Ann Althouse riffs off of Kathy Griffin’s tweet on the Robertson issue with some thoughts about hate speech. I’ll pull a long quote here:
Hate speech similarly affects the minds of the members of the group against whom hate has been expressed, and it can produce the same kind of fear of violence that is caused by a report of a hate crime. Now, there is hate speech and there is hate speech. Think of the most virulent hate speech, and you should see how powerful it is, how justified and painful the fear is. In extreme cases, members of the targeted group should take alarm and even flee in terror. A purveyor of hate speech need not commit an act of violence to create a fear of violence. He might inspire others to commit those acts of violence, and even if he doesn’t, the threat of violence alone has an effect. False reports of hate speech work the same harm.
In the set of statements that could be characterized as hate speech, what Phil Robertson said was not that bad. Many would argue for a narrow definition of hate speech such that what Phil Robertson said would not be in the set at all. Defining the category very broadly is a political and rhetorical move, and it isn’t always effective. At some point — and perhaps with Robertson, we’ve hit that point — you’re being too repressive about what can be said on issues about which decent people are still debating, and it would be better to hear each other out and remain on speaking terms.
There is more good to be achieved by talking to each other and not shunning than by treating another human being as toxic. In fact, to treat another person as toxic is to become hateful yourself. It’s better to let the conversation flow, and if you really think your ideas are good, why switch to other tactics? What’s the emergency? Especially when your cause — like gay rights — is for greater human freedom, you ought to resist becoming a force of repression.
Since making his controversial remark, Phil Robertson has put out the message that as a Christian he loves everyone. Love speech is the opposite of hate speech, and it has so much more to do with Christianity than the reviling of sin in the earlier remark. He wants to speak against sin, but it’s a problem when you aim a remark at a kind of person who has, over the years — over the millennia — felt a threat of violence and the burden of ostracism. I think Robertson knows that.
Hate speech is an actual thing. I don’t think anyone would doubt that a KKK rally is meant to threaten, intimidate and frighten others. But I think, in the discussion of what does and does not constitute hate speech, a respect for open dialogue, mutual understanding and a robust debate requires us to draw the line as narrowly as possible.
If Robertson had said he thought gays should get the Matthew Shepherd treatment that would be hate speech (putting aside that the Shepherd killing may have had more to do with drugs than gayness). But he didn’t. He expressed a moral view that homosexuality is wrong (a view about half of Americans hold) and that he wishes that gays, like all sinners, would turn away from their sin. It’s simply not comparable to what, to pick an example almost at random, Alec Baldwin said about Henry Hyde. Or the insults he hurled at a gay man. In both cases, Baldwin was shouting violent threats at someone he didn’t like. That’s not even in the same ballpark.
Unfortunately, there is an effort in this country, especially from the Left, to define the bounds of “hate speech” as broadly as possible. I have even heard radio talk show hosts accused of hate speech because they have the temerity to vigorously criticize Democrats. Of course, the Left are never guilty of hate speech. No, sir. When they call Phil Robertson a bigot and a homophobe, that’s not hate. When they insult his looks, his family, his faith and his show, that’s not hate. When they compared Bush to Hitler, that wasn’t hate. When they mocked Romney for his temple garments, that wasn’t hate.
Needless to say, I oppose all attempts to outlaw hate speech. And I think speech codes on campuses and elsewhere are shameful. Your right to free speech does not mean your employer can’t fire you for saying something that embarrasses them. Or that you can’t be prosecuted if you provoke other people to violence. But I find the idea of any kind or prior restraint repulsive, especially when we’re talking about a moral debate we’re still having. That’s not “creating respect” or “stopping hate”. That’s trying to make the other side shut up.
There are tens of millions of people in this country who have changed their opinions about gays and gay rights. They didn’t change their minds because they were told to shut up. They did it because people debated them, talked to them, persuaded them. They did it because they got to know gay people as friends, family members and co-workers. They did it because, at bottom, they were decent reasonable human beings. They opposed gay rights not because of “hate” but because of their love of our traditional culture and values. When they are convinced that something is not a threat to that, they tend to come around. I know this because it’s a journey I myself went on 20 years ago when I was in college. That didn’t happen because of speech codes.