The Noisy 21st Century

How do we distinguish between speech that harms and speech that sparks debate? Alice O’Brien examines the divide

The motivational speaker Tony Gaskins once said, “arguing isn’t communication, it’s noise.” No debate has been louder than the 21st century favourite: hate speech vs free speech.  It is a bone of contention that pokes its head into every news story, amplifies every political move and sparks violent clashes within communities.

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The reaction to George Hook’s controversial comments this September is a perfect example of how this debate can take flight. When referring to a UK rape case, Hook questioned why the victim had agreed to go back to a hotel room of a man she had just met. He asked why the woman in question did not receive any criticism for willingly putting herself in a potentially dangerous situation. The backlash from these comments escalated quickly until finally, Hook was suspended. This action divided the nation and reactivated this monstrous debate that seems to never sleep.

As a people, we are guaranteed the right to freedom of expression. This includes the right to express our own social, political and personal ideas. However, as made clear by Hook’s suspension, this right is not absolute.

In today’s social climate, where we are frequently exposed to controversy but arguably, are also more emotionally aware than ever before, the line between hate speech and free speech is blurrier than ever.

With such uncertainty, we rarely receive a definitive conclusion, an answer telling us what is right or wrong, an instruction as to what we should or should not say. Instead, what we hear is noise.

Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, colour, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.

Should hate speech be discouraged? For many, the answer is a defiant yes.  Many passionately feel that comments such as Hooks should be directly categorised as hate speech. They feel he is guilty of victim blaming and trivialising sexual assault. By scrutinising this woman’s choice, did he marginalise the victim in question? Did he perpetuate a culture where abused individuals do not feel comfortable coming forward but instead feel frightened of being blamed? This group see Hook’s comments as a threat to their ideal that no person chooses to be a victim, that all are blameless. They worry this opinion being voiced on-air will ease people into accepting it as the norm. They want him punished, and his views silenced.

Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump, Friday, October 6, 2017. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

However, others arguing that policing opinions runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech. There are many who perceive punishing George Hook as violating his civil liberties. They believe the other side are jumping the gun, living in a “PC” bubble and accusing Hook of supporting and perpetuating a culture that his lackadaisical comments did not. They do not see the comments as victim blaming but rather as part of a discussion about the importance of being self-aware in potentially dangerous situations. They contend that, if these discussions are silenced, it will not solve problems but actually create a culture for them to quietly spawn.

Many saw this year as one stained with this debate. Be it the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit, the repeal the eighth campaign or countless more occurrences, it has been a turbulent time for people everywhere, but also for our ideas and morals. When free speech becomes hate speech, stops encouraging debate but rather costs someone part of his or her self-respect or part of their authentic identity, many believe a line should be drawn. These people believe hate speech should be anything but free. But how do we distinguish between speech that harms and speech that merely sparks debate?

Or is ‘hate speech’ a social construct entirely, a hypersensitive tool designed to repress certain ideas disguised as doing moral good? Is the punishment of George Hook an attempt to mute a conversation, to silence all views apart from a single narrative? These conversations could be what society needs for opinions to be heard, for society to progress and for new norms to be later embraced.

To many, hate speech is the encouragement of ideas, not actions.

They see no-platforming as dangerously elastic. They fear that if we accept the idea that some forms of speech are so hateful they must be repressed, then there will be no end to what society could potentially censor. This party hears no hate speech, only free speech.

Ideally, society would strike a deal between these two opposing opinions. When a conflict arises in relation to which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual— how do we strike a balance that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker?

Unfortunately, it is rare the world is driven by such logic and not by stubbornness. With both sides convinced that their convictions are unequivocally correct, achieving such an ideal any time soon seems unlikely.

Instead, we are left with cases such as Hook’s, where one party labels themselves as moral martyrs and the opposition identify as champions of realism. We reach no settled agreement and neither side becomes a victor. Instead, what we are left with is a whole lot of noise.