Who gets to define hate speech?

I am going to have to be extremely careful with what I say in this post, aren’t I. There’s a strong possibility that this is one of the most emotive subjects a person can write about. A poor choice of words will potentially make some readers feel very hateful.

Hate speech is an intensely controversial topic. Hate speech is very real and it can sometimes lead to very harmful behaviors – I don’t think very many people would disagree with that.

I’m aware that some of our politicians want to try to further define hate speech and create new legislation that would allow punishment of New Zealanders who cross the line between expressing opinions in a non hateful way and those who over-step that line and communicate hatefully.

It’s an extremely complex and difficult subject. Highly emotive. Where do our lawmakers and politicians draw that line? Also, how do you prove hate speech?

Some people are inclined to be very territorial about who gets to have opinions on the subject of hate speech.

I firmly believe that everyone needs to have a say, or at least have the opportunity to have a say, on what constitutes hate speech, in a legal sense. If hate speech gets set in more punitive legislation, that will have an enormous impact on how we all think and communicate in the future.

To some extent it feels like a very subjective notion, that people can even attempt to define hate speech.

I am firmly of the opinion that hate speech should not be formalised into legislation without a significant amount of public debate. A nation-wide referendum at the very least. There needs to be a great deal of transparency around the process. That is our Democratic right.

When I think about what I personally consider to be hate speech (without looking at the internet), there are certain forms of aggressive discourse that are very obviously hate speech. To my mind anyhow. Here I go (in no particular order), some very obvious examples:

  • Homophobia
  • Misogyny
  • Racism
  • Religious discrimination
  • Discrimination based on sexuality
  • Hatred of the ‘other’
  • Inciting violence in a serious way (it’s a very fine line between banter and genuine incitement sometimes, and sometimes it really isn’t – how do you decide the difference? Tone of voice?)
  • Xenophobia
  • Calling people certain words, when you don’t know what that word actually means

That list will do for me. I think it’s pretty sensible. But I suspect that if I spent the rest of today and tomorrow, and the next day, analysing this list, then my list would probably grow. I would possibly start to second guess myself. It could grow and morph and I would be compelled to make edits and adjustments. It might be difficult to settle on a definitive and precise list of hate speech ideas and terms. It would probably take weeks and months, maybe years, if I wanted to attempt to be the foremost authority on hate speech.

Who gets to decide what is hate speech? Who gets to decide what you say?

How do you measure the harm caused by hateful language?

To me, this seems like an absolute minefield of difficulties and potentially un-Democratic outcomes.

Is it really necessary to punish people for saying extremely hateful things? Yes, I think it probably is. On rare occasions. But, we have to be so careful and so precise about which hateful statements are made illegal. Not to mention, the severity of the punishments.

Which is why there needs to be such careful, open, transparent and pragmatic public debate before lawmakers go ahead and legislate hate speech.  

Just imagine sitting down with ten of your most thoughtful friends / acquaintances to debate hate speech for an hour. Imagine how that conversation would unfold.

Now imagine doing it at the pub, with strangers around. Would you?

Transparency is key. Public debate is crucial.

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