In Defense of Hate Speech

On 23 February, Oluwole Ilesanmi, a Christian street preacher, was approached by two uniformed police officers outside an underground station in north London. Donned with an earpiece microphone and a bible, Ilesanmi had been proselytizing to people as they passed on the sidewalk. In a video of the exchange, which has since gone viral, one of the officers says that if he doesn’t stop what he’s doing and leave, he’ll be arrested. Ilesanmi quickly declares his intention to continue preaching, and—within seconds—the officer makes good on his promise: he’s stripped of his bible, handcuffed and dragged away. When questioned by a bystander filming the arrest, the officer reportedly said that Ilesanmi was being detained for Islamophobia. This, presumably, was a reference to his attempt, moments earlier, to convert a Muslim.

The arrest and subsequent release of a street preacher for a speech crime is not the only sign there’s something rotten in the state of England. Three weeks later, it was revealed that police had an open investigation into a UK journalist. The journalist in question, Caroline Farrow, is a columnist who writes from a Catholic perspective. Following an appearance on the TV show Good Morning Britain, where she paneled alongside transgender rights lobbyist Susie Green, Farrow took to Twitter to inform the world she was being investigated under the Malicious Communications Act. The transgression? In a series of tweets from October 2018, she’d allegedly misgendered Green’s adult child, who was born male but identifies as female. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the investigation not only constitutes an infringement on free expression, but on a free press. While the term is often overused, the adjective Orwellian comes to mind.

As a Canadian, one aspect of the Farrow case which interested me was that it dovetailed with the issue which sparked Jordan Peterson’s rise to fame. Peterson initially gained national prominence due to his opposition to what he called federal compelled speech legislation. He claimed that Bill C-16, which was introduced by the ruling Liberal Party of Canada, would criminalize precisely what Farrow was investigated for: the refusal to utter gender neutral pronouns or acknowledge an individual’s expressed gender identity, irrespective of their biological sex. It’s hard not to wonder if the insanity witnessed in the Farrow case might soon jump across the pond. Was Peterson the canary in the coal mine after all?

It isn’t as if Canada is a bastion of free speech to begin with. Bill C-16, which codified gender identity and expression into the human rights code, was merely an addendum to the hate speech laws on the books. And, as recent history has shown, the state isn’t afraid to use them. On 24 January, James Sears and LeRoy St. Germaine—the editor-in-chief and publisher, respectively, of the Toronto-based publication Your Ward News—were convicted of inciting hatred against an identifiable group. In the pages of their obscure newspaper, the pair had advocated for the legalization of rape and denied the Holocaust. These were just two of their transgressions against reasonable and intelligent discourse. Sears and St. Germaine are vile and do not deserve to be taken seriously by any thinking person. But Canadian courts took them very seriously indeed. As a result of their convictions, the pair could find themselves behind bars for up to a year.

Peterson himself is once again at the center of censorship and free speech controversies. On 20 March, news broke that Cambridge University has rescinded an offer to grant him a visiting fellowship. The university is free to invite or disinvite whoever it likes. However, the decision was undoubtedly in poor taste. While the administration has denied this, the change of course is almost certainly the result of capitulation to pressure from so-called progressive segments of the student body or outside political agitators. Cambridge gave in to the heckler’s veto.

The following day, it was announced that Whitcoulls, a major New Zealand book distributor, had dropped Peterson’s bestseller from its stores in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack. The justification given was as follows:

(It) is a decision that Whitcoulls has made in light of some extremely disturbing material being circulated prior, during, and after the Christchurch attacks. As a business which takes our responsibilities to our communities very seriously, we believe it would be wrong to support the author at this time.

