Why hate speech should not be banned

Restrictions on hate speech are not a means of tackling bigotry but of rebranding often obnoxious ideas or arguments are immoral, argues writer Kenan Malik.

This interview was originally published in The Context and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulations and Responses edited by Peter Molnar.

Peter Molnar: Would you characterise some speech as “hate speech”, and do you think that it is possible to provide a reliable legal definition of “hate speech”?

Kenan Malik: I am not sure that “hate speech” is a particularly useful concept. Much is said and written, of course, that is designed to promote hatred. But it makes little sense to lump it all together in a single category, especially when hatred is such a contested concept.

In a sense, hate speech restriction has become a means not of addressing specific issues about intimidation or incitement, but of enforcing general social regulation. This is why if you look at hate speech laws across the world, there is no consistency about what constitutes hate speech. Britain bans abusive, insulting, and threatening speech. Denmark and Canada ban speech that is insulting and degrading. India and Israel ban speech that hurts religious feelings and incites racial and religious hatred. In Holland, it is a criminal offence deliberately to insult a particular group. Australia prohibits speech that offends, insults, humiliates, or intimidates individuals or groups. Germany bans speech that violates the dignity of, or maliciously degrades or defames, a group. And so on. In each case, the law defines hate speech in a different way.

One response might be to say: Let us define hate speech much more tightly. I think, however, that the problem runs much deeper. Hate speech restriction is a means not of tackling bigotry but of rebranding certain, often obnoxious, ideas or arguments as immoral. It is a way of making certain ideas illegitimate without bothering politically to challenge them. And that is dangerous.

PM: Setting aside legal restrictions, would you differentiate between claims (that target certain groups) that should be challenged in political debate and claims (that also target certain groups) that should be simply rejected as so immoral that they don’t deserve an answer other than the strongest rejection and moral condemnation?

KM: There are certainly claims that are so outrageous that one would not wish to waste one’s time refuting them. If someone were to suggest that all Muslims should be tortured because they are potential terrorists, or that rape is acceptable, then clearly no rational argument will ever change their mind, or that of anyone who accepts such claims.

Much of what we call hate speech consists, however, of claims that may be contemptible but yet are accepted by many as morally defensible. Hence I am wary of the argument that some sentiments are so immoral they can simply be condemned without being contested. First, such blanket condemnations are often a cover for the inability or unwillingness politically to challenge obnoxious sentiments. Second, in challenging obnoxious sentiments, we are not simply challenging those who spout such views; we are also challenging the potential audience for such views. Dismissing obnoxious or hateful views as not worthy of response may not be the best way of engaging with such an audience. Whether or not an obnoxious claim requires a reply depends, therefore, not simply on the nature of the claim itself, but also on the potential audience for that claim.

PM: What do you think about proposals for restricting defamation of religion?

KM: It is as idiotic to imagine that one could defame religion as it is to imagine that one could defame politics or literature. Or that the Bible or the Qur’an should not be criticised or ridiculed in the same way as one might criticise or ridicule The Communist Manifesto or On the Origin of Species or Dante’s Inferno.

A religion is, in part, a set of beliefs – about the world, its origins, and humanity’s place in it – and a set of values that supposedly derive from those beliefs. Those beliefs and values should be treated no differently to any other sets of beliefs, and values that derive from them. I can be hateful of conservatism or communism. It should be open to me to be equally hateful of Islam and Christianity.

Proponents of religious defamation laws suggest that religion is not just a set of beliefs but an identity, and an exceptionally deeply felt one at that. It is true that religions often form deep-seated identities. But, then, so do many other beliefs. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Many racists have an almost visceral attachment to their beliefs. Should I indulge them because their views are so deeply held? And while I do not see my humanism as an identity with a big “I”, I would challenge any Christian or Muslim to demonstrate that my beliefs are less deeply held than theirs.

