David Edmonds: Should hate speech be outlawed? The use of the “N word”, say? In the US, extensive free speech is said to be guaranteed by the First Amendment, but in Europe there are laws that restrict speech targeting particular groups – racist speech, for example. Should America be more like Europe? Yes, says Rae Langton of Cambridge University. The mistake made by free speech fundamentalists is to regard speech as nothing but harmless words.
Nigel Warburton: Could you say what hate speech is?
Rae Langton: I don’t want to propose a definition here, but when you see how people have talked about hate speech, one important idea has been that of words or pictures that do something distinctive to members of a certain group of people. So, for instance, the United Nations describes hate speech as inciting or promoting hatred towards members of certain groups, or inciting violence against them. It asks member states to have legislation that will guard against that sort of speech. So that’s one idea which we can think of as, roughly, hate propaganda. Another idea which is important is the idea of “words that wound” – where the thought is not so much propaganda but assault. In this case, the hateful words are being used directly to attack somebody, rather than to incite third parties to hatred.
NW: I think I understand what you mean by hate speech as propaganda. This is presumably what was going on in the lead-up to the Second World War with Nazi anti-Semitism, for instance, where Jews were portrayed as rats. Certain sorts of words were used to target that group, amongst others. Now, that’s different from what you’ve called “words that wound”, although obviously it could wound. It typically occurs in a one-on-one situation or is directed at a particular individual. Could you say a little more about “words that wound”?
RL: Hank Aaron, the baseball player, at the time when he was about to overtake the famed Babe Ruth, received a huge barrage of hate mail. The hate mail he received was like an assault: it was full of uses of the N-word, of threats – “my gun is watching your every black move” – and of other epithets, “jungle bunny” and the like. This was “speech” that was designed to attack him personally and would have been psychologically devastating. But what I want to emphasize is that, quite apart from the appalling psychological effects, those words are being used to do something, just in the saying of those words. What I have in mind here is a distinction that J. L. Austin introduced, although he wasn’t interested in hate speech. Austin wrote a book called How to Do Things With Words, and he was interested in three different kinds of things we do with our words. We use words that have certain meanings, first of all; and the action we perform when we use meaningful words is the “locutionary act”. We use words to produce certain effects on our hearers too, and he called that the “perlocutionary act”. But we also use words to do something very directly: this was the idea that at first he called a “performative” and later came to call an “illocutionary act”. What interests me when thinking about these different dimensions of hate speech is how hate speech, both as propaganda and as assault, can be understood as a certain kind of illocutionary act. Of course, it is harmful in terms of its effects, but it’s also harmful in itself.
NW: Could you just clarify that a bit by giving some examples of illocutionary acts?
RL: Austin had some fantastic examples. Funnily enough, if we’re interested in incitement to violence, one of Austin’s own illustrations was the utterance, “Shoot her!” Think about one man saying, “Shoot her!” to another man, with respect to a woman who’s nearby. You could describe that in a number of different ways. You could say he said “shoot” meaning by “shoot” to shoot with a gun, as opposed to a bow and arrow. You could say by “her”, he meant the woman nearby. If you describe it that way, you are describing what Austin called the locutionary act. You could also describe what happened next. The second man picked up a gun and shot the woman, let’s suppose (I’m now embroidering Austin’s example). If that happened, and that was your description of what happened, that’s about the perlocutionary act, in Austin’s terms. But Austin would think we’d left out something important: what the first person did in saying those words, what illocutionary act was performed. Perhaps the first man ordered the second. But was it an order? Was it a piece of advice? Was it a suggestion? Was it a joke? There are many different illocutionary things that the utterance “Shoot her!” could have been, and if we don’t think about them we’re missing out on what Austin took to be one of the most interesting dimensions of language use.
NW: I’m interested in how this way of thinking about language sheds light on hate speech.
RL: One feature of many of Austin’s examples is that it makes a difference who is saying the words, and in what context. Even in the example I just gave, perhaps it could only have been an order if the first man was in a position of authority relative to the second man. And for many of his examples, such as “I hereby christen this ship the Queen Elizabeth”, there’s a successful christening provided they have got the champagne, and it’s the right speaker, and everything else in the ceremony is in order. But, in another nice example from Austin, suppose some “low type” (“low type” was his phrase by the way) – some “low type” grabs the champagne bottle and smashes it against the ship and says, “I hereby name this ship the Generalissimo Stalin.” We can all agree, says Austin, that it would be “an infernal shame”; and we all agree that it would not be a christening of the ship. So what this tells us is that certain sorts of speech act can do certain things when they’re said by a person in authority, and won’t do the same things if they’re not. Now, the reason I mention that example is that we can easily think of cases where what’s being done towards members of a certain group is done to them partly in virtue of a kind of authority the speaker might have. We were discussing Nazi Germany before, so when Der Stürmer, a major anti-Semitic newspaper, published their hate-filled pictures and essays, it made a difference that it was from an influential paper that, it seems, had the official backing of the government. It was authoritative speech that ranked a particular group as inferior, ranked them as vermin, ranked them as sub-human, and legitimated violence against them. The notion of ranking certain groups as inferior, and legitimating violence or discrimination – this sort of ranking and legitimating is part of the illocutionary force of propaganda. So, it’s worth thinking about who the speakers are, and what their standing is. And it’s worth thinking about the possibility that the speech might be doing more than just expressing an unpleasant idea.