As a private business, Whitcoulls is free to carry, or not carry, whatever books it chooses—and it appears the company has since backpedaled and begun selling the book again. Nonetheless, its decision to smear Peterson by linking him to the perpetrator of the mass shooting was reprehensible. Incidentally, at the same time it refused to stock 12 Rules for Life, Whitcoulls continued to sell Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the horrors of the twentieth century, but surely one we shouldn’t draw is that the robust protection of free expression is the problem. It’s as if there is a collective amnesia sweeping through society, washing away any recollection of the arguments in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and John Milton’s Areopagitica [the work after which this magazine, Areo, was named—The Ed.].

Even if Ilesanmi, Farrow, Peterson, Sears and St. Germaine were the people their critics say they are (in fact, Sears and St. Germaine are), they should still be allowed to express themselves. Freedom of speech contingent upon the content of one’s views isn’t freedom of speech at all. We should not be licensing viewpoint discrimination. Whether it’s lawful to silence someone is the wrong question: the question is whether it’s justified, whether it’s moral, and whether it will serve us well in the long run.

This is not merely a matter of the speaker’s right to express herself, but also of everyone else’s right to listen. By arresting Ilesanmi, the officers didn’t just infringe upon his right to preach, but also on the rights of others to hear his ideas. By investigating Farrow for hate speech, police put a chill on those who will discuss transgenderism in the future, thereby lowering the likelihood that others will be informed of both sides of the debate. By convicting Sears and St. Germaine, the Canadian government violated my right to decide what views I will be exposed to and engage with. Meanwhile, Cambridge stamped out their students’ and staff’s ability to choose whether to attend Peterson’s lectures, while Whitcoulls denied their shoppers the opportunity to read his book and make up their own minds about it.

These decisions should be an affront to civil libertarians everywhere. When we censor, we render ourselves prisoners of our own ideas and sharpen a blade that can be turned upon us in the future. And if we sit idly by while that blade is sharpened, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when it’s thrust into our flesh. There’s also the question of practicality: who decides what is kosher for us to read and write? The answer, in practice, is either the state or the mob. It is either those with the monopoly on legitimate violence, or the self-appointed moral majority.

The proponents of censorship today mask their intentions behind altruism. It is because of [insert oppressed group here] that we must censor hateful views. This is the same argument that has always been made for censorship. But the best tool the oppressed have always had at their disposal is free speech. In the US, the southern states passed laws making the expression of abolitionist sentiment illegal. Why? Because, as Frederick Douglass noted in 1860, “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech—five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the south.” The abolitionists understood that their greatest enemy was a majority with a license to censor. And the safest way to ensure that no immoral majority engages in the censorship of good speech—as the southern states did during Douglass’s time—is to take away the right of any majority to do so.

While, historically, calls for censorship have been associated with the political right, or with those of a puritanical religious bent, these days the loudest howls for the clamping down on free expression come from the left—just as right-wing populism is sweeping into power in countries around the world. Despite this, many activists—who call populist politicians like Donald Trump or Ontario Premier Doug Ford fascists—are seeking to empower institutions, be they universities or governments, to censor. Have they thought this through?

Part of the problem is that everyone who engages in censorship believes they have right on their side. The participants in the lunacy on the campus of Evergreen State College, and the black-clad hooligans who stormed the gates of UC Berkeley to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos, were both convinced their actions were moral and virtuous. The latter case is particularly instructive. For all their efforts, the regressive left’s attempts to silence Yiannopoulos had the paradoxical effect of raising his profile. What did spell his end? Commitment to free speech on a number of podcasts, including The Joe Rogan Experience, which gave Yiannopoulos enough rope to hang himself. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The obvious question to pose in the face of censorship is: what are you afraid is going to happen? Did police really believe that Ilesanmi’s attempt to convert a Muslim on a London sidewalk was unbearably hurtful? Or that the child of Susie Green wouldn’t be able to overcome the grief of being misgendered? Did the courts think thousands of Canadians, if exposed to Your Ward News, would begin goose stepping in unison? Is Whitcoulls so certain that reading Peterson’s book will result in the creation of more mass shooters? If that is indeed the case, then all of them think very little of their fellow human beings.