Freedom of worship – including the freedom of believers to believe as they wish and to preach as they wish – should be protected. Beyond that, religion should have no privileges. Freedom of worship is, in a sense, another form of freedom of expression – the freedom to believe as one likes about the divine and to assemble and enact rituals with respect to those beliefs. You cannot protect freedom of worship, in other words, without protecting freedom of expression. Take, for instance, Geert Wilders’ attempt to outlaw the Qur’an in Holland because it “promotes hatred”. Or the investigation by the British police a few years ago of Iqbal Sacranie, former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, for derogatory comments he made about homosexuality. Both are examples of the way that defence of freedom of religion is inextricably linked with defence of freedom of speech. Or, to put it another way, in both cases, had the authorities been allowed to restrict freedom of expression, it would have had a devastating impact on freedom of worship. That is why the attempt to restrict defamation of religion is, ironically, an attack not just on freedom of speech but on freedom of worship too – and not least because one religion necessarily defames another. Islam denies the divinity of Christ, Christianity refuses to accept the Qur’an as the word of God. Each Holy Book blasphemes against the others.

One of the ironies of the current Muslim campaign for a law against religious defamation is that had such a law existed in the seventh century, Islam itself would never have been born. The creation of the faith was shocking and offensive to the adherents of the pagan religions out of which it grew, and equally so to the two other monotheistic religions of the age, Judaism and Christianity. Had seventh-century versions of today’s religious censors had their way, the twenty-first-century versions may still have been fulminating against offensive speech, but it certainly would not have been Islam that was being offended.

At the heart of the debate about defamation of religion are actually not questions of faith or hatred, but of political power. Demanding that certain things cannot be said, whether in the name of respecting faith or of not offending cultures, is a means of defending the power of those who claim legitimacy in the name of that faith or that culture. It is a means of suppressing dissent, not from outside, but from within. What is often called offence to a community or a faith is actually a debate within that community or faith. In accepting that certain things cannot be said because they are offensive or hateful, those who wish to restrict free speech are simply siding with one side in such debates – and usually the more conservative, reactionary side.

PM: Do you support content-based bans of “hate speech” through the criminal law, or do you instead agree with the American and Hungarian approach, which permits prohibition only of speech that creates imminent danger?

KM: I believe that no speech should be banned solely because of its content; I would distinguish “content-based” regulation from “effects-based” regulation and permit the prohibition only of speech that creates imminent danger. I oppose content-based bans both as a matter of principle and with a mind to the practical impact of such bans. Such laws are wrong in principle because free speech for everyone except bigots is not free speech at all. It is meaningless to defend the right of free expression for people with whose views we agree. The right to free speech only has political bite when we are forced to defend the rights of people with whose views we profoundly disagree.

And in practice, you cannot reduce or eliminate bigotry simply by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. As Milton once put it, to keep out “evil doctrine” by licensing is “like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Park-gate”.

Take Britain. In 1965, Britain prohibited incitement to racial hatred as part of its Race Relations Act. The following decade was probably the most racist in British history. It was the decade of “Paki-bashing”, when racist thugs would seek out Asians to beat up. It was a decade of firebombings, stabbings, and murders. In the early 1980s, I was organising street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist attacks.

Nor were thugs the only problem. Racism was woven into the fabric of public institutions. The police, immigration officials – all were openly racist. In the twenty years between 1969 and 1989, no fewer than thirty-seven blacks and Asians were killed in police custody – almost one every six months. The same number again died in prisons or in hospital custody. When in 1982, cadets at the national police academy were asked to write essays about immigrants, one wrote, “Wogs, nignogs and Pakis come into Britain take up our homes, our jobs and our resources and contribute relatively less to our once glorious country. They are, by nature, unintelligent. And can’t at all be educated sufficiently to live in a civilised society of the Western world”. Another wrote that “all blacks are pains and should be ejected from society”. So much for incitement laws helping create a more tolerant society.

Today, Britain is a very different place. Racism has not disappeared, nor have racist attacks, but the open, vicious, visceral bigotry that disfigured the Britain when I was growing up has largely ebbed away. It has done so not because of laws banning racial hatred but because of broader social changes and because minorities themselves stood up to the bigotry and fought back.

Of course, as the British experience shows, hatred exists not just in speech but also has physical consequences. Is it not important, critics of my view ask, to limit the fomenting of hatred to protect the lives of those who may be attacked? In asking this very question, they are revealing the distinction between speech and action. Saying something is not the same as doing it. But, in these post-ideological, postmodern times, it has become very unfashionable to insist on such a distinction.

