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Shut up, they say

Let's get the most important point out of the way first--the very concept of "hate speech" is more dangerous than any of the speech that might be classified as such.

As offensive as certain racist and bigoted speech might be, the growing leftist call to prohibit it threatens the foundational principle upon which the American project is built--individual liberty, including that crucial component thereof called freedom of speech and expression. The purported cure (prohibition of hate speech) is vastly worse than the disease (the content and alleged effects of such speech).

A pernicious argument is made that we must retreat from our commitment to free speech because "vulnerable" groups must be shielded from its effects, as if they are delicate flowers that need tending. This attitude is more offensive than anything racists might actually say, containing as it does assumptions of minority and gender inferiority and thus the need for special protections and insulation.

Liberals who seek to suppress speech that "people of color" might conceivably be offended by thereby end up inflicting more damage to the self-image and self-respect of people of color than anyone wearing a white sheet with a pointy hat can.

The hate-speech concept, and the pressures it is now placing upon the principle of free speech, flows logically from the antecedent notion of "hate crimes," the pernicious idea that someone's political views should be taken into consideration when sentencing them for violations of the law. Within this context, the movement to prohibit certain forms of noxious speech represents a further extension of efforts to entrench political correctness in our legal codes at the expense of individual liberty.

Lost in all of this tends to be the crucial questions regarding proposed prohibitions on offensive speech, even casual consideration of which should be discrediting--who defines it and on what basis?

There are few more dangerous ideas than that the government should get to define what constitutes unacceptable speech and then prosecute those who utter or write things that might meet that inevitably hazy definition. Indeed, we have that thing called the First Amendment precisely to prevent such a governmental role.

What might constitute hate speech is also entirely in the eye of the beholder, a purely subjective conception that can be narrowed or expanded to prohibit any ideas particular people or groups might not like. Efforts to prohibit it would progressively constrict public discourse by granting a veto to anyone who objects to anything someone else might say or write.

As the most hypersensitive among us are granted such veto power, self-censorship (the "chilling effect") spreads and uncertainty over what can and can't be safely said grows accordingly, with freedom of expression diminished in both practice and principle.

Those claiming we must balance free-speech rights with protection from noxious speech for certain groups forget that we all have a constitutional right to free speech but no one has a right not to be offended (nor would it be logically possible to construct such a right, even if we wanted to, given that the only evidence of a speech crime would be the claim that something someone said "hurt my feelings").

On college campuses, where the movement to ban hate speech is predictably most energetic, the suppression of conservative ideas is based on the conflation of hate speech and conservatism. Dare, for instance, to criticize racial preferences, question any aspect of global warming theory, or resist any of the demands of the LGBT community and you can be accused of hate speech. Defending individual liberty or capitalism as an economic system or the glories of western civilization can also put you in the dock.

Even supporting the idea of free speech has come to be viewed as a form of hate speech in many such places.

It is not difficult to see where all this leads, and why American college campuses are becoming perhaps the most totalitarian places on earth outside of Pyongyang. And it is, of course, but a tiny step from redefining non-leftist ideas as hate speech to actively coercing speech on behalf of the latest radical left enthusiasms (which invariably depend for acceptance upon limiting scrutiny and criticism).

As hard as it might be to believe, there was once a time when the "absolutist" position toward freedom of speech now denounced by leftists was proudly embraced by all good liberals, often in sharp contrast to moralistic conservatives seeking to suppress "immoral" content (like pornography), religious heresies (like the teaching of evolution), and subversive political ideas (like Marxism).

How things have changed, as conservatives are now forced to take up the increasingly lonely defense of freedom of speech in the face of leftist attempts to erode it. We are, in short, a long way from Berkeley and the "free speech" movement.

There is an ugly sequence (and broader plan) at work here: Redefine any speech the left disagrees with as hate, suppress such speech and punish the speakers on such grounds, and thereby relieve the left of the burden of having to defend its positions with logic and facts.

And the best part: You can call any speech that blows the whistle on what is happening "hate speech" too.

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Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 07/17/2017

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