoring opposing viewpoints.
We’ll publish it, I reasoned, and anyone who has an issue with it can write a rebuttal.
Oh, how naïve I was.
The backlash was swift and intense. In the weeks after the letter was published, campus liberals accused us of promulgating hate speech, a sentiment that was shared by conservatives after we published a response letter that called white privilege a “virus.” The conversation that followed was ugly and divisive, far from the intelligent discussions I had imagined would ensue and that had made me fall in love with opinion writing.
I started to question my decision in publishing the two inflammatory letters. They wreaked havoc on my community, inflicting lasting damage. How many people felt excluded as a result of these letters? How many of my LGBT colleagues felt that their voices didn’t matter? How many students of color felt that their interests were unimportant, that their identities were less than?
These are not questions that proponents of free speech tend to ask. Oftentimes, it seems as though free speech advocates believe that public discourse takes place in an emotional vacuum. The marketplace of ideas has no time for offense — only for the merit of one’s argument. Proponents of free speech believe that those arguments founded in vitriol and hate will not survive the rigor of academic or political discussion, and that the best way to do away with hate speech is to let it fail on intellectual grounds.
But that is simply not true. Unfounded hatred has no foundation in reason and it is not in the arena of reason that it should be debated. It’s not something public discourse can eliminate and its message has real, physical effects on those who endure it.
In fact, far from an example of free speech, hate speech hinders free speech, because it perpetuates a radical dehumanization of individuals. Indeed, the very foundation of arguments made by alt-right pundits like Richard Spencer rests on the belief that some individuals should be left out of the conversation.
But if conservatives have been attacking free speech by allowing it to be invaded by hate speech, liberals bear a large part of the blame too. While the left champions diversity and inclusion, it has simultaneously done a terrible disservice to discourse.
It is the way that the left has gone about defining hate speech that has struck the most devastating blow. Or, rather, the way they have failed to do so.
Consider the case of Charles Murray, a right-wing political analyst who drew leftist ire after penning The Bell Curve, in which he promoted the theory that there are genetic differences between races that determine intelligence. In March, Murray was the target of violent protest while attempting to speak at Middleburry College. Even though Murray’s speech was unrelated to his controversial book, and considered fairly moderate by some American college professors, to his left-wing assailants, the mere fact that he holds or at one point held an idea they considered racist, was enough to cry “hate speech.”
This is not just silencing speech; it’s policing thought.
In a more recent example, the atheist and influential evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was deplatformed by KPFA Radio in Berkeley following accusations of Islamophobia. Dawkins is an unapologetic critic of religion who in his book The God Delusion called Islam “the greatest force for evil in the world today.” But he was in Berkeley on an entirely different mission: to promote his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Dawkins, who is by almost every account a liberal himself, claims that his statements against Islam were aimed at its extremist, political wing, not at its adherents. Whether or not you believe that counts as hate speech, should Dawkins have been prevented from speaking about something else entirely because of this previously discussed belief?
Granted, these are philosophical, rather than legal questions. The First Amendment in nearly every interpretation protects hate speech and is right to do so. Content-based speech restriction is a path that every free society should be increasingly wary of, especially in an age where freedom of the press is under attack by the very institution that bears the responsibility of protecting it.
The problem seems to come from equating hate speech with offensive speech. Rather than requiring speech to exclude someone to be labeled hate speech, the left seems to focus on the emotional implication of speech, instead of its broader role in discourse.
It would be far more effective, I believe, to limit the use of the term hate speech to speech acts that reduce an individual’s impact in the conversation. It’s not enough for words to simply be offensive; they have to actually dehumanize the other to qualify as hate speech. Under this definition, The Bell Curve certainly qualifies in its broadest claims, though Charles Murray himself does not.
As for the letter I published, I didn’t believe it to be hate speech at the time, and I don’t regret running it. But I do think someone could make the argument that his words were dehumanizing, and I wish I would have done more to help foster a more inclusive conversation after it was published.
But until liberals come up with a concrete definition of hate speech, they will continue to be dogged by a right championing inflammatory, often offensive rhetoric, as the pinnacle of free speech. It’s a bed liberals have made for themselves and, until they can make their mission clear, it’s one they’ll have to lay in.
Michael Heckle is the Forward opinion summer fellow and ASME associate.