Web Essays

Right Does Not Make It Right

How we keep free speech from becoming hate speech

By Amitai Etzioni | September 29, 2015
Garry Knight/Flickr
Garry Knight/Flickr


Donald Trump is an exception: usually we do not tolerate public figures who are half as offensive as he is. He stands out—for now—because there are segments of the public who are so sick and tired of phony politicians and scripted posturing that they cheer even a foul mouth as long as he is “authentic.” Trump meets this criterion in spades: he talks like the vulgar egomaniac that he is.

Trump’s pass is not extended to many others in public life. Think of sports figures who use the N-word. Or those entertainers whose lyrics demean women. And what about the Bud Light label that called its product “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” or the sports commentator on ESPN who said during a failed Senate campaign that homosexuals “are going to have to answer to the Lord for their actions”? Such people and companies are free to air these abusive words, but they face storms of protest, and the consequences that follow.

A crucial difference exists between the right to say the most awful things—to use the N-word, deny the Holocaust, advocate for the Islamic State—and the rightness of saying these things. It is the difference between a constitutional right to free speech and what we consider morally appropriate speech. All of us are not only citizens, with a whole array of rights, but also members of various communities made up of people with whom we reside, work, play, pray, take civic action, and socialize. These communities, in effect, tell us that if we must engage in offensive speech—which, granted, is our right—we must understand that one or more of these communities to which we belong might in turn express its dismay. Members of these communities might even decide to have nothing more to do with us, much less lend a hand in a time of need. Nothing in the First Amendment promises that free speech will be cost free.

As a society, we Americans have found a way to have our cake and eat it too. We make room for unpopular speech, which is vital for a free society, for dissent, for innovation, and for a vigorous civic life. But we also seek to exact consequences for offensive speech. Call it a balance between individual rights and social responsibility. For example, when Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, suggested that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences somehow reflected their shortcomings, a storm of protest ensued. He argued that he was misunderstood and tried to make amends, but in the end the outcry contributed to his resignation from the job. Journalist Chris Hedges was disinvited from giving a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, after publishing an article arguing that the strategy of the Islamic State—its terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and religious fundamentalism—“mirrors the quest for a Jewish state eventually carved out of Palestine in 1948.” The Philadelphia Eagles fined player Riley Cooper for using a racial slur at a concert and suspended referee Roy Ellison for cursing at a player during a football game.

For every public figure that society chastises, thousands of the rest of us respond by thinking: I know I have the right to say it, but is it the right thing to say? Which is as it should be, because free speech is at its best when it is deliberate, not when it involves shooting from the hip. Nobody is arguing that we have found the perfect balance. But in the examples cited above, the mainstream media seem to keep most public figures in check most of the time. When people do offend, they hear plenty in the public sphere, which is the way society keeps the balance between the right to speak and the community’s right not to have its sensibilities undermined.

Reflecting a profound societal design

Recognizing this balance is crucial for the understanding of a deep social structure often overlooked by those who focus on the difference between the private sector and the government, as so much public discourse does. To outline this structure, which I call communitarian, requires a brief digression into human nature. I first wrote about it years ago in a book whose thesis was that there are only three ways to motivate people to engage in behavior that they would not engage in otherwise: force them (threaten to tow their car if they park in the hospital fire lane); pay them (as they are paid on the job); or convince them of the merit of doing what must be done (encourage them to volunteer). People who are coerced often resent the imposition and tend to do as little as they can get away with. Those who are paid would often rather be doing something else. However, people who are persuaded will do their new chores happily; they want to do them! True, they may not be pure altruists. They often heed the voice of the community because they are social creatures who crave the approval of others and try to avoid their disapproval. What most people overlook is the huge amount of social business that is carried out in this third way: the community sets norms of conduct that define what we are expected to do, and undergirds them by little else but a stream of kudos and appreciative remarks as well as mild digs and snide responses. Thus, most of what people do for their children, their elders, their friends and neighbors, and for their community, is neither coerced nor paid for but fueled by communal norms and informal social controls.