In blurring the distinction between speech and action, what is really being blurred is the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility. Because lurking underneath the argument is the idea that people respond like automata to words or images. But people are not like robots. They think and reason and act on their thoughts and reasoning. Words certainly have an impact on the real world, but that impact is mediated through human agency.

Racists are, of course, influenced by racist talk. It is they, however, who bear responsibility for translating racist talk into racist action. Ironically, for all the talk of using free speech responsibly, the real consequence of the demand for censorship is to moderate the responsibility of individuals for their actions.

Having said that, there are clearly circumstances in which there is a direct connection between speech and action, where someone’s words have directly led to someone else taking action. Such incitement should be illegal, but it has to be tightly defined. There has to be both a direct link between speech and action and intent on the part of the speaker for that particular act of violence to be carried out. Incitement to violence in the context of hate speech should be as tightly defined as in ordinary criminal cases. In ordinary criminal cases, incitement is, rightly, difficult legally to prove. The threshold for liability should not be lowered just because hate speech is involved.

PM: How tightly should we define the connection between incitement and the imminent danger of action? What about racist slogans in a soccer stadium, and imminent danger of violence on the crowded streets after the end of the game?

KM: Racist slogans, like any racist speech, should be a moral issue, not a legal one. If supporters are clearly set to attack others, or are directly inciting others to do so, then, of course, it becomes a matter for the law.

PM: What about this example: At the gay pride parade in Budapest, peaceful marchers were attacked. Some onlookers merely shouted homophobic statements; others, no doubt encouraged by the taunting, threw eggs and rocks at the marchers. If the hecklers later stated that they had not intended to incite violence, should they be subject to punishment or liability?

KM: Such questions cannot be answered in the abstract; it depends on the context. I would need to know more factual details than you have provided. If the two groups you mention were independent of each other and happened to turn up at the gay march at the same time, and if the perpetrators of violence would have attacked the marchers anyway, then I don’t see that the non-violent homophobes have a legal case to answer. The non-violent homophobes are no more responsible for the violence of the violent homophobes in those circumstances than peaceful anti-globalisation protestors are responsible for the actions of fellow-protestors who trash Starbucks or set cars alight.

If, on the other hand, there was a relationship between the two groups, or if the one was clearly egging on the other, and if without such encouragement the violent protestors would not have been violent, then, yes, there may well be a case to answer.

PM: What if the two groups of anti-globalisation protestors are not independent from each other, if they belong to the same group, just some/most of them are peacefully shouting slogans, while others are acting violently? Would you draw a line between slogans – uttered without violence – that are hateful and slogans that might be angry but do not incite hatred?

KM: People should have the legal right to shout slogans, even hateful ones, and even though we might morally despise them for doing so. The law should deal with people acting violently, or those that directly incite others to violence. To “incite hatred”, as you put it, should not, of itself, be a criminal offence; the distinction is again between a particular attitude and a particular action.

PM: In that case, suppose the action is not violence but discrimination. That is, should it be only the imminent danger of violence that can justify restriction to speech, or does the imminent danger of discrimination suffice?

KM: I support laws against discrimination in the public sphere. But I absolutely oppose laws against the advocacy of discrimination. Equality is a political concept, and one to which I subscribe. But many people don’t. It is clearly a highly contested concept. Should there be continued Muslim immigration into Europe? Should indigenous workers get priority in social housing? Should gays be allowed to adopt? These are all questions being keenly debated at the moment. I have strong views on all these issues, based on my belief in equality. But it would be absurd to suggest that only people who hold my kind of views should be able to advocate them. I find arguments against Muslim immigration, against equal access to housing, against gay adoptions unpalatable. But I accept that these are legitimate political arguments. A society that outlawed such arguments would, in my mind, be as reactionary as one that banned Muslim immigration or denied gays rights.

PM: But what about advocacy of discrimination that creates imminent danger of discrimination? For example, when members of a minority group would like to enter a restaurant or a bar and someone vehemently tells the security guard at the door that those people should not be allowed in.

KM: An individual who advocates such discrimination may be morally despicable but should not be held to have committed a legal offence. The security guard, however, and the establishment that so discriminates should be answerable to the law.

PM: Do you think that we can find a universal approach to criminal law restriction to incitement to hatred? Or should the regulation depend on the cultural context, and if so, in what way regulation could be different?

