The following speech was delivered by Paul Coleman at the Spiked conference, 'Enemies of the state: religious freedom and the new repression' on 16 November 2016. For more info on the conference and a video of the speech click here.
Let me begin by recalling three pieces of news from the last few days.
In the Netherlands, the politician Geert Wilders is once again being prosecuted for ‘hate speech’. In 2014 Wilders asked a room of supporters if they wanted to have ‘more or fewer Moroccans’ in the country. To the response of ‘fewer’, Wilders replied: ‘We’re going to organise that.’ By way of background, Wilders has been on trial or under criminal investigation for seven out of the last ten years, but yet to be convicted of anything.
Also this week, in Germany, state prosecutors opened a case against Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives and began a criminal investigation into whether Facebook is complying with its legal duty to censure ‘hateful’ Facebook posts. The criminal complaint lists a series of postings which were reported to the company but were not deleted, and as a result, Facebook is now liable under German law.
And in France, French politician and former minister Christine Boutin was convicted of ‘hate speech’ by the Court of Appeals of Paris for a long 2014 magazine interview in which she mentioned her Catholic views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. She was fined several thousand euros, and also instructed to give two thousand euros to a number of LGBT organizations.
Believe it or not, I would consider this a normal few days. Every year, the list of what we are allowed to say gets smaller and smaller and smaller.
The main reason for this shrinking dictionary comes from ‘hate speech’ laws, that is, laws designed to criminally censure speech because the content is deemed by the state to be hateful – or any other synonym we can think of (such as insulting, offensive, degrading, extreme, and so forth.)
All countries have these laws. And they expand in number and in scope every single year.
There are so many problems with hate speech laws – the history of where they’ve come from, their misuse and abuse across Europe, their future trajectory – but I want to focus on just one problem by asking the simple question: ‘What is meant by the term ‘hate’?’
Or put another way, how do we draw the line between unhateful free speech on the one hand and hateful criminal speech on the other hand? Surely this is the bare minimum we should ask for from proponents of hate speech laws, and yet, clear dividing lines are impossible to find.
And the reason it’s impossible to distinguish in any meaningful way between free speech and hate speech is because the concept of hate is entirely subjective and always moving. It is like shifting sand – always adapting and moving with the times, and crucially, at the will and command of those in power.
Imagine this scenario. An opinion you’ve held for years was once promoted as virtuous. You continue holding that opinion. But today it is barely tolerated and you have to be careful who you share your views with. And at some point in the near future it will cross a line and be deemed criminally hateful speech. But you don’t control this process. It’s not like there’s a public list of acceptable and illegal words. And even if there was, you wouldn’t have a say in what goes where.
You didn’t keep up with the times. Your once heralded viewpoint has stayed exactly the same. The wording of the law has stayed exactly the same. And now the police are at the door, investigating a hate crime.
Does that sound implausible? Well, it is exactly what is happening.
Take the issue of marriage. Holding the view that the definition of marriage should be limited to one man and one woman was a given just a few years ago. Anyone holding a different view of marriage was often considered subversive and dangerous. Today the words ‘pro-marriage’ and ‘pro-family’ are considered very narrow-minded, discriminatory, and unenlightened. Maybe even bigoted. And if some people have their way, they will one day cross a line into the criminal realm. It’s pretty obvious where this is going. As an article in the Huffington Post explained a couple of years ago: ‘...sometimes hate speech isn’t direct at all … [the] use of the word ‘family’ and the phrase ‘traditional family values’ is itself a form of hate speech...’.
And as same-sex marriage is being debated in Australia right now, a leading politician said putting the vote to the people was a grave mistake. In her words, it would ‘licence hate speech.’
If you believe marriage is between a man and a woman, your view has stayed the same and at the same time it has moved from normal, to narrow-minded, to hateful, in about the last ten years.
So, back to the question, what is ‘hate’?
Quite simply, it is whatever the state chooses it to be, neither more or less. And by design, it changes all the time without any of us knowing, controlling, or stopping it.
And that makes the concept of hate speech laws such a powerful tool to those in authority – able to be shaped and molded as they see fit.
Right now this is exactly what the British government are trying to do with their Counter Extremism strategy. While giving evidence to a parliamentary sub-committee, a junior home office minister proudly remarked: 'The whole counter extremism strategy has been a strategy for all forms of extremism, future-proofed for future types of extremism that we cannot possibly imagine.'
Legislating for 'extremism that we cannot possibly imagine'. What a terrifying thought. And in a nutshell, everything that’s wrong with the whole concept of policing hate, or extremism, or any other similar concept. Ultimately, none of us are safe.