This is not an issue limited to the free speech crisis on certain college and university campuses. It’s much more serious, and pervasive, than that. Across the world, calls for various forms of censorship or the further roll-back of free expression are on the rise. Officials from G7 countries are considering forcing social media companies to purge their platforms of toxic content, while New Zealand’s chief censor (a job title straight out of 1984) has made it a crime to possess or distribute the Christchurch mosque shooter’s manifesto. It is time for all lovers of liberty to stand up and say: There is no one to whom I give the job of deciding what I can read or write or say or hear. That is a responsibility no individual should absolve himself of.

Christopher Hitchens once described his defense of David Irving, a discredited historian and Holocaust denier, as “one of the proudest moments of my life.” At the time, Irving was imprisoned in Austria for what Hitchens correctly called a crime of “thought and writing.” Speaking before a Canadian audience in 2006, Hitchens said:

(Irving’s imprisonment is) a scandal. And I can’t find a seconder, usually, when I propose this, but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this, can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.

What is needed now is a return to a robust defense of free expression, even in its most vile, hateful and objectionable forms. The question of what constitutes hate speech is wholly subjective: it has no fixed definition and therefore any attempt to legislate it must be opposed. That isn’t to say there is no such thing as hateful speech—there obviously is. But, no matter how loathsome it may be, it deserves equal, if not extra, protection. If we wish to take the principles of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism seriously, then we must put our collective foot down and declare: we have no truck with viewpoint discrimination or prior restraint. To steel our nerves in these difficult times—when those who seek to censor and cancel hold the cultural capital—we should draw strength from recent defenders of free speech, such as those who stood for artistic freedom during the Rushdie Affair; the ACLU, when they took a bold stance during the Skokie controversy; and those who reprinted the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the cowardly attack against the magazine.

We find ourselves today—as Frederick Douglass did in 1860—with a mortifying and disgraceful fact staring us in the face: what we thought was gained years ago is under threat. And, as Douglass so eloquently made clear: the time to boldly assert a right is precisely when that right has been called into question. This is the hill I will die on. Not because I like hateful speech, but because I recognize that, when it comes to censorship, what is gained is outweighed tenfold by what is lost. We have seen where the censorious instinct leads us: history is replete with examples. So I invite you to join me on this hill, lest we all be dragged down to perdition.

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13 comments

  1. What the author presents here as cases of free speech which were wrongly banned – a person stopped from preaching, someone being mistreated for using wrong pronouns – have nothing to do with what real hate speech is about and with what we are fighting.
    Laws are never perfect. There are all the time cases of people treated too harshly. But what the author completely fails to mention are thousands – literally thousands – of cases around the world where teenagers are harassed in schools because of darker skin or of being LGBT. People attempting suicides because of constant bullying. People who lost their jobs or were banished from their homes because their religion or political views are not as they should be. People who day after day hear from media that they are traitors, unwelcomed, second class, etc.
    I know your knee-jerk reaction: “Oh, but speech is not action!”, “Those who attack are to blame not the ones who express their views!”. Bollocks. Clearly you know nothing about how the society works, or more likely you fake ignorance. Speaking out, especially in our times, means influencing others. If you speak long enough and with enough authority, your words will take effect. Every politician, a religious figure, an ideologue who spreads hate is partially guilty of attacks against people he or she spoke against.

    I don’t care about pronouns. I care about victims of hate speech, real people whose lives are affected because of how media works nowadays. And when you say that all speech needs to be protected no matter what, it means only that you’re on the side of internet trolls, bullies, fascists, and other assholes.

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  2. One of the big problems with hate speech laws is that it makes long-established religious beliefs illegal. The bible AND the Koran are against homosexuality. One may no longer mention this fact. Christians have gotten in trouble for opposing gay marriage.
    Another problem is that it makes it illegal to discuss or even mention true social problems. Hate speech laws in Europe make it virtually impossible to suggest any limits of immigration. One may not mention the Rothamstad grooming scandal or the rape crisis in Sweden or Germany. In Australia, a journalist got in trouble for suggesting that some aboriginals are scamming the government.