KM: I believe that free speech is a universal good and that all human societies best flourish with the greatest extension of free speech. It is often said, for example, even by free-speech advocates, that there is a case for Germany banning Holocaust denial. I don’t accept that. Even in Germany – especially in Germany – what is needed is an open and robust debate on this issue.

PM: Would you suggest the same for Rwanda?

KM: Yes I would. What Rwanda requires is not the suppression of the deep-seated animosities but the ability of people openly to debate their differences. It’s worth adding, given the argument for state regulation of hate speech, that in Rwanda it was the state that promoted the hatred that led to such devastating consequences.

PM: What would imminent danger caused by incitement to hatred mean in such an environment? In other words: Do you think that the legal concept of this imminence of danger can be contextual?

KM: The meaning of “imminent danger” clearly depends upon circumstances. What constitutes imminent danger in, say, London or New York, where there exists a relatively stable, relatively liberal society, and a fairly robust framework of law and order, may be different from what constitutes imminent danger in Kigali or even in Moscow. And the meaning of imminent danger for a Jew in Berlin in 1936 was clearly different from that for a Jew – or a Muslim – in Berlin 2011. At the same time, in those times and in those societies in which particular groups are being made targets of intense hostility, this debate becomes almost irrelevant. In a climate of extreme hatred, as in Rwanda in 1994, or in Germany in the 1930s, it may be easier to incite people into harming others. But in such a climate, the niceties of what legally constitutes “imminent harm” would, and should, be the least of our worries. What would matter would be to confront such hatred and prejudice head on, both politically and physically.

What I am wary of is that in accepting the commonsense view that what constitutes danger is dependent on circumstances, we should not make the concept so elastic as to render it meaningless. Whether in London, New York, Berlin, or Kigali, speech should only be curtailed if such speech directly incites an act that causes or could cause physical harm to others and if individuals are in imminent danger of such harm because of those words. What is contextual is that in different circumstances, different kinds of speech could potentially place individuals in the way of such harm.

PM: Do you think that violent acts committed by hateful motivation deserve stricter punishments?

KM: I accept that intentions are not just morally but also legally relevant, and that different intentions can result in the imposition of different sentences. But when we make a distinction between, say, murder and manslaughter, we are making a distinction based on the kind or degree of harm the perpetrator intended. When it is suggested, however, that a racist murderer should receive a greater punishment than a non-racist murderer, a different kind of distinction is being drawn. The distinction here is not between the degrees of harm intended – in both cases the killer intended to kill – but between the thoughts that were in the minds of the respective killers. The distinction is between someone who might be thinking, “I am going to kill you because I hate you because you looked at me the wrong way” and someone who might be thinking “I am going to kill you because I hate you because you are black”. What is being criminalised here is simply a thought. And I am opposed to the category of thought crimes. Racist thoughts are morally offensive. But they should not be made a criminal offence.

Proponents argue that raising the punishment for hate crimes will (1) protect those who are abused or attacked simply because they belong to a particular group, and (2) send a message about the kind of society we wish to promote. But that is not fundamentally different from the argument for the criminalisation of hate speech. And I am opposed to it for the same reason that I am opposed to the criminalisation of hate speech.

PM: But does it not make a substantial difference that one might be able to avoid being attacked by not looking at her/his potential attackers the wrong way, while one cannot change her/his skin colour?

KM: To the victim, such a distinction is, of course, of little comfort. There is also an implication here that some victims cannot help being victims, while others could, by having behaved differently, have avoided their misfortune. While this is not the same as suggesting that some victims ask to be victims, it is moving in that direction, and we should be careful about how far down this road we go.

The real issue remains the same: Should murderers with racist intent be punished to a greater degree than those with other kinds of malicious intent? I accept that racism is a pernicious social evil that needs specifically to be combated. But I reject the idea that we can, and should, combat racism by outlawing racist thoughts. If you accept, as I do, that thoughts in themselves – even racist thoughts – should not be legally prohibited, then you have to accept that a racist thought that leads to murder should not be seen as legally different from a nonracist thought that leads to murder.

PM: How, in your view, could we improve the social (non-legal) responses to “hate speech”?

KM: The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate, to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilise it to challenge obnoxious, odious, and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.

