So What’s Wrong With Hate Speech Laws?

Benjamin Bull

1/18/2013 12:01:00 AM - Benjamin Bull

Any serious discussion of “hate speech” laws should start with a consideration of George Orwell’s prophetic look into the future—specifically the book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Recall that in Orwell’s book, Big Brother sought to control not only all thoughts but also to language used to form thoughts. To that end, he created the language of “Newspeak,” described as “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.”

In a separate essay, Orwell explained that Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar.

In the book, this suits the totalitarian regime of the “Party,” whose aim is to make any alternative thinking a “thoughtcrime” or, in the language of Newspeak, a “crimethink.”

The language of Newspeak removes any words or possible word constructs which describe the ideas of independent thinking, freedom, rebellion, disagreement, or unapproved values. The underlying intent of Newspeak, of course, is that if something can’t be said—because the words have been criminalized, banned, or no longer exist—then it is hugely more difficult to think.

There are many lessons to be drawn from Orwell here. Law itself represents society’s standard of conduct, defining acceptable from unacceptable behaviour. The end goal of any criminal law is the elimination of certain specified behaviour. If this is the case—as we know it is—what can we make of a law that bans the mere utterance of certain words.

For those comfortable with this, the ever-expanding use of “hate speech” laws is no cause for alarm. But let me pose a few questions.

Having opened the Pandora’s Box of hate speech laws, and in light of the endless supply of unwanted, stupid, and obnoxious ideas and speech, why not expand these laws to eliminate any speech the state deems bad for society? Having legitimized the banning of certain “dangerous” or “hurtful” words—where do we as a society stop?

Orwell once famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This sentence, I think, sums up the essence of free speech in a truly free society. He and others believed that without the freedom to offend, free speech and free thoughts cannot exist.

Ideas are indeed sometimes dangerous things, especially ideas that seek to challenge or even change the current status quo or existing orthodoxy. Indeed, is there really any point in having certain protections for freedom of speech if there is only freedom to express the most popular or current politically correct ideas and opinions?

The punishing of speech and the expression of certain offensive ideas is a classic slippery slope.

It starts so disarmingly with baby-steps, then gradually gains speed, and in time, gives birth to a society where free speech is no longer free and people whisper words they believe are true for fear of punishment or retaliation. I suggest that unless strong voices are heard—and heard loudly—we may very well usher in a new era of state-enforced censorship, and darkness.