Limiting speech doesn't change the nature of hate, says Josh Lieb. Thoughts can be hateful and stupid—but should they be criminal?\r\n
Josh Lieb is an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. As a comedy writer and producer on late night programs like The Daily Show and The Tonight Show, he knows that the freedom to essentially roast leading political figures is vital to true democracy. Jokes made in bad taste may worry you, but you should be absolutely petrified if you’re not hearing jokes and satire at all. It’s the same for hate speech, says Lieb: limiting expression has never changed the nature of hate, it only leads to an Orwellian path—and it’s during these exact moments in history, when the political divisions are so high, that thought criminalization and oppressive control find their way in. Josh Lieb is the author of I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President and Ratscalibur.
No offense, says Slavoj Žižek, but maybe we need to incorporate some "gently racist" icebreakers into our conversations.
Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has a bone to pick with the PC movement. While he doesn’t buy into the right-wing paranoid view that the politically correct among us are "evil people who want to destroy the American way of life," he does think they’re doing some damage. Žižek questions whether censoring our expression really addresses racial tension – or does it merely give birth to a politer form of racism (or sexism, or religious and political differences)? Tolerance has started to work against its own agenda, becoming a patronizing insult to those who think differently to you, a way of brushing off and compartmentalizing differences rather than listening and connecting. Žižek recommends we add a tasteful dose of obscenity and humor to our interactions with each other in order to make them more genuine. Covering up racism with nicer words doesn’t eradicate it, but laughing at each other’s differences – in the right way – can unite a world of "others". Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail
Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail.
Daryl Davis has made a point of meeting Ku Klux Klan members and 200 members have quit the racist organization after getting to know him.
It's often said that there's safety in numbers, and unfortunately, the bromide applies equally to people with hateful attitudes when they operate in groups. Racism, for example, is easy to maintain when surrounded by other haters, but a different matter altogether when a racist is alone with his or her intended victim. At that moment, it's much harder to ignore the fact that the object of hatred is just another vulnerable human being with the right to be treated respectfully and decently. Author Daryl Davis knows this, and as a black man has been disarming members of the Ku Klux Klan, one by one, since the 1980s by asking each one he meets, “How can you hate me when you don't even know me?" he tells the Daily Mail. He says he's gotten over 200 KKK members to quit.
Davis is about to release an updated version of his memoir, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan, which describes his experiences.
Davis cites Mark Twain in explaining how all the traveling his family did when he was young gave him a different view of racism, and an unusual patience with the ignorance underlying it: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
And Davis has certainly witnessed the damage racism causes everywhere, pointing out, “In Israel, it's Palestinian versus Jew. In Lebanon, it's Christian versus Muslim. In Iraq, it's Sunni Muslim versus Shiite Muslim. In certain African countries, the conflict is tribal. In India, we see a caste system based on the shade of skin color and classicism."
His approach isn't without critics who consider his kindness toward racists irksome. “Not all, but most of the criticism has come from black people. I have been called a 'sellout,' 'Uncle Tom,' 'Oreo' and a number of other terrible names." Davis feels, “This is because [the critics] are engaging in the exact same hateful behavior as they accuse the white racists. I can explain it like this, because I've seen it on both sides."
Davis is a long-time R&B and blues musician — he's played alongside Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and was friends with the legendary, late Muddy Waters — and music has often been the key to striking up a friendship with a Klan member. “Once when I was performing in a predominantly white venue, a white man approached me on my break and put his arm around me and exclaimed, 'This is the first time I've ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.'" To many of us, it's almost unbelievable that anyone wouldn't already know the black roots of rock 'n roll, but such are the filter bubbles in which people live. “I quickly enlightened him as to the origin of Jerry Lee's music and told him that Jerry Lee had learned that style from black Boogie Woogie and blues piano players. The man did not believe me, despite the fact that I further told him that Jerry Lee was a good friend of mine and he had told me himself where he learned that style." Davis continues, “He was curious and wanted to learn more about me. Over time, he and I became good friends. He ended up leaving the KKK."
Davis' mano a mano approach is not without danger, certainly. “There have been some incidents in which I was threatened and a couple of instances where I had to physically fight. Fortunately, I won in both instances." He goes on, “At the core of it, although they won't at first admit it, [racists] express superiority, but truly feel inferiority and in order to elevate themselves, they have to push someone else down." For Davis, though, the risk has clearly been worth all of the minds he's changed slowly over the years.
Big Think has written before about people who discover the power in conversation between enemies to develop understanding — check out this article by Maajid Nawaz.
As far as the immediate state of race relations in the U.S. goes, Davis, says, “What you are seeing is those people who were dormant racists, being given a new lease on life by the sentiments of our new President-elect. They celebrate his election. But, let me be clear here. Every racist I know, and I know a lot of them, voted for Trump. However, that does not mean that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist." So he remains hopeful about our long-term prospects: “There has always been a great deal of racism in the U.S. before and after Obama. However, racism in the US is down, post Obama."
As the US prepares for a change in power, Professor Sanford Levinson says dialogue that was formerly bound to people's inner monologue has been "liberated" into the public space.
In the 1964 presidential election Barry Goldwater received only 6 percent of the African American vote, down 26 points from fellow Republican Richard Nixon’s failed run four years earlier. Among other critics, Martin Luther King Jr. said that while Goldwater was not necessarily bigoted, his philosophy “gives aid and comfort to the racists.”
While Goldwater helped to kick off a strong conservative streak still apparent in American politics today, including a role in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, he was trounced by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Johnson had been president for less than two years following the JFK’s assassination, yet his domineering personality and acerbic tone made him a popular public figure.
