The Harm in Hate Speech, continued.

Jeremy Waldron elaborates for skeptical New York Times readers on what he means by ‘dignity’, and how hate speech attacks it:

[W]hat I have in mind when I talk about dignity is this — a person’s basic social status, his or her being treated as an ordinary member of society in good standing, his or her being included in the ordinary business of society. A person’s dignity is damaged, then, when he or she is publicly defamed or dehumanized, or when he or she is perceived as belonging to a group all of whose members are defamed or dehumanized. In parts of Miami some restaurant signs used to say, “Jews and dogs not welcome here.” A legal prohibition on such signs would be aimed at securing the inclusiveness of the social environment against such attempts to undermine it.

The libertarians plough on in volume regardless:

Gee… can anyone imagine how wonderful a society would look like if the state had the authority to intervine whenever anyone felt offended or unhappy?

John Paul Stevens explained why such criticisms are misplaced the other week:

Waldron distinguishes between protecting people from offense and protecting their dignity. The example of contemptuous conduct in open court illustrates his distinction. We do not punish the contempt—at least we do not acknowledge doing so—because the judge may be angered by an insulting remark or gesture, but rather to maintain decorum in the courtroom. Sustaining a judge’s authority assists her in performing her job. So it is with the dignity of the ordinary citizen. The fact that members of an ethnic minority may be justifiably outraged by hate speech is not a sufficient justification for censorship. But as citizens in a civil society, they are entitled to be treated with respect in the performance of their daily activities. Such dignity, Waldron argues, is “precisely what hate speech laws are designed to protect.”

Previous posts from me on Waldron’s new book here and here.


3 thoughts on “The Harm in Hate Speech, continued.

  1. It would be interesting to see the inferred remainder of that libertarian argument rendered literally… “A society in which we were prevented from offending each other would be bad because…”

    The only ending to that sentence I can imagine which isn’t really crap is “because the nature of offence is subjective and it would be impossible to do this well without restricting speech acts which are net ‘good'”.

    The very limited damage that’s actually describing significantly weakens, for me, the strength of the argument against the prohibition of hate speech – the damage caused by which is much more significant.

  2. Stevens’ analogy is hardly as persuasive as you seem to think it is. So the public space is now to be analogised with, and even converted to, the artificial space of a courtroom with all it’s strange – and not always necessary – protocols? I’m a lawyer, and even I don’t think that’s the road to a good society. I’m flummoxed why a non-lawyer would think that’s a good idea. It is good for lawyers though – more work for us . . .

    There might be a bigger issue here, in that I notice that often philosophers these days lack confidence in their own tradition and discipline (I’m aware there’s a whole literature in philosophy about this) and increasingly look to law for guidance in morality, when I would have thought it should be the other way around (and historically was). But, that’s just my impression, as a professional lawyer with an amateur (?) interest in philosophy.

    Now, back to my Sunday fire-side reading of Locke and Spinoza on these issues – I trust them more than I trust Stevens on this topic . . .

    • Hi Rilkeman,

      I think the analogy works if you are in any way attracted to the ending premise: “citizens are entitled to be treated with respect in the performance of their daily activities.” If that’s an axiom that appeals to you in precisely the same way something like “citizens are entitled to freedom of thought” does, the idea – that both courts and society need regulating rules to establish an hospitable atmosphere, which does *not* leave us prosecuting any and all contingent feelings of offence – the idea is clear, no?

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