Is a love of freedom of speech synonymous with a “love” of hate speech?
Contentious and current issues affecting personal liberty and creative freedom were examined when English PEN created a forum for a lively and thought provoking discussion at the British Library. The organisation’s President, Lisa Appignanesi, chaired the event and spoke for Germaine Greer, who due to the extreme weather conditions was unable to make the event. Fellow writers and Human Rights campaigners Salil Tripathi and Peter Tatchell joined her, as well as director Rex Bloomstein, whose film An Independent Mind was screened after the talk.
Central to the debate was determining what constituted as an incitement to harm others, and whether restricting freedom of speech could be justified merely with hindsight of its consequences, or only with actual evidence of harm. Peter Tatchell spoke about his campaign against Buju Banton’s violently homophobic lyrics, and stated that when their and similar bands’ radio time decreased, so did the amount of attacks on lesbian, gay and transgendered people in the Caribbean.
He also stressed that many of the rights we enjoy today are due to those who expressed dissenting ideas, and that our progress could come under threat if rights of expression were restricted. In the current political climate Tatchell pointed out that supporters of Nelson Mandela and the ANC would be imprisoned.
Tatchell went on to raise the conundrum of whether the freedom of speech which enabled the rise to power of the Nazi Party in pre WWII Germany, should have been quashed. Rex Bloomstein responded that this hypothetical situation depended on hindsight, but pointed out worldwide evidence of how “words can kill” as well as isolate minority society groups. Research within this field has led Bloomstein to see how a state’s lawlessness is allowed by a people’s silence, enforced or otherwise. He added that valuing freedom of speech means giving equal platforms to all, even “loathed people”, so that they can “defend themselves”. By interviewing controversial characters such as David Irving, their expression allows us to explore and better understand society. Bloomstein maintained that though we need to be sensitive to insulting religions, continual analysis and constructive criticism must be done or “we are in trouble”. All the speakers raised worries and concerns over the growing climate of fear and anxiety that is leading to increased feelings of self-censorship both in public institutions and amongst individuals.
Salil Tripathi agreed with Bloomstein in not wanting to see hate speech outlawed, but made the point that hate speech was often one of many reasons for violence. Though he stated that radios stations in Rwanda transmitted continual messages of incitement to violence, this was a contributing factor but not the sole cause of genocide. Tripathi pointed out that the ease of outlawing voices that encourage hate, as oppose to dealing with other issues in society, must not overshadow the importance of having plurality of voice. All panellists debated where the moral authority for acts of violence should lie on the continuum between the words of hate and the crime itself. Tripathi stressed the importance of convicting those who commit actual crimes and saw hate speech as crucial to understanding where such crimes emanated from. He did not want equally important crimes to be overlooked through a focus on hate speech.
Germaine Greer’s in absentia response to “who loves hate speech” continued the panel’s thoughts on how silence is one of society’s greatest enemies, and that to “muzzle hatred increases hatred”. She stated that when freedom of speech is denied, those who are silenced are lead to use violence against others and themselves. In doing so, their protest and point of view disappear in their destruction. This was exemplified by her narration of how the silencing and suppression of Australia’s Aborigine population has lead to the community having one of the highest suicide rates in the world for men. This demonstrated and was symbolic to a certain extent of many nomadic peoples from all over the world who are being overwhelmed by silence, and whose languages are being lost so that we do not hear their language of hate. Greer spoke of how we needed to be told “how they hate us” for there to be any hope of future respect and mutual love.
The panel was in agreement that listening to hate speech rather than silencing it is essential for building up a constructive dialogue, with Appignanesi adding that we should be “free to offend”. She concluded that hate speech should not be barred by law but that we should be able to debate in society what is acceptable. In cases where violence was not incited, tolerance and discussion was to be chosen over censorship. It was decided that free speech is so vital that hate speech needs to be tolerated, though perhaps not loved.
Report by Laila Sumpton
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/wholoveshatespeech/