What Is "Hate Speech?"

On Tuesday night, the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS) hosted its first event: a talk by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute on “Marriage Without Adjectives.” Reaction to the event (as reported by the Stanford Daily here), was frosty, to say the least:

“It’s upsetting that they were given SAL [Student Activities and Leadership] status,” said Dan Thompson’13.

“Optimally, everybody should be allowed to be a student group, but SAL curates and since they do, it’s very upsetting that a homophobic, anti-women, misogynistic group is given status when others are not,” he said…

Nathaniel Williams ’13 characterized the event as… [an]  “anti-abortion, anti-same sex adoption, anti-women, anti-good government, hate fest.”

There are some very strong words here: “homophobic,” “misogynistic,” and, of course, “hate.” The implication, of course, is that the opinions expressed by Morse, as well as those espoused by the SAS, are so hateful as to be beyond the pale of acceptable philosophical-political discussion. In fact, although Thompson attempts to hedge his position, he essentially comes right out and says that he believes that the SAS should be refused recognition as an official student group.

These reactions, while unsurprising, illustrate a frankly disturbing trend in campus dialogue: the attempt by certain students to get opinions with which they disagree classified as “hate speech” and thus banned from campus discourse.  Student activists argue that right-wing opinions on abortion, marriage, and other emotional topics are “hateful” because they offend, belittle, or discriminate against certain groups of people.

But this argument is flawed, as it relies on a mistaken or unclear definition of what, exactly, constitutes “hate speech.” I propose that “hate speech” ought to mean speech or symbolic actions which seek to attack or deny the human dignity, worth, or value of certain persons because of their membership in some class of people. Hate speech might include the use of racial or gender-based slurs (which by their very nature deny or belittle the human dignity of the target),  vicious and malicious verbal harassment of persons because of their race, sexual orientation, creed, or gender identity, or explicit declarations that certain classes of people are uniformly inferior in some essential moral sense.

It is also important to discuss what does not and cannot constitute hate speech. I propose that criticism of or opposition to the actions of a person or group of persons cannot, in most conceivable circumstances, constitute hate speech. The old proverb applies here: it is possible and legitimate to love the sinner and hate the sin (or love the actor and hate the action, if you prefer). Discussion about what constitutes right action has always been at the heart of intellectual dialogue, and attempts to prohibit it will inevitably have a chilling effect on public and private discourse.

In the light of this standard, it becomes clear that advocacy against same-sex marriage, for example, is not necessarily hate speech. (It can be hate speech, of course, if it is based in the mistaken and pernicious opinion that homosexual persons are by nature inferior or contemptible. But it is not necessarily hate speech.) The SAS and Dr. Morse, for example, base their arguments on this topic on their philosophical/ethical understanding of the principles that shape the institution of marriage, and on the nature of the actions involved therein. They explicitly do not deny the worth or dignity of homosexual persons.

The sames goes for pro-life opinions which are often termed “misogynistic.” Any real exploration of pro-life thought quickly reveals that pro-life philosophy is centered on the assertion that unborn babies are innocent human beings, and that it is thus morally wrong to kill them. I can think of few things that are less like hate speech. Pro-choice activists constantly assert that pro-lifers are “misogynistic” or “anti-woman” because they seek to deny women their “right to control their bodies.” But again, this is a discussion about actions, not the worth of persons. Pro-lifers generally argue that the act of abortion is unethical and does not fall under the general right to bodily autonomy; they do not argue that women don’t deserve this autonomy because they are inferior to men. (Again, I’m well aware that these sorts of arguments *can *be based in misogyny; I’m simply arguing that they aren’t necessarily so.)

Obviously, this standard isn’t completely cut-and-dry, and there’s room for lots of discussion about what constitutes an attack on actions and what constitutes an attack on persons. But the important thing is the discussion. I disapprove of the ever-expanding definition of “hate speech” because it poses a very real threat to the open, free, frank exchange of ideas that has made my Stanford experience so valuable. Attempts by administrations or activists groups to impose top-down limits on that exchange will inevitably have a chilling effect on campus discourse.

In the end, offensive, illegitimate, insulting, and stupid ideas don’t die off because someone bans them– they die off because they’re proven wrong. You will find no one at Stanford to speak in favor of eugenics, Lamarckian evolution, Nazism, phrenology, or white supremacism. These ideas are absent not because the administration has deemed them hateful or wrong and banned them from campus, but rather because abundant philosophical, scientific, and historical evidence has demonstrated that they are incorrect or reprehensible. If campus activists really think that the thinking behind the pro-life and traditional marriage movements is flawed, they should be thrilled to expose it to public criticism.

At the end of the day, administrators and activists at Stanford and other universities should stick to defending students against real hate speech, which denies their worth and dignity, and let the marketplace of ideas continue to operate unobstructed on campus. University administrators and faculty members often claim that we are capable of formulating and defend our own opinions, and that we can determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. I sincerely hope that they act accordingly.

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