At the same time, however, we should be clear that what often legitimises bigotry are the arguments not of the bigots but of mainstream politicians and intellectuals who denounce bigotry and yet accept bigoted claims. Throughout Europe, mainstream politicians have denounced the rise of the far right. And throughout Europe, mainstream politicians have adapted to far-right arguments, clamping down on immigration, pursuing anti-Muslim measures, and so on. They have sometimes even adopted the language. In his first speech at the Labour Party conference after gaining the top office, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked of ensuring “British jobs for British workers”, a slogan first popularised by the neofascist National Front. The National Front had twinned it with a second slogan: “Three million blacks. Three million unemployed. Kick the blacks out”. Gordon Brown was, of course, not guilty of hate speech. But his use of that phrase probably did far more to promote xenophobic sentiment than any amount of “hate speech” by far-right bigots. Challenging bigotry requires us to challenge the mainstream ideas that give it sustenance, and to campaign against those discriminatory social practices and laws that help make the arguments of the racists, the sexists, and the homophobes more acceptable.

PM: Do you think that banning “hate speech” undermines, or at least weakens, the legitimacy of a democracy?

KM: Free speech and democracy are intimately linked. Without free speech there is no democracy. That is why any restriction on speech must be kept to the absolute minimum.

There are two ways in which banning hate speech undermines democracy. First, democracy can only work if every citizen believes that their voice counts. That however outlandish, outrageous, or obnoxious one’s belief may be, they nevertheless have the right to express it and to try to win support for it. When people feel they no longer possess that right, then democracy itself suffers, as does the legitimacy of those in power.

Not just the banning of hate speech but the very categorization of an argument or a sentiment as “hate speech” can be problematic for the democratic process. I am in no doubt that some speech is designed to promote hatred. And I accept that certain arguments – like the direct incitement of violence – should indeed be unlawful. But the category “hate speech” has come to function quite differently from prohibitions on incitement to violence. It has become a means of rebranding obnoxious political arguments as immoral and so beyond the boundaries of accepted reasonable debate. It makes certain sentiments illegitimate, thereby disenfranchising those who hold such views.

And this brings me to the second point as to why the banning of hate speech undermines democracy. Branding an opinion as “hate speech” does not simply disenfranchise those holding such a view; it also absolves the rest of us of the responsibility of politically challenging it. Where once we might have challenged obnoxious or hateful sentiments politically, today we are more likely simply to seek to outlaw them.

In 2007, James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, claimed of Africans that their “intelligence is not the same as ours” and that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior. He was rightly condemned for his arguments. But most of those who condemned him did not bother challenging the arguments, empirically or politically. They simply insisted that it is morally unacceptable to imagine that blacks are intellectually inferior. Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission studied the remarks to see if it could bring any legal action. London’s Science Museum, at which Watson was to have delivered a lecture, canceled his appearance, claiming that the Nobel Laureate had “gone beyond the point of acceptable debate”. New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, of which Watson was director, not only disowned Watson’s remarks but forced him eventually to resign.

I fundamentally disagree with Watson. Indeed I have written more than one book challenging such ideas, and have many times publicly debated their supporters. But I also think that it was as legitimate for Watson to have expressed his opinion as it is for me to express mine, even if I believe his assertion was factually wrong, morally suspect, and politically offensive. Simply to dismiss Watson’s claim as beyond the bounds of reasonable debate is to refuse to confront the actual arguments, to decline to engage with an idea that clearly has considerable purchase, and therefore to do disservice to democracy.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. You can read the original interview on his blog Pandaemonium

Peter Molnar is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Media and Communications Studies at the Central European University and the editor of The Context and Context of Hate Speech. 

