Monday, November 05, 2007

Morality as Hate Speech

It appears that some people disapprove with the stand that I took this weekend on the Westboro Baptist Church – claiming that their protests are a protected form of speech. One of the main lines of reasoning used in these arguments is that ‘hate speech’ is a particular type of speech that is not deserving of protection.

My response to this objection is that all moral philosophy is ‘hate speech’ in a sense - and desire utilitarianism is probably more so than others. Any act of moral condemnation, any statement in which an individual is branded as evil and blamed for causing harm to innocent people, The main focus of the objection is that ‘hate speech’ is a particular type of speech that is deserving of mblame for harm done to innocent people – is an invitation, or even an encouragement, to hate such people. If hate speech is such a bad thing, then morality itself is to b condemned.

Yet, morality (or ethicists) cannot be condemned without a contradiction. To condemn ethicists – to condemn those who use ‘hate speech’ against certain targets, is to attempt to elicit hate against those who use hate speech. It is an act of condemning all those who condemn, and to call evil those who call others evil. The position makes no sense.

The correct question we should be asking, then, is not whether we should or should not condemn others, but who should we condemn? In answering this question, the proposal that, “We should only condemn those who condemn others” can be thrown out at the start foor being totally incoherent. We must then look for other answers.

Different people are going to come up with different answers. I hold that there is a right answer to these types of questions. Yet, I also hold that human beings are fallible creatures, and that none of us have exactly the same set of data at our disposal. Consequently, some people will inevitably come up with some false beliefs about who should be condemned. Even in this blog, I have expressed the view that at least one of the things that I have written is false, and I have to leave it up to others to discover what it is.

The next question to answer, then, is, “How are we going to deal with disagreement?” What is the best way to deal with the fact that somebody, somewhere, will always have an opinion that ‘those people deserve our condemnation’ when, in fact, those people do not deserve our condemnation? There will always be somebody, somewhere, directing hate against those who do not deserve it.

Throughout this blog I have maintained a principle that the only legitimate response to words is words and private action. ‘Private action’ consists of those things that a person may decide on without having to justify his actions to others; who to vote for, where to shop, who to go to lunch with, what to eat, what to wear, when to pray, whether to pray, and the like. The proper response to words and private action, no matter how painful, is never to draw out a gun and to threaten the speaker with violence.

One commenter noted accurately that rights are never absolute, and that they must be weighed with other concerns. Of course this is the case. This is why the argument above does not apply to cases of fraud, libel, slander, revealing company secrets, invasions of privacy, and violations of contracts and other forms of legal promises.

The motivation here is to protect people, not from hurt or offense, but from more substantial and substantive harms such as threats to national security (and the loss of life for those who are charged with providing national security), the loss of jobs and income by unsubstantiated claims, or to even allow the institutions of law and medicine to function for the public good. The Westboro Baptist Church provides no such threat of substantive harm. Important institutions will not fail because these people are able to make the comments they make.

The argument for free speech also does not apply to a case in which demonstrators chant, shout, and otherwise disrupt an event such as a movie or play, or a wedding, or a funeral, or to forcefully evict a heckler from the audience (or to taser him if he is resisting the arresting officers in a way that endangers others). Here, it is legitimate to use force to silent those who are disrupting the event.

In the latter case, the key here is whether the protest actually disrupts the event. Some people speak as if the Westboro Baptist Church members were literally dancing on the coffins in which their protests took place, If this were the case, then I, too, would argue for their removal on the grounds that they were being disruptive. However, when their protests are far enough removed and subdued enough not to disrupt the event, then this line of argument disappears.

To silence the Westboro Baptist Church through a civil trial is still a case of responding to words that one does not want to hear with weapons and violence against those who would speak.

If this is permissible, then why is it NOT permissible for certain Muslims to call for a use of violence against people who say things that are offensive to their religion? Why is it then wrong to threaten those who draw cartoons of Mohammed, when it is quite possibly the case that Muslims suffer as much discomfort – as much hurt – as the father of the dead solider.

