I think you should defend to the death their right to march,
and then go down and meet them with baseball bats.
Woody Allen, on the Ku Klux Klan
Recently I stumbled upon a video interview and an article both dealing with the same subject: Should bigots have a right to speak openly about their prejudices, or should so-called hate-speech be prohibited?
I assume people who argue against so-called hate speech think that:
- speech can easily transfer into action, here likely violent crimes against the victims of so-called hate speech,
- prohibiting it sends a strong message about what is accepted in this society, and what is not,
- if it is prohibited then it is not shown, and thus it might die out after a while, and
- unless it is prohibited, bigots will get the more followers.
Personally, I think that this is a rather naive view.
1. speech-to-action: Sure, thoughts can end up in action, there’s a whole therapeutic branch of psychology trying to influence human behavior with nothing but words (that change cognitions that change behavior). But there’s a wide gap between words and actions. Calls for violence, that’s a different issue. But stating one’s prejudices is not a call for violence.
2. formation of norms: It’s not only one message that is send — here the society does not tolerate prejudice. Another message is that there are topics which cannot be discussed, and which should be tolerated as being beyond discussion. Accepting that there are topics that may not be discussed sets a dangerous precedent for dealing with future problems. It might seem like an easy solution to deal with controversies, no matter how consequential they are, but the consequences for critical thinking are devastating.
3. dying out if not publicly shown: Personally, I do not think that prejudices die out when it is prohibited to show them. That’s a bit like arguing that society is safe because crime is illegal. It will not stop people from being bigots. Prejudices will they will fester. If it is prohibited to show them publicly, they will be shown privately. It will spread in private and while it looks like there is no problem, below the surface resentment brews that might turn into a powder keg. If a person can express bigoted views publicly, then there is a chance to identify these bigots and address the issue.
4. bigots gaining more followers: In contrast to hiding bigoted views in private, stating them publicly allows for others to challenge these views. It also allows others to avoid these bigots, because you now know who they are. It also allows you to see which people are drawn to these bigots and might allow you to find ways to stop this development.
So, I think that bigots should have every right to show their prejudices. With one caveat, calls for violence should be prohibited. Then it stops being the personal “conviction” of a person and enters the criminal territory.
But acknowledging that bigoted views exist — which does not mean agreeing to them — requires the willingness to tolerate conflict in public. The social harmony crowd rather likes to cover possible — and needed — sources of conflict with a blanket of silence and prefers to ignore that something might fester and grow below.
But conflict is not always bad — open conflict that is. Open conflict can lead to discussion and to an improvement of the views of all who are involved. Even if this does not happen, because people have made public commitments to the positions they propose, it can inform the middle ground. Yes, some will adopt bigoted ideas, which will show those members of society who have a problem with these views that they have to improve their arguments. But I think the balance will be positive for reducing prejudice.
People not only need to know that it is wrong to show prejudices against other groups, but also why it is wrong. Unless we want to have a society where people act without reflecting about what they do — because “It’s the moral thing to do.” — we need this open discussion. We need a free marketplace of ideas. We need to be able to discuss any issue.
But all this hinges on having good discussions, which includes
- The freedom to discuss any topic, even outraging and bigoted ones (discussed in the present posting),
- via well-reasoned arguments and disagreement (also this posting regarding agreement),
- on a level playing field, and
- with Open Outcomes.
I have already discussed the first two, the other two are something for the next posting.