And Then They Came For Me

8 Min Read

Abrar Fahyaz

As defined by Britannica: Hate speech is expression that denigrates a person or persons on the basis of (alleged) membership in a social group, identified by attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or mental disability, and others. Needless to say, this act is a heinous one. Its detrimental effects can range from depression to lifelong psychological trauma. And due to this sinister nature of hate speech, we are left with a rather problematic question: What do we do about it?

On the surface, it’s awfully simple: Enact laws prohibiting it. But when it comes to enacting said laws, we run into the huge problem of epistemology. You see, a large number of western states already have laws against hate crime. These laws, though differing from each other on specific topics, are all based on the same concept: To censure the licentiousness is to maintain the liberty of the press. And thus a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly vend them as cordials.

Dangerous ideas will remain within criminal minds and they will not be spread to the masses. And on top of that, these ensure that nobody will have the right to insult others based on arbitrary differences such as race or religion, and at the same time, will make sure their liberty is not infringed upon.

They seem to follow the philosophy of Karl Popper, that as ironic as it may seem, some level of speech must necessarily be banned in order for a society to truly be free. That a society must maintain a median path between absolute freedom and censorship to actually be a good, functioning society. But as flawless as this sentiment may feel, it possesses a fundamental defect which has to do with epistemology.

In order to censor hate speech, the authority has to at first identify what they consider to be hate speech, and due to its subjective nature, there lies no clear answer to this question. This results in vagueness or rather broad statements, which in the wrong hands can easily be abused. There can be little doubt that what the scholar Susan Benesch calls “dangerous speech” has contributed to atrocities, and even genocide, in places including Rwanda, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. But outside narrow categories of speech that may incite violence, it is difficult to define hate speech without affecting political speech or targeting specific groups.

And this is the fundamental defect, the lack of boundaries which ascertain what is and isn’t hate speech. Though there lies no reason to doubt that these laws were enacted for the greater good, due to their incredibly malleable nature, things are bound to go wrong. And they are already showing their face.

The Antonio Foundation in Germany is an organisation which receives funding from the government to censor the internet from what they define as hate speech, and due to their anti-right wing stance, it has led to the arrests of numerous bloggers who criticised left-wing policies. A clear violation of freedom of speech. 

Again, in 2017, the renowned news agency CNN coerced an apology from a reddit user after he made a joke insulting the US President — the agency did so citing hate crime policies. In Australia, a YouTube channel named “JuiceMedia” was condemned for criticising the Australian government, using satire under the “Genuine Satire” bill, which dictated what could and what could not be ridiculed. 

Not mentioning the strict guidelines undertaken by Facebook, YouTube, and other large platforms to effectively censor certain ideologies which they concluded to be dangerous. One could go on and on listing such abuses of the freedom of speech, veiled under the protection of hate speech laws.

One might argue that these ideas that we’re censoring are indeed dangerous, and I couldn’t agree more. The ideologies these corporations are trying to erase are inhumane, totalitarian ideas, but we must not forget one thing: The nations which had adopted these base ideologies cited this very same reason when they censored anti-communist and anti-fascist works in their respective nations, stating that they are dangerous for the people.

And if we allow ourselves to go down the same path that those we so denounce and despise had taken, then what makes us any different from them? We should never forget that the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy during WWII, had both come to power via a democracy. And they had initially shown the very same reasons we show today to support their demented policies which infringed upon the rights of the people.

We should and must fight hate crime. But any attempt at legislating laws enforcing what cannot be stated, creates a clear and present danger for freedom of expression. The highly uncertain gains of such a repressive approach are likely to be severely outweighed by the unintended consequences.

Journalists, activists, dissidents, and minorities may well end up paying a steeper price than racists, islamophobes, and hatemongers. Free speech can sometimes be ugly and hurtful, and even irreversibly damaging in some cases. But it is an evil coming out of a much greater good. And without a robust protection of free speech, the world is likely to be less safe, tolerant, and free.

It is perhaps best to end with a quotation by Niemöller, a defecting member of one of the political parties that had gone down this path:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” 


*The writer’s opinion does not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.     

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