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Sunday, September 11, 2011

What exactly constitutes hate speech?

A couple days ago John Galliano, the former fashion director at Christian Dior, was convicted of "public insults based on the origin, religious affiliation, race, or ethnicity" in a court in Paris and was given a suspended fine of 6000 Euros. He could have been given six months in jail and a fine of 22,500 Euros, but the judge showed leniency after Galliano showed abject contrition.

Galliano had evidently accosted three Italian women who had been annoying him at a cafe and, thinking they were Jewish, said to them, "I love Hitler. People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed."

There is no doubt that these were vile, hateful comments. But the episode does raise the question of what constitutes hate speech, what groups it applies to, and whether it should be criminalized. If Galliano had, say, mistaken a group of Dutch women for Germans, and insulted them for Germany's past atrocities, would that have attracted the court's attention? After all, most Germans alive today had nothing to do with what happened during WWII, and therefore would be being insulted purely on the basis of their origins, race, and ethnicity.

There has been a push among some liberal groups in the US to criminalize hate speech. So far they have been unsuccessful. But if they do get their way, the same question will arise here: how exactly is "hate speech" to be defined?

Most would agree that some of Mel Gibson's recent rants have risen to the level of hate speech. When he was arrested for drunken driving, he asked the arresting officer if she were Jewish and then said that all wars had been started by Jews, which is of course ridiculous. If the US had laws against hate speech, he would undoubtedly have run afoul of them.

But what if Gibson had merely said -- in another context -- that he resented the tremendous power which AIPAC wields and the fact that they pushed for us to get into the Iraq War? What if he had said that Bush administration figures like Richard Perle and David Wolfowitz who had dual American-Israeli citizenship had pushed for us to get into that war as well, and seemed to put Israeli interests ahead of US interests? Would that have constituted hate speech? 

Was Jeremiah Wright guilty of hate speech? Most would say yes. He called this country the "US of KKK" and said "God damn America." And he told his black parishioners that no white person could ever be their friend. Others would say that as a black man who served in the Marine Corps and who subsequently felt he had experienced racism, Wright had the right to be angry.

But what about a white person who has been mugged by a black, or whose sister was raped by one? Does he not have the right to be angry as well? Does his -- or his family's -- victimization give him the right to use the n-word? And if he does, should the police arrest him for it?

Or how about some white person who merely talked about racial differences in IQ's or crime rates while arguing against affirmative action? Is that hate speech? Or what if some black person said the exact same thing? Was he engaging in hate speech? Or would he be considered immune because of his race?

Who can interpret others' motives? Who knows what others are thinking? How much does a person's speech reflect his real thoughts? Is it possible some comments are actually meant as satire? Were heated comments made in response to provocative comments by others? Is that a mitigating factor? And is the truth of the "hate speech" something which should be taken into account? These are not questions a court of law is equipped to deal with. Only a mind reader could do those things.

We have been down this road before, with hate crimes laws, which, as we have seen, tend to be enforced only in a politically correct direction.

The proper penalty for hateful speech should be social ostracism. Christian Dior fired Galliano, as it had every right to do. He will now probably have a hard time finding a job.

But to criminalize "hate speech" is to abrogate free speech, period. If certain forms of politically incorrect speech are outlawed, the biggest victim will be the truth.

2 comments:

dgh said...

John,
Very well said! My biggest nightmare is to live in a world of political correctness where we never allowed to say anything that could be interpreted as being "hateful". You did a good job of expressing what it could be like! Where would the line be drawn and by whom? Scary....
Donna

John Craig said...

Thank you Donna.