What is Hate Speech? And Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech by George Lakoff
Originally published by George Lakoff on GeorgeLakoff.com | 2017 | Twitter: @georgelakoff | Republished with permission | View the original article | Photo: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 | George Lakoff is contributing author to United We Stand (Garn Press), available on Amazon ($14.95).
By George Lakoff
What is Hate Speech?
I have been asked what hate speech is. It is not exactly hard to detect.
Hate speech defames, belittles, or dehumanizes a class of people on the basis of certain inherent properties — typically race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.
Hate speech attributes to that class of people certain highly negative qualities taken to be inherent in members of the class. Typical examples are immorality, intellectual inferiority, criminality, lack of patriotism, laziness, untrustworthiness, greed, and attempts or threats to dominate their “natural superiors.”
The method of defamation typically includes:
- Salient exemplars — that is, using highly rare and very ugly individual examples that have been sensationalized by the media and taking them as applying to the whole class. Examples: Trump’s racist attacks on Latinos and Muslims, attempting to stereotype all of them and smear entire classes of people on the basis of a handful of individual cases.
- Extolling the false virtues of the opposite class, suggesting that the defamed class lacks those virtues. Example: The racist right falsely claims that whites are responsible for all advances in civilization. This deliberately covers up the enormous contributions and advances made by nonwhites in order to undermine their status as human beings.
- Metaphor based on fallacious understanding: “Whites are more evolved” — from a survey of racist right-wing members. Note the mistaken understanding of evolution. The statement suggests that non-whites are lower than whites on an evolutionary scale, as if they were animals.
- Perhaps the most dangerous form of hate speech comes from the government itself when the President excuses racist violence and supports the oppressive use of governmental force — large, organized crowds of armed demonstrators, police who target minorities, ICE trapping undocumented immigrants for deportation, discriminatory laws that intimidate minorities from voting, etc.
Hate speech these days is not just speech by an individual. It has become an industry for the racist right — organized, purposely provocative, a recruiting tool, and a show of power aiming at greater power.
Mass marketed hate speech is not “mere speech” by an individual. It is actually physical in nature because all ideas are physically constituted by neural circuitry in our brains. When you are repeatedly told by those protected by the President and his government that you are a lesser being and are hated, it can have a crippling effect, physically, on your brain, mind, and heart.
Freedom in a free society is freedom for all. We are not free to prevent others from being free. Hate speech can affect those who are repeated objects of hate with a crippling toxic stress and a sense of distrust and fear that can keep those hated from living full and free lives. Mass-market hate stands resolutely in the path of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.
Institutions whose role is to promote freedom of speech, thought, and action need to rebut hate speech, rather than give the honor of official invitations to purveyors of mass market hate who bring with them a mass of violence-prone supporters to exploit and dishonor widely publicized “free speech” events.
Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech
Freedom in a free society is supposed to be for all. Therefore, freedom rules out imposing on the freedom of others. You are free to walk down the street, but not to keep others from doing so.
The imposition on the freedom of others can come in overt, immediate physical form — thugs coming to attack with weapons. Violence may be a kind of expression, but it certainly is not “free speech.”
Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects. Here is the reason:
All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse. Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time.
That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech.
Hate speech can also change the brains of those with mild prejudice, moving it towards hate and threatening action. When hate is physically in your brain, then you think hate and feel hate, you are moved to act to carry out what you physically, in your neural system, think and feel.
That is why hate speech in not “mere” speech. And since it imposes on the freedom of others, it is not an instance of freedom.
The long–term, often crippling physical effects of hate speech on the neural systems of those hated does not have status in law, since our neural systems do not have status in our legal system — at least not yet. This is a gap between the law and the truth.
Originally published by George Lakoff on GeorgeLakoff.com. George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).