Prohibition offers a prime example: largely coercive, it failed to achieve its goals and seriously damaged our law enforcement system and even our societal fiber. In contrast, the ban on smoking in public spaces, presmised on the knowledge that smoking harms others and should be prohibited, is almost entirely self-enforcing. Based on norms and informal social controls, it is a smashing success.

Social pressure can become oppressive, especially in traditional societies and traditional parts of our own society, but it has become increasingly moderate in modern societies. The writer Jonathan Rauch calls this moderate phenomenon “soft communitarianism.” He writes that it is “less oppressive, usually much less so, than the real-world alternatives. … Shame is valuable not because it is pleasant or fair or good but because it is the least onerous of all means of social regulation, and because social regulation is inevitable.”

Not soft censorship 

When faced with the community’s voice, free speech advocates sometimes complain, calling it soft censorship or outright censorship. For example, some users of the social media site Reddit wanted its CEO fired for censorship after five forums (out of thousands) were deleted for racial or other forms of harassment. Facebook has been criticized and even sued for censorship because it bans users who display pictures of women’s breasts and genitalia. Twitter was criticized for introducing content filters and temporary account suspensions for abusive messages and “indirect threats of violence,” in what one user said “can only be described as heavy-handed censorship.” And in response to a Harris Poll showing that 71 percent of Americans want a ratings system for books to protect children from inappropriate content, like those that exist for movies and games, free speech campaigners likewise argued that such a proposal would “raise serious concerns about censorship.”

These champions of free speech, unwittingly or deliberately, use the horror that the term censorship evokes to object to social reactions to offensive speech. They would like people to be able to say outrageous things and be appreciated for doing so. But in the process, they are delegitimizing social pressure, which is the foundation of all communities. Censorship takes place when the government exercises its coercive powers to prevent speech by jailing dissenters, closing newspapers, taking over TV stations, and so on. Social pressure merely ensures that before you speak you ask yourself whether what you have to say justifies the hurt it will cause, often to people who have already been hurt plenty.

Consider whether the following engage in censorship: a bookstore that refuses to sell Mein Kampf, a symphony orchestra that won’t play Wagner, a cinema that refuses to show Gone with the Wind, a library that will not include Fifty Shades of Grey, a video hosting site that bans “hateful content,” a comedy club or television channel that won’t present an offensive comedian, a film studio that refuses to work with Mel Gibson, or an online retailer that refuses to sell Confederate flag merchandise. They can be accused of censorship only if they truly prevent speech. Free speech requires that everyone have a Hyde Park corner, a place where one can freely state whatever he or she wishes—but not that every corner be a Hyde Park. If Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all the bookstores in town, and the publishers of e-books refused to carry a given book, that would come close to censorship, even if the government was not involved. But this is hardly ever the case, especially with the advent of social media, which provide so many alternative platforms that it is hard to stop any utterance.

Ban hate speech?

What about the notion that we should outlaw hate speech? Most democracies do. And we already ban some speech: libel, for example, and child pornography. The main difficulty is defining hate speech without banning much of public discourse and art and literature. People have for decades been asking whether Huckleberry Finn should be banned because it includes the N-word. Some educators see the book as required reading, and critics consider it one of the seminal books of American literature. But others argue that the teaching of a book with racist language is unacceptable. The list of authors who have been challenged by or actually excluded from libraries includes not only purveyors of hate or even dirty language, but also George Orwell (pro-communist), Walt Whitman (homoerotic themes), and Charles Darwin (theory of evolution). Moreover, if you ban hate speech, you do very little to eradicate it; you just drive it underground. We are better off being aware of when, where, and by whom hate speech is made, and then reacting to it, rather than leaving it simmering and unaddressed. And from a communitarian viewpoint, banning hate speech is trying to solve a problem by law instead of drawing on the community’s informal social control.