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Comments (15)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. I agree with due to these reasons:
    Speech, the most prominent form of communication, should people be able to control such a precious commodity? To that, many would cry nay though I believe, in some regards, that restrictions must exist. In Australia, this is currently a situation up for debate. Australia’s freedom of speech is also restricted by certain things such as defamation, bullying, hate speech, obscenity and other related issues. Many people say that Australians doesn’t have enough freedom of speech. This of course, is a blatant lie. There is plenty of freedom of speech. A topic under much discussion is the possible revoking of the Racial Discrimination Act 18C. The Racial Discrimination Act 18C causes it to be illegal to offend/insult/humiliate/intimidate another person due to their race or ethnic origin unless done in private. Many argue that it provides too many barriers. Much of the laws limiting our freedom of speech is to protect different races, ethnic groups, etc. These laws cut down racial insults in Australia and why would anyone have that as a negative on their list and not only that, but these laws also cut down on many other sneaky tactics companies would use such as defamation. Most problems have been blown out of proportion by the media. What would people even do if 18C was removed? Is it revenge you would do it for such as senator David Leyonhjelm who lodged a complaint alleging he had been a target of conduct that breached 18C? Why do people like Cory Bernadii (Liberal senator) and David Leyonhjelm (senator) want it changed so much? People like Dr Aly (Labour MP Anne Aly) are asking the right questions of what are we allowing them to say that they can’t say now, especially if many people in parliament believe Australia’s people are not racist though it is right of Malcom Turnbull (Prime Minister) to be a tad apprehensive, careful and supportive of both sides. Changing a law requires much thinking but why would we take away a protection of ours? These things help us from being flooded from what the huge majority would call ‘bad things’ and why would anyone view a defense like this negatively. If someone were planning to do these things, they’d be labelled as a jerk or menace to society so why would we want to be rid of these laws.

    First up, these laws protect different ethnic, groups races, etc. These laws stop racism, bullying and other such things which can improve the mental health of people. These laws also help to show that the people afflicted by racial bullying are protected. This offers support to them which everyone needs. These laws also don’t take minor cases and that would mean that if a person fell under fire from this act, they would’ve done something relatively unpleasant. If you really have an insatiable need to be racist, don’t shout it in the streets, keep it private.

    Another argument to bring up is how the acts can lower the amount of people who do this. Any sane person would not want to be perceived or conduct himself in a manner intimidating/offensive through racist means. By adding a punishment to these things, the amount of perpetrators will decrease. Would you agree that a racist man is a good man? Would you be racist publicly merely because you could after the removal of 18C?

    My final argument on 18C is why would anyone who wants it removed, wants it removed? This act protects many people and stops others from being offensive or intimidating based on someone’s race or ethnic group. The charges are minimal and a very small amount of cases are acted on as most cases are resolved through conciliation. Much interest has just been stoked by the media (Such as the Andrew Bolts case). How many people wish to be openly racist? Why do you want to take away the defense of many? Just so you may berate them? It makes very little sense on why we want to remove this act. If you honestly want a better world, why would you remove this act?

    Another argument based on another restriction of speech is defamation. Though I won’t be able to cover things such as obscenity, I will be covering defamation. Defamation is illegal and some would argue that it restricts our freedom of speech. I say defamation is necessary to stop companies spouting off with silly ploys and tactics. Making defamation illegal helps keep the market fair and makes it a lot better for customers, which entails everyone, to be able to locate what is fact and fiction. This following case shows the power of defamation: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/corona-urine-rumor-court-case .
    As many people would know now, many restrictions on our speech are necessary and should not be removed.

    These arguments clearly show that these acts regarding the restriction of our freedom of speech are crucial and should not be revoked unless an improved version of the act would take its place. Currently, the world is a harsh and mean place. Many people out there target people based on their ethnic group or race. Many companies are not thinking morally. This is certainly not a place to revoke certain protections. Don’t be a racist and please think morally, it’s one of the few, if not, only things that differ us from mere machines.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Thank you for the very interesting interview and for the comments. We most certainly need to discuss this topic in order to be able to decide whether the free speech we want to have includes all points of view being heard, not only those that are morally acceptable in our world, or not.

    I definitely agree that if we are going to have freedom of speech then everybody, even those who have highly immoral opinions, should have the possibility to get their opinions heard. Of course as citizens of a society, and of a very global one nowadays, we have to take the responsibility and make sure that these hate speeches, or other equally offending and immoral views, stay so and nothing else.

    For instance, I may not agree with the person sitting next to me who openly expresses racist opinions but I should hear him out because he has the right to freedom of speech, just as anyone else. But then I should be able to argument, to make him aware of how immortal his statements are. And not only I but all of us should be educated and knowledgable about what is moral and not.

    And if I will not be able to convince him, which is highly likely, then we should be able to go on our separate ways and accept that we have got different opinions. We may not accept the opinions themselves, but the mutual right we’ve got to express them. This is what I believe having freedom of speech means.

