State-sanctioned hate

One of the most curious things about 21st-century Europe is that it presents itself as anti-hate, and continually lectures us about how awful hatred is, and yet at the same time it feels like a very hateful place. And even more curious is that much of this hatefulness, much of the new and quite ugly disdain for whole swathes of people, comes from the very individuals who claim to be anti-hate. In fact it is sometimes sanctioned, implicitly at least, by these people who claim to be opposed to hate speech and who support hate-speech laws. They clamp down on hatred in one breath, yet express hatred in the next.

So we have this really contradictory situation today. A situation where pretty much every EU commissioner, politician, official and member of the media and education establishments claims to hate hatred and to want to stamp out hatred — and yet this anti-hatred ideology coexists with the rise of Twittermobs that say the most hateful things about people who have unpopular views; and with a new, casually expressed disgust for rednecks or the white working classes or Christians; and with a really ugly intolerance of people who have eccentric or just old-fashioned views. Modern, liberal Europe is against hatred, and yet it fosters hatred. I find this fascinating, and revealing.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. Over the past week alone, literally this past week, I have read what I consider to be hateful articles about working-class football fans, about old people, and about Labour voters. I have read an article describing football fans as “mindless” and “medieval”, as “unwashed and backward”, as lacking any semblance of “individual conscience”. I have read an article describing old people in the most disgusting way: as simple-minded, racist, parochial, physically incapable and utterly uncaring about future generations; as devoid of feeling, and devoid of rationalism. And I have read an article raging against a whole section of society — the poorer, white people who vote Labour — as rude, prejudiced, “impervious” to rational information, and as all having “crap jobs”. And these articles have appeared in mainstream publications that would normally rail against hate speech: the Guardian, the Evening Standard and Vice, which I know thinks it isn’t mainstream, but it is: it’s the angry little brother to the Guardian.

What’s interesting is that these same sentiments and comments, if expressed in a different context, and in relation to different groups of people, would unquestionably be called hate speech. They might even become matters of police investigation. Imagine if someone described people who follow basketball, many of whom are black, as unwashed, unclean, animalistic. Imagine if immigrants were described as simple-minded and impervious to factual information. Imagine if Muslims, people who follow Allah rather than the England football team, were called mindless or medieval. Imagine the uproar. In those cases, it would be hate speech; but when the targets are the elderly, or white workers, or football fans, it isn’t hate speech. The very people who bristle at what they call “hate speech” frequently engage in what we could quite realistically describe as hateful speech.

You see this all the time these days — people who claim to be anti-hate being hateful. Media feminists who myopically police hate speech against women will casually say the most demeaning things about working-class women who make decisions they don’t like. They call Page 3 girls “fodder”. They say some women suffer from “internalised misogyny”. That is, they have been brainwashed by culture and no longer know what is in their own best interests. They’re children. A classic sexist idea. The people who are most concerned about Islamophobia will happily ridicule Christians. They have invented a whole host of censorious terms to chastise criticism of Islam, from Islamophobia to hijabphobia: an irrational fear of the veil, apparently. Yet they mock Christians and even support state investigations of Christians for expressing their religious views, on homosexuality, for example. The people who are most disgusted by racism against black people will think nothing of speaking about “White People” as an undifferentiated, unintelligent, uncaring mass of people.

In the US, the very people who are in a panic about Donald Trump and his allegedly hate speech-spouting followers will say the most awful things about the poor and Southerners and people who aren’t like them. In recent years mainstream liberal commentary in the US has said that poor Republican voters use the irrational, lizard side to their brains; it has called them knuckle-draggers; it has continually called into question their capacity for rational thought. All the things that were said about black people in more racist eras — that their brains are different to ours and they lack the ability to rationalise — are now said by liberals about rednecks. The liberals who say Trump is engaging in hate speech against Muslims and Mexicans will happily, and uncontroversially, engage in hateful speech towards dumb whites, white trash, Christians, and so on. The critics of hate spout hate when it suits them.

This weird, contradictory situation was really summed up for me at a debate on Charlie Hebdo in LA that I attended earlier this year. One of the speakers was this super liberal, very popular Californian cartoonist. He said he despises Charlie Hebdo because it is hateful against less powerful people: Muslims. He said he wasn’t sure that Charlie Hebdo deserves freedom of speech. The audience nodded in agreement. Later on, he displayed one of his cartoons caricaturing Southerners who are opposed to gay marriage. He had drawn them as fat, ugly creatures, with tombstone teeth and hairy arms, almost as animals, as gorillas: it was reminiscent of how black people were caricatured in the past. The audience laughed. So here we had people agreeing that hatred of Islam is bad and then engaging in collective mocking, a two-minute hate, against poor Christian communities who are opposed to gay marriage. They were anti-hate and hateful at the same time.

This coexistence among the liberal elites of anti-hate and hate, of a war on hate speech alongside the promotion of hate speech, is very revealing. What it tells us, I think, is that today’s hate-speech codes and laws and clampdowns are not really about outlawing hatred; rather, they are about policing politics, policing ideology, policing passion, policing emotion itself. Under the guise of tackling hatred, the political classes are really seeking to punish ideas or views they find difficult or wrong or overly confrontational or just plain uncomfortable. They are implicitly communicating hatred for ways of thinking and ways of life they don’t like.

This slippage from clamping down on hate to punishing moral or political beliefs can be seen all the time these days. In his book ‘Censored’, Paul Coleman details very well the use of hate-speech laws to punish unfashionable moral convictions. There was the Swedish Christian pastor given a one-month suspended prison sentence for describing homosexuality as a tumour on society. That is, for expressing his genuinely held moral belief. There’s Brigitte Bardot, fined 30,000 Euros for describing the Islamic ritual slaughter of animals as barbaric and disgusting: again, her deeply held belief. Recently in Britain, a church was visited by the police for displaying a poster warning of the end of the world and the punishment of sinners. It was considered offensive, hateful; even core Christian beliefs can be redefined as hate and face investigation.

Hate-speech laws punish belief. They sanction disdain and disgust for certain outlooks, and for the people who hold them. In the very process of telling us what or who we may not hate — minority belief systems, vulnerable groups, the less powerful, and so on — hate-speech laws also tell us, by implication, what and who we may hate. They do not outlaw hate — they police hate; they differentiate between good hate and bad hate; they sanction hate. They tell us, in essence, that we may hate the hateful, we may be intolerant of the intolerant, we may be disgusted by the disgusting. And of course, what is hateful, and what is intolerant, is defined by them. It is strong-minded Christians, traditionalists, the old, the poor, the old-fashioned, the questioners of new moral orthodoxies — they are hateful, so you may hate them. Hate-speech controls do not end hate — they redirect it; they green-light it; they create it, in new, dangerous ways.

This is why we should demand the dismantling of every hate-speech law. First because they explicitly undermine the freedom of speech of those who have unfashionable views. And secondly because they implicitly give the nod to hatred, to the expression of contempt and even to the harassment of those judged to be morally unacceptable. If you value freedom and dislike hatefulness, you should rail against all of today’s hate-speech controls, for they are one of the greatest causes of hatred in the 21st century.

This is a speech I gave at the October Gallery in London on 15 June 2016.

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