Saturday, October 13, 2007

Censoring Hate Speech

Yesterday’s posting on the appropriateness of moral outrage as a response to the Hitler and Stalin Cliché brought up the question of censorship. Specifically, is it the case that expressing moral outrage at those who use the Hitler and Stalin Cliché an act that deserves condemnation in the name of opposing censorship?

Briefly, the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is an argument used to condemn atheists by claiming that the atheist regimes of Hitler and Stalin have killed several times as many people as Christianity. The argument is provably invalid; we would not argue that those who believe in a flat earth are morally superior to a round earth on the basis that the latter have killed are more people than the former. The difference between using this argument against atheists, but not against round-earth believers, is because there are social factions who seek to promote hatred of atheists, but not against round-earth believers. In other words, the Hitler and Stalin cliché is a hate crime.

However, if one goes around condemning the Hitler and Stalin Cliché as a hate crime, then is this not censorship, and is this not then worthy of condemnation?

No, it is not. Furthermore, the fact that there is no ‘censorship’ worthy of condemnation in calling the use of cliché a hate crime that the cry of ‘censorship’ can easily be shown to be just another tool in the hate-mongers’ toolbag.

If it is censorship to condemn those who use the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, then it would also be censorship to condemn those who condemn the Hitler and Stalin Cliché. After all, condemning the Hitler and Stalin Cliché counts as speech. Therefore, condemning those who condemn the Hitler and Stalin Cliché counts as condemning speech.

Effectively, the person who uses this censorship argument is saying, “Because censorship is bad, we must prohibit people from saying that the use of the Hitler and Stalin cliché is motivated primarily by a love of hate, even if they can demonstrate this is the case.” In other words, we are going to censor speech in the name of preventing the censorship of speech.

This is nonsense. Yet, this type of idiocy is business-as-usual for those who have decided to make their living manufacturing and selling hatred.

Two Types of Prohibition

In order to more easily understand the moral case, we must distinguish between two levels of moral prohibition in these types of cases. Level 1 Prohibition: Your act is morally contemptible, meaning that it is appropriate to respond to the act with condemnation and private acts such as boycotts, but it is not the type of act that deserves a violent response in the form of fines, imprisonment, or worse.

Level 2 Prohibition: Your act falls in the same moral category as murder, rape, theft, and fraud in that is deserves a violent response in the form of criminal penalties.

What these hate-mongers do, when it is convenient for them to do so, is to ignore these two levels of moral condemnation and to pretend that the only choice that one can make is a choice between complete moral permission on the one end (no punishment, no penalty, no condemnation, no harsh words at all used against the speaker), and a Level 2 Prohibition (a violent response in the form of criminal penalties). They condemn all Level 1 responses to their speech-act as ‘censorship’ as worthy of condemnation as acts of individual or state violence against the speeker.

Of course, the reason that they do this is to silence their critics – to get them to shut up, so that they can continue to utter their contemptible hate-speech without anybody actually saying, “Yours is contemptible hate-speech.”

However, the statement that “yours is contemptible hate-speech” is, itself, speech. If it is always wrong to condemn the words of another, then it is wrong to condemn those who say, “Your words are worthy of condemnation.” Like I said above, this position is inherently self-defeating.

The fact of the matter is that the claim of ‘censorship’ is invalid when people use it against those who employ Level 1 condemnation. The right to freedom of speech is not a right to be immune from condemnation when one says something contemptible. It is a right against the use of state or private violence – against “Level 2 condemnation” – of what one says; not a right against the use of Level 1 condemnation.

There are attempts being made in some parts of the world to say that some biblical passages – particularly those that call for the execution of homosexuals – are hate speech. They want to make the reciting of these biblical passages a crime. In effect, this means outlawing those religions that hold that these anti-homosexual passages are God’s word and literally true.

The distinction above says that these laws are immoral. Those laws would count as a Level 2 response to speech acts, where only Level 1 responses are legitimate. They count as doing harm to those who commit the crime of saying things that one does not like. However, if it is permissible to pass legislation against those who say things that one does not like, then those who advocate these laws should also have the opportunity to seek the arrest of those who condemn them. After all, they too would merely be passing laws against those who say things they do not like.

We avoid this vicious cycle of violence by stating that, even though some speech is wrong and certainly deserves the harshest moral condemnation, that we will not permit people to respond to words with violence. This means that the person advocating laws criminalizing homosexual acts, and the person condemning those who advocate such laws, are both free to have their say, and to try to convince society to adopt their view.

Yes, it means that these people get to keep quoting their Bible versus.

But it also means that we get to keep pointing out how primative, vicious, and harmful these particular religious beliefs are and how they will tend to be favored by primitive, vicious, and harmful people. One group has a desire to have sex with others of the same gender. Others have a desire to do harm. It is not difficult to argue which, in fact, are the better people, so long as we are permitted to say such things.


Juno Walker said...

Alonzo -

I was reading about DU over at your scratch pad, and I came across this sentence:

"If we imagine a case in which torturing a child will fulfill the desires of a large number of sadists, desire utilitarianism will not call this a good act. Rather, desire utilitarianism first looks at the fact that the desire to torture children is a bad desire, and as such there is adequate reason to use social forces to make this desire as rare and as weak as possible."

I'm still making my way through your theory. In what sense are you using the phrase "bad desire" in the quote above? Are you still using it in the sense of "a bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires", where the desires of the entire community - and not just those of the sadists - are taken into account?


Miguel Picanco said...

I've actually been arguing about a similar subject with friends lately. As usual, I agree with your position - but what if the situation is slightly more complex? For instance, many street preachers not only cite bible passages that incite hate, but also angrily shout, make accusations, and insult random passersby. A huge percentage walk away with strong urges to physically assault or force them away... and sometimes, situations get to the point of police intervention - which usually take away those who act first instead of the instigating street preacher.

Besides the fact that these people constantly terrorizing people who believe in souls with the threat that they will endure a torturous hell for eternity if they don't agree with them... Doesn't the use of such extreme tactics to incite violence and hatred (even to themselves) at least come close to overreaching the tolerable bounds of free speech?

I'd certainly wish to restrain any individual (preacher or atheist) that resorts to such offensive tactics.