NW: Most discussions about hate speech are about the limits of freedom of speech. Are there consequences from your approach to hate speech? Is it just a matter of understanding it as language?
RL: There are different reasons why people think that free speech should include freedom of hate speech. One is because they are in the thrall of the idea that speech doesn’t do much. You know, the idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Then another reason sounds like just the opposite: speech does a lot, it’s important because it’s so powerful, and we need to have this power always available to us. Thinking about speech in general, and hate speech in particular, as a kind of act – a speech act – gives us a way of understanding it as something more than inert words. It helps us think of speech as a kind of “doing things with words” that’s continuous with our other actions. This means that one common way of dismissing legislation designed to restrict certain forms of hate speech is on a losing wicket. Speech is not “only words”, to borrow Catharine MacKinnon’s phrase. It’s not inert. When we use words, we’re doing all sorts of things, especially if we are in a position of power or authority. Moreover, what we’re doing is not simply expressing ideas that might or might not be true. We’re acting. We’re altering norms. We’re making certain things more permissible than they were before. We’re making other things less permissible than they were before. We’re authoritatively, sometimes, saying that certain people are inferior. That is one of the ways that structures of hierarchy are set up and maintained.
NW: There are two different models of how this might play out in terms of the law. In Britain, there are quite strict legal prohibitions on what you can say in public. If what you say is racist or homophobic, you may find yourself prosecuted. In the States, it’s more complicated because of the history of First Amendment interpretation which protects extensive freedom of speech. Are you saying that the British solution is better?
RL: The British solution, as you’re calling it, is a response to the UN Convention that requires member states to have some laws that will help prevent the spread of racial hatred, which was drafted against the backdrop of a history of racial violence and genocide. More recently, in Rwanda, radio stations were taken over by Hutus calling the Tutsis “cockroaches”, and that campaign of hate speech was clearly part of what instigated massacre. Now, the US is the outlier on this. The US has not adopted this sort of legislation, in part because they think it’s in conflict with the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This is odd, because as far as I can see, there is nothing in the Constitution itself that should really prevent the US having laws that were more similar to those that are in force in Europe – especially keeping in mind that they also have the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires them to respect the equality of citizens, and equality is certainly something that anti-hate speech legislation cares about. There are already many restrictions on speech, whether on false advertising, insider trading, or child pornography. There are many things you’re not allowed to do with words. But there is still this kind of fairy tale that the First Amendment is absolute – anything goes. But of course, it doesn’t. So, to my mind, the UK strategy is part of a relatively sane European policy, that many different democratic countries have signed up to in different forms.
NW: I’m interested in the part played by intention in so-called hate speech. Hate is usually something you’re aware of; it’s directed at somebody or something. Do you have to intend to harm somebody by your speech for it to be hate speech?
RL: There are certain paradigm cases where your description would be completely accurate. Take the kind of assault like hate speech, the “words that wound”, that were sent to Hank Aaron – those were deliberate, and it mattered that they were deliberate. They were deliberately aiming to be words that wound. But that mightn’t always be the case. There will be some cases where what you do with your words might be worse than you mean it to be, and in principle there could be hate speech where people don’t know what they’re doing. There’s so much that you could be unaware of, as a speaker. Sometimes you’re not fully aware of the background structures of authority that influence the force that your speech is going to have. If your speech has that force, it might be hate speech, even when you don’t mean it to be.
NW: Generally, what you’ve been saying is that the way to think about hate speech is not as a series of words that are uttered but people doing things with words. If we think about people doing things with words, we see that it’s just another kind of action, and so there isn’t really this special category of “speech” and we don’t need to separate out questions about speech from questions about other kinds of behaviour.
RL: That’s a really good way to put part of what I want to say. I do want to emphasize the continuities between speech and our other actions. I do agree with those who think that speech is special, though, in ways that don’t quite fit with what you said. I agree with Mill that speech is important, partly because communication is important. Part of what makes me sad about the debates about free speech at present is this. When people wave the flag for free speech, they sometimes make communication harder, instead of easier. When you allow a complete free-for-all for the most powerful or authoritative speakers, this can hurt communication for people lower down in the hierarchy. So if we are serious about free speech, if we want everybody to have a chance to speak more freely, that might mean taking active steps to let other voices be heard.