Art with the ‘courage of thought’ is the best response to ‘hate speech’

Hungarian academic and performer Peter Molnar explains the importance of Gondolatbátorság to his ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues.

In Hungarian, the ‘courage of thought’ translates as ‘Gondolatbátorság’. The word Gondolat means thought and the word bátorság means courage. They have two different roots. For Beni Kállay, who in 1867 was the first person to translate John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty into Hungarian, they were inseparable.

In his long foreword to his translation, Kállay argued that:

“The freedom of thought certainly assumes what I would like to call the courage of thought, what is not about the opinions of others, but about our own opinions…I am not sure, but it seems to me that in our homeland the courage of thought has not yet developed enough to support individual freedom. In our country, it seems, people are far too biased towards their own opinions to brave to doubt them, or to brave to see the weaknesses of their opinions and criticise them.”

The courage of thought is a precondition for any constructive conversation between people who disagree. The wisdom to accept that sometimes we may be wrong is essential in many political communities where deep divisions have prevented meaningful engagement and conversation. Courage of thought is therefore a strength, it is certainly no weakness. It is only through giving conversation a chance that we can understand why other people disagree with us and how we can learn and improve our own ideas.

Courage of thought means listening to the stories of others. In The Ordinary Virtues, Moral Order in a Divided World, Michael Ignatieff noted that “in the community of free citizens there are no enemies, only adversaries”. Meanwhile, in Isaiah Berlin: a life, Ignatieff argued that for Berlin “his conversation is never a performance. It is not his way of putting on a show; it is his way of being in company.”

The ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues are a performance, but a conversational one. The word goes around the globe, with viewpoints like all imaginable colours. Through personal stories expressed in the own words of each performer, it empowers performer and audience members alike. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator explores the lack of voice of African-Americans in the early 20th century. The ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues performs this invisibility through dignified agents. It serves as a platform for self-reflection and Kállay’s concept of the courage of thought through participatory theatre. This courage, the courage to engage in self-reflection, has shaped my work with performance students.

Self-reflection is twofold, it includes reflection on difficult experiences that we may rather try to forget, although we can never forget experiences of being targeted by hatred and discrimination, and reflection on our own prejudices. The cathartic impact of artistic speech speaks also to those who convey hate speech and to those whose hearts and minds are reached by orchestrated hate campaigns. Before we rush to governments to ban such campaigns for repeating hateful words, should we not embrace this powerful artistic form of counter-speech?

In response, the Hungarian government has been putting up posters around the country. According to Noah Buyon, a student of nationalism at CEU, these were “eliciting unfavourable comparison to Nazi-era ‘Laughing Jew’ propaganda”. One of these posters became the above event photo for  the November 2017 performance of the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues.

The photo for the  edition of the London Reader which covered the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues. (Photo by The London Reader) Source:

In 1644, Milton wrote with optimism about truth. “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Yet history shows us that psychologically manipulative hate speech may have an advantage in the fight with rational discourse. As Aryeh Neier wrote, in his review of a book I co-edited on hate speech, “prohibitions…cannot…specify what words are banned…It is very easy for anyone intent on insulting or stigmatising someone on racial or religious grounds to come up with a novel slur that accomplishes that purpose.” As difficult as it sounds, we cannot escape free debate with hatred. In the words of Judith Butler:  “insurrectionary speech becomes the necessary response to injurious language, a risk taken in response to being put at risk, a repetition in language that forces change.”

In The Content and Context of Hate Speech, my main argument was that responses to hate speech starts with art. Artistic counter-speech, like the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues, can trump hate mongering because of the special, cathartic impact of art. The ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues aims to show the simple, yet often invisible truth that all humans are equal, equally free and must be respected as such. This respect starts with listening. As Timothy Garton Ash has noted, “we should make the most informed, imaginative effort of which we are capable to see the matter from the other person’s point of view, and to understand the culturally embedded meanings of terms they use.”

The ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues and the courage of thought must help us realise that we can all be influenced by poisonous ideas. Artistic responses with the courage of thought are our best defence.

Peter Molnar is the inventor and director of the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues. He is a research affiliate on freedom of speech at Central European University, performer, writer, radio host and former member of the Hungarian Parliament.

There will be a live stream of the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues at 7pm on the 21st of November 2017, see further details about the event here. The March 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 episodes of the ‘Hate Speech’ Monologues are also available online.

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    An interesting approach by Peter Molnar. The idea of artistic expression as a tool for the empowerment of marginalised voices has become prominent in aesthetic theory since Brecht, and Ellison’s work did much to promote that view.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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