What is Hate Speech and How Should We Respond?

Hate SpeechI noticed the other day that Facebook had a feature where you could submit whether or not a post was considered hate speech. I was not surprised as hate speech is a real concern in our culture. While I am not in favour of hate speech, I do have some concerns about how it is dealt with.

Although there is plenty of emotion against hate speech, I’m not sure there has been enough reflection on the exact nature of hate speech. Is hate speech any communication that is critical of an identifiable group? Is hate speech anything that could possible offend an individual or a group?

Another question to be asked concerns the groups that can be the victims of hate speech. Many people would say that criticism of the LGBTQ community would be hate speech. Much fewer would consider criticism of fundamentalist Christians to be hate speech. I’m not suggesting that people should speak hateful things of LGBTQ (I don’t think they should) but I wonder who is it that determines which groups can be criticized and which cannot?

Then there is the nature of hate speech. At what point does a comment move from being acceptable criticism to becoming hate speech? In a previous generation, that line was speech that called for violence against a group. I would say that today, it would take much less to be considered hate speech.

I don’t have any easy answers to offer on this difficult topic. But I can offer some personal thoughts. I am a Christian. I often encounter people online who are hostile toward Christianity. Not just that they disagree with Christian beliefs but that Christianity is dangerous and should come to an end. I hear some claiming that religion in general is a form of mental illness. Richard Dawkins encourages his fellow atheists to mock religious believers.

How do I respond to this? I obviously disagree. But I also respect their right to express their beliefs, even if they speak disparagingly against my beliefs. I believe a world in which people have the right to publicly criticize my Christian faith is better than a world in which that freedom is suppressed.

This isn’t just about religion. I have two children on the severe end of the autism spectrum. They are both considered to be developmentally delayed. I hate it when I hear people use the terms “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or an action that is stupid. I find it offensive. But I also believe that people have the right to speak that way. I would prefer that they chose not to use that language rather than being forced to use more appropriate language.

How do we as a society balance the freedom of expression and our desire to protect people from hate speech? I think we need more conversation in this area before we are quick to censor people we disagree with.

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