How long have we had allowed cheering crowds at executions, on the roads approaching a prison where an execution is scheduled, celebrating that execution? None have thought to wonder at the effects that this would have on the family of those about to be killed, and none would certainly have given any sense to confining those protests where they can be out of sight and out of mind.

The question comes up, “Where is it permissible to draw a line?” I would argue that it is permissible to draw the line at harm and at the disruption of an event

The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. When guns become a legitimate response to words, we must all worry about whether we have enough cover to protect ourselves from the bullets that will start flying and anybody offended or hurt by something others might say.


Mike said...

I have to take exception to your argument here; the concept of hate is different, at least in terms of degree, from moral condemnation. I morally condemn theft, but stealing doesn't fill me with rage every single time it happens; I don't hate it so much as I oppose it, and this is something you can do without hatred.

Hate speech, as a legal term, is more than just saying you don't like something: it's speech intended to stir a reaction against it, typically violent, by exploiting the hate of others.

I suppose one could argue that public protests are a form of hate speech -- the "pro-life" movement certainly want you to hate abortion, for example -- but as long as such protests remain peaceful, if not civil, and are encouraged to remain so by the speakers, any hateful actions by attendees is in opposition to the speakers' intent, and calling it "hate speech" is inappropriate.

Obviously I agreed with your previous point, that the Westboros were acting within the law and should never have been successfully sued, but I can't agree with the way you choose to defend it.

Anonymous said...

Is this even the most effective way to go about it, I mean a lawsuit? I remember hearing Molly Irvings being interviewed, and instead of trying to stop a KKK march from happening, she got a bunch of buddies to all line up along the path and moon them.

And what about the radio show where superman defeated the KKK, and they used all their silly secret codes, so they became an object of ridicule.

Isn't it worst to make these people feel like martyrs fighting for some higher purpose? I mean, I say doing this sort of protest by a funeral is really bad PR for them. I would love to have them do loads of these types of actions and be shown for the sad pathetic hateful individuals that they are.

Ethics aside, lets look at this from a pure marketing perspective. Do they want to be known for bankrupting a church? Or would they rather have them be associated with harassing a poor grieving family. Is one church possibly being shut down that great of an achievement, when we have how many others with a similarly message? Wouldn't this be a good way to get more moderate people who may think homosexuality is a sin but don't believe they should be harassed, to want to disassociate themselves from people like this? I'm talking about creating social pressure which may actual help to change things.

I do believe the lawsuit sets a dangerous precedent. But even from a pure marketing standpoint I don't think it's a good approach.

Honestly, I worry about the fact that for my sexuality in many states I can be fired without recourse. That I can't get married, or if I'm sick in the hospital critically ill, my soul mate won't be able to see me in many states. I don't fucking care about some assholes with placards!

Will E. said...

Your mission statement on the blog says you want to make the world a better place, if you think that the world would be better if morality were considered hate speech, then I think you're on the wrong track..

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Will E.

Will E.

Your objection commits a fallacy of equivocation. I wrote that morality is "hate speech" in a sense - then specify that the sense that I have in mind is not the same as the sense that you use in your objection.

It is "hate speech" in the sense that it directs us to form aversions against certain states of affairs - to "hate" certain states of affairs - such as states in which a person is being raped, murdered, robbed, and manipulated through lies.

Can you provide an argument that this is not true?

However, there is another type of "hate speech" - the type in which a person promotes unjustified hostility towards members of a group. Hostility towards murderers, rapists, theives, and liars is not unjustified. Hostility towards Jews, blacks, atheists, and women is unjustified.

This posting argues against the claim that morality is hate-speech in the second sense. There are people in the world who use the fact (and it is a fact) that morality is hate speech in the first sense to argue that moral claims themselves should be condemned. When, in fact, there is a distinction between hate speech in the first sense and hate speech in the second sense. The fact that hate speech in the second sense is to be condemned is not reason to justify the condemnation of moral claims.