Johnson took advantage of this alpha role by bending political capital to his advantage. The man was not without racist sentiments, using race as a buffer and tool for jockeying. Running the country during the era of Civil Rights, Johnson knew how to inspire resentment in what today is being called the ‘white working class’ when he stated,
If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
It may or may not have been Mark Twain that said history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Regardless of source, the sentiment remains remarkably true a half-century after LBJ’s crass sentiment.
The politicization of race, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation is now being expressed in profound and unsettling ways. Tatiana Navka, the wife of one of Vladimir Putin’s top aides, recently performed at a celebrity ice skating event wearing a concentration camp uniform and yellow Star of David. This is during a time when anti-Semitism is rampant on social media outlets like Twitter, with many journalists targeted by anonymous users.
Writers are easy targets, having public profiles and being engaged in social media. Hate mail is being taken literally, however. Enter visiting Harvard Law School professor Sanford Levinson. Last week the 75-year-old academic received a postcard that read:
We’re gonna drain the swamp at Harvard Law! Juden Raus.
Juden Raus refers to an anti-Semitic 1930s-era German board game that helped root out Jews. Throwing barbs in German has become en vogue in certain circles. At a recent alt-right conference the main speaker called the mainstream media Lügenpresse, the same word Nazis used to criticize the press of their day, too blatant to even be considered code-switch.
Levinson sees this trend as here to stay, at least for a while. He cites the recent presidential election cycle as ‘liberating’ language from inner monologue to the public space:
I do think that the campaign and Trump scrutiny has liberated a certain kind of dialogue. I think there is just this sense, at least for a while and maybe it will be for the next few years, that certain sorts of restraints are now loosened.
LBJ is remembered in part as a champion of liberal policies. He passed laws critical for the advancement and preservation of civil rights, Social Security, and the environmental. Yet he grew up in turn-of-the-century Texas and could not escape common social observations—many of which, apparently, remain common.
With his off-the-cuff remark to a little known aid named Bill Moyers, who would of course turn into one of media’s towering figures in the coming decades, he was exploiting our species’ penchant for tribalism, using the ‘other’ to gain political power. When considering such a tactic in hindsight it is easily understood even as it leaves a taste of bile in your mouth.
More disturbing is that such sentiments and practices are as powerful today. With the ease of ranting thanks to the one-click capabilities of social media these feelings are more widely expressed than ever before. Whether a 400-pound man spread across his bed armed with a laptop or President of the United States this thinking still works, regardless of how broken a mentality it requires.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Can you legislate for good human behavior, or does proposing laws to imprison those who use racial slurs distract from actual progress?
Last week, the South African government proposed a draft law to criminalize hate speech. The proposed law would place a first time offender in jail for up to three years, while a repeat offender could be sent for up to ten years. Currently, South African law allows for hate speech to be dealt with as a civil issue; last month a judge ruled a man who used an epithet in an argument owed the insulated party 7,000 U.S dollars.
The incident that prompted the drafting of this law, in which a woman lashed out at black police officer with the word “kaffir”, a slur on par with the “n-word” in South Africa. A video taken of the incident has spread like wildfire on the internet and sparked condemnation from all elements of South African society. Of course, the proposed law also has portions of South Africa in a similar uproar.
The proposed law would define hate speech broadly, as: “direct or electronic communication that advocates hatred, incites violence or causes contempt or ridicule”. Critics of the law suggest that it will do little to curb racist sentiment while eroding the freedom of expression. The director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Tusi Fokane, said of the proposed law: “You cannot legislate for good human behavior; you cannot legislate for social cohesion”.
But why does this idea trouble us so? What about the idea of Free Speech makes us uncomfortable with regulation of hate speech?
Most Americans are familiar with a Millsian idea of free speech. In his work "On Liberty", Mill proposed that the only limit to personal freedoms that can be justified is a restriction on activity which causes harm to others. This restriction is called, simply enough, the “harm principle”.
For Mill, as for many people, this means that the only speech that can be limited is that which would directly and immediately cause harm to others. An idea incorporated later into American law by the Supreme Court as the “clear and present danger” and the “imminent danger” standards.
Mill tied his idea of free speech to the Utilitarian notion of the greatest total happiness as a goal of the state. While some speech is false, misleading, or even detrimental to society, the banning of it would be worse. We are made happier in the long run, he supposes, by allowing objectionable speech in all instances where it causes no harm.
However, while America only tends to regulate speech that is an immediate danger to others, many other nations have laws that go further. Many countries in Europe have laws against denying the reality of the holocaust in public speech. Canada and several Western European nations already have hate speech listed as a criminal offense.
There is evidence that the use of hate speech causes real harm to the targeted groups. Work by the American author Mari J. Matsuda has argued that hate speech can cause “direct physical and emotional changes” in targeted groups. If this is the case, and the data suggests that it is, the “harm principle” would support the prohibition of hate speech. The idea that certain treatment can cause lasting harm to a group was the basis of the ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education, with the court ruling that discrimination "generates a feeling of inferiority as to... status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
The debate also raises old questions about power distribution in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid the ultra-majority black population has held political power. However, cultural and economic power remains in the hands of the less than 10% of the population that is white. Critics suggest that the law will not only do little to reduce prejudice, but may even divert attention from structural issues promoting racism across the country. Issues which go beyond the use of slurs.
South Africa is a country with deep-seated racial tensions, and the recent incident is but one of many similar events to plague the nation over the years. The recent discussion to limit free speech with regulations on hate speech has ironic echoes of the extreme social conservatism implemented to help enforce apartheid, for example: television has only been available there since 1976. The discussion of how free speech should be is relevant not only there but everywhere.