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What is hate speech, asks Richard Dawson.
"There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue."
So wrote Erich Fromm in his seminal inquiry into the psychology of ethics. How prophetic was this statement for our times in which so much publicly expressed opinion flows from "pulpits" of hysteria. A knee-jerk reaction to this phenomenon would be to define hate speech by subject and to outlaw discussion around those subjects. This would be a fatal mistake.
The right to express an opinion freely has been a fundamental part of Western democracies for thousands of years, originating as it did first within Greek society in the late 6th or early 5th century BC. The Roman republic also included it along with the notion of freedom of religion. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Free speech isn't, however, a licence to say whatever one wants and so, traditionally, limits have been placed around it, particularly in relation to libel, slander, pornography, obscenity, fighting words and intellectual property.
It seems that these may soon be joined by another prohibition - that of hate speech. But what is "hate speech"? Much has been written about the potential for hate speech law to be used to unfairly limit certain religious and political views and, no doubt, there will be some debate around this for some time. It is, perhaps, pertinent in this environment to consider a Christian view of speech.
The Bible understands speech as a gift given first and foremost for the expression of both Truth and Life. That is, our words may be measured by the truth they express and the life they convey. The notion of "the Word" as a metaphor for God is so important that Christians understand God's person in terms of "the Word", which among other things conveys the fact that God expresses who God is through Jesus. Jesus is, then, the expression (Word) of God. More than this, the life of Jesus expresses the logic of God in terms of self-giving and sacrificial love. This is who God is and how God expressed himself in the life of Jesus. Jesus sums up by saying of himself, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life."
If we take this lead, we find a much more positive and productive way of looking at speech. This in turn should help avoid the inevitable politicisation of the debate which will occur if we characterise the discussion as one about definitions.
Of course, how we debate a topic is also pertinent. The lost art of debate is cause for great regret. The bar of social media is now set at the low point of outrage in regard to our manner of discourse. It seems that as soon as we don't agree with someone, we revert to outrage, anger and righteous indignation masquerading as virtue.
Again, the result is a stifling of any real debate. Worse than this, however, is the potential that the law will be used to reinforce our righteous indignation by taking a very simplistic subject-oriented approach to what constitutes hate and what doesn't. If this happens, far more than just the quality of our discourse is at risk. At risk is the truth itself and when the truth goes, so does life. US Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917 first uttered the phrase "The first casualty of war is truth", and how true this is for our time when the publishing industry, including, now, social media, has become the favoured weapon of first strike.
So ubiquitous is this weapon, that war is now in reach of every individual who can sign up to a social media platform and reach potentially millions with what can often be ill-informed hysteria. Present limits accepted, new hate speech definitions are unlikely to change this simply because the ability to outlaw a viewpoint by deeming it to be hate will initiate an arms race by various lobby groups to convince governments to make whatever they disagree with illegal to say.
Such a situation is anathema to democracy and to free societies. It's the kind of thing we would expect to see in a totalitarian state - not here in New Zealand. Better by far to reinforce the positive side of speech by teaching children to engage in constructive debate and to love each other through their words. Such habits last a lifetime and provide a platform on which to build constructive dialogue.
-The Rev Richard Dawson is lead pastor at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Leith Valley, Dunedin.