    However all of this gets so much more complicated, and perhaps serves to be the strongest argument against people being able to express immoral views, when such hate opinions transforms into action. Because if somebody goes around shouting out loud racist, or other equally offensive opinions without being restricted, chances are that some other people, most likely with little education regarding these matters, may start to listen to that person and in their strong belief start conducting violence or other active forms of misconduct towards people of different skin colour than that of their own.

    This is why we should exercise caution when letting everyone to speak up their mind. It is not because not everyone should have this right but simply because of the consequences some of the opinions may have if taken to action.

    Therefore I would suggest that we should try to implement more education about human rights and about respect to people who differ from us in terms of background, culture and opinions in order to make more people knowledgeable about these highly controversial issues. I believe that most people who express such offensive opinions usually know very little about the people they offend in question and thus if we promoted knowledge then maybe instances of expressing offensive opinions will decrease and consequently we will be able to live in a society with less harassment, mutual understanding and equality.

  3. I greatly enjoyed this interview, and agree with many of the arguments made in it.
    However, I do feel like there is a part that is missing. With every right comes responsibility. Without it, a right is meaningless. If you have the right to vote you have the responsibility of voting for who best represents you, or to run yourself. If you have the right to education you have the responsibility to study. If you have the right to healthcare, you have the responsibility of trying to stay healthy.
    The arguments and examples laid out in this interview have convinced me that freedom of speech should also cover ideas that many of us find repulsive. However, with this right, comes the responsibility of the consequences, foreseen or unforseen.
    Perhaps we could even go a step further, can we expect people to have informed opinions? If you say immigrants are bad for the economy, you should have (non bias) data to back that up. A condition like this could at least require people, even those with the most extreme views, to have arguments. This is an essential first step towards discussion.

    ps: as a response to carola chiarpenello, even though I like your argumentation, I feel like most of your points are countered in the interview. One thing that I would like to add:
    “freedom of speech is not universal, but it is relatively universal, within a given society, where its members share a homogenous understanding of what is accepted as freedom.”
    This is something I fully disagree with, many of us currently live in multicultural societies, with several subgroups who have a very different set of values and norms. Even if this wouldn’t be the case, this approach would make intercultural debate almost impossible.

  4. I think if the people want the real freedom of speech, they should be prepared to listen and disgusting things, in another way it is “a freedom of a speech which I like to hear”

  5. Well i think it should not be banned because people should have freedom of speech,whatever its hate or not.Sometimes you need to use hate speech to really point something out,or else people could just ignore you.This way you get alot more attention.

  6. A greast comparison between politics and religion, like it very much!

  7. If hate speech is used somewhere in strikes, I think, it is ok just to show what the strike is for. But when the discussion starts – everything should be with mutual respect. The aim of each strike is to improve, not deteriorate. So people should show their opinion but should be ready to be diplomatic during their further actions.

  8. Hate speech is important to get the truth out there. Everyone is entitled to free speech, and quality of life. Quality of life can best be achieved if told how to improve it, whether be it through hate speech or not.

