Destroying the possibility of criticism is the death of liberty.
Editor’s Note – This essay was originally published at the American Mind on April 5, 2021.
The Left wants to ban “hate speech” using the powerful national institutions they now govern. They do not hide this intention but say so openly. Powerful tools—like Big Tech, a nearly unified press, and the national security state—give speech restrictionists the impression that this goal can and should be pursued. But exactly what kind of speech do they want to ban, and exactly how would this ban transform America?
“Hate speech,” on the surface, seems to mean racial epithets, slurs, or Holocaust denial. But such speech has already disappeared from America’s public square. There is no “hate speech” in any recognizable form anywhere in America outside of the bowels of the Internet or in rap music. If anything, America’s public square is governed by exactly the opposite tendency: corporate, media, educational, and social powers fiercely punish such utterances. The N-word is the only word in the English language which is forbidden from being uttered. And yet, calls to ban “hate speech” only increase.
The American Left is not interested in or concerned about racial epithets. In reality, “hate speech” is the words, thoughts, and judgments of the oppressor group, which marginalized groups claim harms their self-respect. The oppressor group, in virtually every case, is whites—especially white males, though white women also are carriers of “whiteness,” the original sin.
Banning or criminalizing hate speech means silencing the speech of oppressor groups, while amplifying the speech of marginalized groups. The marginalized must be able to speak against, calumniate and malign the alleged oppressors and their institutions, for their self-respect comes to depend entirely on this. It is not only permissible, but required to state that the “greatest terrorist threat in this country is white men.” Every single sector of society amplifies such sentiments in varying degrees.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Protecting the self-respect of the marginalized requires banning certain facts. As explained by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, professors of law at the University of Alabama Law School and leading advocates of speech criminalization, factual speech that calls into question a marginalized group’s self-respect is “deplorable” and constitutes “hate speech.”
For instance, all statistically supported analysis of how inadequately the recipients of affirmative action are prepared for higher education relative to their peers should be banned—no matter how true. This extends to any number of issues that threaten the self-respect of the marginalized, like speaking of factual disparities in crime rates. Other leading advocates of speech criminalization, like Mari Matsuda of the University of Hawaii Law School, maintain that “racist” scientific findings, even if true, may well fall within “the doctrinal space for regulation.” One sees this conflict already underway between medical doctors and transgender activists.
Furthermore, since the marginalized have been denied an identity, this theory goes, they must create one. This means that they must mythologize themselves—for their own sake, and for the sake of the oppressors’ respect for them. Thus emerge claims that all of history was male patriarchal oppression over women; or that America was founded on the principle of the preservation of slavery as described in the New York Times 1619 Project; or that most of America’s scientific and economic progress was made by people of color. These myths cannot be convincingly perpetuated without silencing the oppressor group’s judgements, questions, and doubts, no matter how sensible or factual.
Banning criticism, of course, does not produce self-respect. In a pluralist society, the prospect of criticism establishes certain civilizational standards. Yet preventing the defense or enforcement of such standards has become a major goal of restrictionists. A striking recent example was provided by the Smithsonian’s taxpayer-funded African American History Museum. Its website featured an infographic, now deleted, that identified tools of white supremacy such as “objective, rational linear thinking,” “following rigid time schedules,” “plan[ning] for the future,” “be[ing] polite,” working hard, and the nuclear family. In other words, criticizing fatherlessness, rudeness, irrational thinking, sloth and/or incompetence would be “hate speech.”
All healthy societies maintain moral and behavioral standards. But undermining such standards in oppressor minds, so that the marginalized are not held to them, is the goal. Since scientific discoveries, bridge building, flying planes, commercial success, and enforcing the rule of law all depend on competence and “objective, rational linear thinking,” one wonders how quickly these American achievements will stall once allegedly “white supremacist” standards are viewed as hateful and legally or informally banned.
The Narrative Regime
To further lionize marginalized groups, dominant cultural images must be reshaped. According to Delgado and Stefancic, during the civil rights era, the marginalized were spoken of “respectfully,” portrayed as “unfortunate victims” and “brave warriors.” Today, society must regain these images—both for the self-respect of the marginalized and as a form of psychological warfare against the oppressor. The latter must be made to view the former as “decent,” “good,” “nice,” “precious,” and “worthy of respect.” All of society’s images should depict the marginalized as heroic, while portraying the oppressors as either irrelevant or outright harmful. Every Disney movie, comic book, sitcom, commercial, textbook should follow this model—and basically already does. At bottom, the oppressors’ mind must belong to the marginalized.
