The offense takers are running their radar overtime these days to pick up the slightest trace of ‘hate’ speech. And they never seem to fail in locating a blip on their screens. Of course, there is a very large and nasty problem with all this; who defines hate? Are we simply to subject ourselves to every little micro-group of victims and allow them to call whatever happens to give them offense, hate? That, it seems to me, is an unsolvable problem.
If we are going to discuss anything that actually matters, anything meaningful, there will always be differences. And sometimes those differences will be significant, challenging and, yes, offensive. After all, differences can be very hard on people. So, what do we do? Stop talking about things that matter? That is exactly what is happening. Not giving offense is becoming a high virtue. And along with not giving offense comes not discussing anything meaningful. Living in a state of limpid harmlessness, having been shouted into silence by the victim mob seems like a high price to pay to me.
You and I have no right to live in an offense-free society. If you want such an environment, stay in your room, become a hermit or the leader of a totalitarian regime. Hitler, Stalin and Mao had very clear ideas about what constituted hate speech – everything that gave them offense. The very people you would least want to define offensive speech held the reigns in their hands. And that is precisely the temptation of all totalitarian\utopian models; they appear to be one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems. But they are not. They are cures far worse than the disease. And if that’s the club you want to join, God help you – and the rest of us.
A free and open society must bear the weight of free and open discourse, even very, very offensive, distasteful discourse. Which means, quite simply, you and your micro-group do not get to define hate speech and push the rest of us underground, because you can’t. You are in no position to give an ultimate definition to hate speech and neither am I. Instead, we should permit what we consider to be offensive speech and let society as whole pass judgment as to whether or not it is acceptable. This is not a great solution because we don’t have great solutions. But the alternatives are far, far worse. And they are unfolding all around us.