  9. Freedom of speech cannot be universal in the world we are living, because inequality generates hatred. A brilliant example can be drawn from the role of hate media during the Rwanda genocide. RLTM played on a democratic alibi, defending its action with the freedom of expression, impeding the international community from jamming the station and preventing the genocide . The media, especially the radio (Radio Rwanda, RTLM) and newspapers (Kangura) are guilty of having fomented and regulated the genocide. The autonomy of the Tutsi minority has been violated to a supreme level leading to their annihilation. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that freedom of speech cannot be universal and cannot be used as an alibi to perpetuate mass atrocities. For this reason we have to go back on the principle of relative universality in order to produce a sound argument.
    Besides, if we consider the case study of the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad by Jyllands-Posten, we will perceive how universality is hardly achievable . From a European perspective freedom of speech is theoretically absolute: each individual has the right to freely express his opinion, despite it may become offensive towards the target of the critique. On the other hand in the Islamic culture, there are still taboos and traditions, which limit a total freedom of expression. This does not mean that Islam is a totalitarian religion, but instead it has to be viewed as an alternative model to the western one. Terrorism is often perceived as an ultimate attempt from the subaltern, which uses violence because words have not been eared. It is a direct response to inequality and it demonstrates how inequality foments hatred. Conversely, in the West, the fear of the unknown and dangerous evil other has lead to stereotyping, which soak media and the satire, par excellence the symbol of western freedom of expression.
    In order to come to a conclusion, freedom of speech is not universal, but it is relatively universal, within a given society, where its members share a homogenous understanding of what is accepted as freedom. Besides, Human Rights are not dogmatic and normative, instead they are a tool to maximize personal autonomy, which is the necessary condition to achieve the “real-self”. Additionally, Human Rights are not universal because they are an answer to the imperfections of the current international system, characterized by a deep-rooted inequality. In fact, if the system would be overcame by a new “resource based” system, not based on limited resources (such as petrol, gas etc.), people would not need Human Rights anymore, because they will have enough resources to fulfill their needs and achieve autonomy. Despite the system sounds utopian, it is scientifically proved that the international system could be converted to an unlimited resource model thanks to technology, where money will disappear and with it violence and hatred . Consequently, humans would be free from the threats of capitalism and would have the resources to achieve their potentials, without preventing third party from achieving theirs.

    • Danke für den Beitrag, Bravo.

      Sie haben geschrieben: “it is scientifically proved that the international system could be converted to an unlimited resource model thanks to technology”.
      Können Sie dafür eine Quelle angeben?

      • Works Cited

        1. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights.” UN News Center. UN, 1948. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. .
        2. Adina Schwartz. “Against Universality.” The Journal of Philosophy 78.3 (1981): 127-43. Jstor. Journal of Philosophy, Inc., Mar. 1981. Web. .
        3. Asmita Naik. “Freedom of Expression.” Hrea. Human Rights Education Associates, 2003. Web. .
        4. Shweder, Richard A., Martha Minow, and Hazel Markus. “Chapter 20, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Silence: An Analysis of Talking as a Cultural Practice.” Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002. 432-48. Print.
        5. Donnelly, Jack. “The Relative Universality of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 29.2 (2007): 281-306. Print.Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2007.0016
        6. Sturges, P. “Limits to Freedom of Expression? Considerations Arising from the Danish Cartoons Affair.” IFLA Journal 32.3 (2006): 181-88. Print.
        7. Rosaldo, Michelle Z. “The Things We Do with Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.” Language in Society 11.02 (1982): 203-37. Print.
        8. Dr. Peter Drahos, University of London, Herchel Smith Senior Fellow. “THE UNIVERSALITY OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS: ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT.” Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, Queen Mary and Westfield College: 1-36. Print.
        9. Donnelly, In The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (01 January 1999), pp. 60-87
        10. Renteln, Alison Dundes. “The Unanswered Challenges of Relativism and the Consequences for Human Rights.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Human Rights Quarterly 7.4 (1985): 514-40. Print.
        11. Nurullah Yamali. “General Directorate of International Laws and Foreign Affairs.” Ministry of Justice, Turkey: 1-14. Print.
        12. “Zeitgeist Addendum.” 301 Moved. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. .

      • http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7308171700962325804
        Zeistgeist Addendum 🙂 at the beginning it is a bit slow… go to the middle and it starts talking about it….
        there are other videos and they also have a website 🙂

  10. I don’t agree with Mr Kenan Mal when he puts together, and nearly on the same level, religion, politics and literature. Not at all! There is much difference among them. The first two, religion and politics, like them or not, they have a great impact on our lives, they tell us how to live! It’s not the case with literature. In other words, no one could oblige me to read this or that book, and anyway I can always choose my reading, but it’s not so with religion and politics.

    • I don’t understand your point at all Francis. I have re-read Kenan Malik’s piece to look for the point that you are refuting, but cannot find it. I do agree with you that sometimes in some places people have made use of the power structures around religion and politics to force their ideas on others, and that authors of books have only the power of their words, yes. But I don’t think Malik is arguing against that. Have another look, and let me know what I missed.

  11. Thank you so much for publishing this interview to Kenan Malik. This is the first time I’ve heard of Kenan Malik, who is virtually unknown in Spain except, maybe, in closed academic quarters! Thank you once again for this chance of enlarging knowledge and sharing such inspiring points of 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. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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