Free speech is essential for a republican people’s political deliberation about the issues that concern it. “Hate speech” regulation makes self-rule impossible. Essential political discussions are removed from the political sphere. Public debate about immigration, the nature of biological sex, defense of traditional family structures, or the black crime rate must end, because they all harm the self-respect of the marginalized. Even serious discussions of apparently race-neutral subjects like budgets, taxes, and zoning policy—standard governmental functions—would be stopped. Academics write that seemingly “race-neutral [political] campaign themes” like welfare policy “carry demonstrably racially loaded undertones.”
The project of limiting the range of permissible speech and thought requires several preconditions, some of which are already halfway in place. The nation’s main press and educational organs are already largely unified behind the premises, while attacking and harming any objectors. Yet people can still form independent judgements when they have access to alternative information. Thus, the next step requires elimination of those sources. Just under 90% of the world’s Internet searches go through Google; a recently leaked document revealed that Google is interested in manipulating its search so that the results reflect the restrictionists’ moral worldview. “Imagine that a Google image query for CEOs shows predominantly men,” muses an internal memo. “Even if it were a factually accurate representation of the world, it would still be algorithmic unfairness.”
America’s security state is becoming the most powerful element of this vast censorship apparatus. The FBI, National Counter Terrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security recently declared as a new goal plans to “detect, prevent, preempt” the thoughts and actions of U.S. citizens engaged in “conspiracy theories” about, among other things, “corrupt ‘global elites’ and ‘deep state.’” U.S. citizens engaged in such speech may now be labeled “Domestic Violent Extremists.” Moreover, former commander of force in Afghanistan, and now president of the Brookings Institution, John Allen, stated that “we must fight violent, hateful ideologies at home.” This includes what he calls “white-nationalist ideologies and organizations”—for it is their “disinformation” that causes “polarization.” A government which prevents criticisms of itself and polices speech is either already a tyranny or is becoming one.
Your Mind is Not Your Own
Lest Americans think that the courts will save them, there are at least two ways the Left can use current law to ban “hate speech.” The first is rooted in civil rights law. As has been elaborated by authors like Christopher Caldwell and Thomas Powers, federal interference on the grounds of discrimination has and will continue to expand into the sphere of speech—for once discrimination no longer exists in public accommodations, housing, or employment, the last frontier is oppressors’ minds.
The second avenue originates in the Supreme Court’s definition of “dignity.” If “dignity,” as former Justice Anthony Kennedy argued in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), means the capacity to choose one’s own identity coupled with the corresponding demand that others recognize this identity, then speaking (even indirectly) against a protected identity could constitute “hate speech.” Both avenues will likely be pursued in the coming years.
The attempt to ban “hate speech” will destroy what remains of political liberty in America. Attempts will be made to replace it with a caste-based ideological tyranny whose actual purpose is vengeance against the oppressor group. Its goal will be entering the inner recesses of the mind to root out and punish impurity, which will deploy the powers of Big Tech, anti-discrimination laws, and the security state to do so. This will mark the decline of America’s economic prosperity, scientific progress, and political liberty.
Freedom of speech plays a central role in forming the habits of character necessary for republican government. Through it, citizens develop the habit of speaking and thinking freely about all matters of public concern. In doing so, they are trained in forming sound judgements. As such, citizens are capable of skepticism about romantic, revolutionary, and impossible undertakings to which democracies are often vulnerable.
Perhaps most importantly, freedom of speech cultivates in citizens the mental habit of persuading fellow citizens through reason. This habit, correspondingly, cultivates an openness to being persuaded by reason. The opposite of persuasion is force. Persuading one’s fellow citizens rather than compelling them becomes the primary mode of political interaction. As such, the strong, natural passions of pride and anger are moderated by the demand to speak rationally, to persuade others, and to defend one’s views, rather than act on violent impulse. The end of freedom of speech is the beginning of barbarism.