Sticks and Stones will break my bones, and words will often hurt me

As we begin a new year, I want to talk about freedom of speech and hate speech.

Hate speech is a topic which is frequently debated in Australia, and no doubt, around the world.

For the record, let me concede that all sides can venture compelling and persuasive arguments.

In fact, one of the best books on the subject, and which demonstrates the complexity of this issue is: The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses edited by Michael Herz and Peter Molnar.

There are those who are adamant that our ability to say what is on our mind must never be restricted or regulated by any laws.

They argue that curbing or defining hate speech immediately infringes on our democratic right to free speech.

What is not often spoken about is the huge toll that hate speech takes on its victims.

Let’s be clear, the aim of hate speech and vilification is to wilfully promote, stir up and generate hatred against one or more groups, usually minorities, and ethnic communities.

When bias-motivated speech is allowed a free reign, this slow-acting poison robs the intended victims of their dignity and sense of security.

Be it against Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, women and the LGBTI community, it creates a climate of intolerance and prejudice.

Reflect on the wise words of David Matas:

“Hate speech is incitement to violence; it’s the groundwork for genocide. Although all human rights are equal and indivisible, if we were to rank human rights, the right to life must come first. A person who is dead cannot exercise any other human right. If we ask what has led to the mass killings of this past century, the answer, above all, has to be hate speech. Auschwitz was built with words. The killing fields of Cambodia were sown with slogans. The genocide of Rwanda was spread by radio. Bosnia was ethnically cleansed by television.”

One argument often put forward is that the marketplace of ideas will take care of bigoted and hateful rhetoric because there is enough space for counterpoints and ideas.

Problem is that the devastating harm has already been done and no amount of counter-arguments will remedy the victim’s real fear, ordeal and grief.

Simply sitting back and saying, “Suck it up and learn to live with it” is not the way to go.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to live in.

Do we want to live in a society where vulnerable groups are protected by law from hate speech that threatens their safety and rights?

Do we want to live in a society where everyone is accorded respect and equality, and can go about their daily lives without facing a verbal onslaught that expresses racism, wanton hostility, contempt, and discrimination?

Do we want to live in a country where the weak can take comfort in knowing that when they are explicitly demonized, abused, stigmatised, denigrated and dehumanized because of their skin colour, sexual orientation, religious, national or ethnic orientation, the legal system will come to their aid?

Do we want to be part of a community that assures vulnerable minorities that they and their families can walk the streets and live their lives free from deliberate and unreasonable humiliation, knowing that they truly belong here, and that they will not be emotionally and mentally scarred by unbridled, toxic hate-filled expression?

Or do we want to live in a country that is a haven for hate-speech dissemination, where our children’s minds are polluted by bigoted and racist speech such as anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that destroys the very fabric of tolerance, diversity and mutual respect our co-existence is founded upon?

On any analysis, hate speech devalues and injures human beings.

It says that that minorities or anyone different do not have the right to live among others.

It shuts them out.

It brands them as undesirable.

And it’s just plain dangerous.

The FBI has drawn a direct link between vilification and crimes when it stated several years ago that “groups that preach hatred and intolerance plant the seeds of terrorism here in our country”.

And in its 2011 Law Enforcement Report the FBI noted that a hate group that is not stopped will inevitably commit violent hate crimes.

If history has taught us one lesson is that bigots at first preach their warped falsehoods, and in time, act on them.

Verbal violence and physical violence are intimately connected, one preceding the other.

Hate speech justifies bullying, beatings and murder.

So maybe it’s time to think about the rights of the victims.

Those who advocate absolute freedom of speech usually cite the USA as a place where free speech is almost absolute.

Yes, the USA is the odd country out.

Even so, in 1952, the Supreme Court held that group libel—when you attack the dignity of a group—is illegal.

And 12 years ago it ruled that speech aimed at intimidating, such as cross burning, might not receive First Amendment protection.

I recently learned that  according to Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be prohibited by law.

Most western-liberal democracies have some kind of hate-speech regulation. There is a recognition that this kind of speech causes real trauma and suffering that is long lasting and is enormously damaging.

The message we must send to young people is that intimidating and insulting anyone because of their race, religion, gender, sexual preference or ethnic orientation is unacceptable.

And that names, not just stick and stones, can hurt.

About the Author
Dr. Dvir Abramovich is Director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at The University of Melbourne and the Israel Kipen Senior Lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He is also Chairman of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission. He served as President of Australian Association of Jewish studies and editor of the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies. A widely sought out speaker and media commentator, he has authored and edited three books and numerous articles.