Microaggressions and “Check your privilege”

Informal social controls can be taken too far, as is the case with the campaign against “microaggressions.” This term, coined in the 1970s, refers to “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership,” whether as “people of color, women, [or] lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT)” people, as one study quoted in the Society for Humanistic Psychology newsletter defined it. Microagressions have also been referred to as “subtle forms of racial bias” that are “so deeply embedded in societal values and practices that they lie outside the consciousness of many well-intentioned White people who may genuinely consider themselves to be nonracist.” Note you cannot be microaggressive against white males by this widely followed definition; they are aggressors but cannot be aggrieved. That is, white males cannot repent, do good, and have their rights restored and expect to be treated with dignity.

Those concerned with microaggression frown on such statements as “All lives matter,” “There is only one race, the human race,” “America is a melting pot,” and “When I look at you, I don’t see color” for “denying the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience” and sending the message that they should “assimilate to the dominant culture.” Similarly, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” is interpreted as promoting a myth of meritocracy and suggesting that women and people of color are not competent. Likewise, scrutinizing a 30-something woman’s hand for a wedding band is interpreted as a microaggression communicating that women should be married during their child-bearing years because that is their primary purpose. And asking a nonwhite person where he is from is interpreted as microaggressively suggesting he is exotic or not a “true American.” A guide to “Interrupting Microaggressions” recommends responding to such questions by asking, “I’m wondering what message this is sending […] Do you think you would have said this to a white male?” or “How might we examine our implicit bias to ensure that gender plays no part in this?”

I had the following exchange with a microaggression antagonist. I started by noting that I understood concerns about hidden, subtle aggressions, though it bothered me that one is defenseless against a charge of microaggression because “you are unaware of your bias” and others must determine whether I am aggressive. Furthermore, I said, there is no way to appeal such judgments. The line “check your privilege” seemed to me to particularly cross a line. This expression is increasingly used online and on college campuses to demand that a speaker consider the unearned advantages that result from race or gender before expressing an opinion on an issue. It basically implies that white males should mince their words, listen rather than talk.

The antagonist suggested that “one should know where one is coming from.” I replied, “That is true for one and all … but this is not the way this line is used; it addresses one group only and seeks to curb it.”

Antagonist: “Well, if there is a space set aside for say Latinos to find their voice, and white males keep occupying the space with their voices …” I agreed that this was indeed an open and shut case of robbery. But when whites speak in a common place, say a classroom, and their views are dismissed as biased on the face of it, we are taking social pressures a step or more too far.

College kids are not the only ones concerned about microaggressions. Some years back I was asked to address the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. To learn about the group, I spent some days sitting in on meetings and listening. I was surprised to hear that several local chapters had resolved that any straight white person who did not acknowledge that he or she had racist and homophobic feelings should be encouraged to dig deeper. One could not start on a journey of exorcising these feelings unless one first acknowledged that one had them. I have a hard time with such statements. Whatever you feel or say–whether you accept the allegation that you are profoundly biased or refuse to own up to your alleged feelings—is considered prima facie evidence that your view is profoundly warped.

I have since learned that you can never be too much on your guard. Thus, to reveal and overcome homophobic feelings, for instance, is far from enough. A truly sensitive person would acknowledge that he is “transphobic” and be aware that he maintains different biases not just for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, but also for people of mixed genders or no gender. On your way to curing your phobias and freeing yourself from hidden biases, I am told, you should avoid the titles of Mr., Mrs., and Ms. and instead use MX. And so on and on.

In short, the movement to overcome microaggressions is part naïve idealism, part slightly disguised anti-elite rhetoric, part theater of the absurd. Above all, it draws energy to micro issues in a world full of macro ones. It leads people to worry about wording in a world in which the Islamic State burns people alive, beheads them because they are Christians, and sells young girls as sex slaves. A world in which—still!—black men in the United States are shot by the police without any reason. In which gang warfare turn blocks of cities into war zones, year after year after year. And in which Citizens United is turning democracy into plutocracy—one dollar, one vote—by ruling that bribery is a form of free speech.

An old children’s rhyme says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If words do hurt you, you have a right to speak up, but see if you cannot find some sticks and stones whose removal commands much greater attention.

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