  3. Pity you didn’t give some more facts about the Farrow case, there was much more to it than misgendering, see –
    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/20/catholic-journalist-investigated-by-police-after-misgendering-trans-woman

    Is the expression of “Hate Speech” that incites other to commit crimes one of your “borders of free expession”?
    I’m all for freedom expression of ideas that are controversial or challenging, but when they become vindictive and specifically designed to harm others you have hate speech. You confounded hate speech with the controversial and challenging in your article along with the header – an old journalistic trick that got me to read your work, but it didn’t pass muster in the end.

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  4. Thanks. The only thing missing is a reference to Alison Chabloz, the first person to be convicted in the UK of the thought crime of holocaust denial.

  5. There is a hugely important freedom of speech/expression issue looming, that all Western countries are going to have to deal with. That being: the forcing of ”islamiphobia” legislation by muslim islamist activists and groups on governments. Essentially…unique blasphemy laws on modern sectarian societies, and equating critical analysis and commentary to “hate speech”.
    It has taken a long time for us to remove such laws. Do we really need to go backwards for no arguably good reason or purpose?

  6. What is paticularily astonishing about the Caroline Farrow case is that she was arrested for at worst using the wrong pronoun whereas the child concerned’s mother Susie Green was not for taking him out of the UK when he was at an age considered not capable of consent to have gender reassignment surgery in Thailand. This is analagous in all ways to FGM except that the consequences to the child are more extreme than any form of FGM. Why is Susie Green not prosecuted for Grievous bodily harm? The evidence is clear in the body of her child and her own testimony. A parent has a responsibility to care for a child but no right to make decisions which are not in a childs best interests and being a parent is no defence against assaulting and permenantly damaging a childs genitals. If teh child is allowed to mature and as an adult makes a decision, that is a different matter.

    On free speech generally, then it is the defence of the expression of repugnant views that most tests those who advocate free speech but it is in ridiculous cases where the expression of reasonable opinions are suppressed that the best examples for campaigning to ensure free speech is protected are to be found.

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    1. Farrow wasn’t arrested for using the wrong pronoun – it was a more serious offence under the Malicious Communciations Act. We don’t know the details of the child’s gender identity issues nor the nature and extent of legal, psychological and medical involvement in the decisions that were taken in relation to surgery. We also don’t know the views of the child either before or after the surgery. I don’t know enough to either defend or criticise Green. For the sake of the child who has to get on with her life now, a period of quiet away from ignorant ranters would probably be a good thing.

      Facts don’t usually matter to those who use and defend Hate Speech.

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  7. The argument of this article is obvious to me, but apparently not to most of the people I know. Well done for writing it. I definitely agree that hate speech shoujld not be a crime, no matter how loathsome it is.

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  8. The thing is that the borders of free speech were settled robustly long ago. You may not cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and you may not counsel or incite the commission of a crime. You may not slander or libel without risking a suit. There.

    One of the things that most positively should not be prosecuted is Holocaust denial, it only adds an air of persecution to those people who can then claim that they have a forbidden truth that the government doesn’t want you to hear. On the contrary, invite your local Denier to your high schools and let them make asses of themselves for all to see.

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  9. “C.K. Ryan is the pen name of a Canadian journalist and essayist. His writing has appeared in Quillette Magazine and Areo Magazine.

    Just curious, Mr. Ryan, but is your real identity common knowledge amongst your editors and colleagues, or are you genuinely in hiding? Serious question.

  10. Good article and a few thoughts;
    ALL speech should be protected. If socially acceptable speech is the only speech allowed then it doesn’t need to be protected, distasteful speech and even hate speech is what requires and deserves protection.
    As far as the general condition of the world and it’s descent into lunacy, I am reminded of the Biblical warning that at the end of time right will be called wrong and wrong called right and by George I think we have arrived. The return of Christ Jesus is imminent and if you are not his you’re screwed…Was that speech protected?

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