Left academic: “If We Silence Hate Speech, Will We Silence Resistance?”


One of the most delightful recent political developments to watch is radicals and progressives waking up with a rude start to the fact that the cultural rules they have created can – and will – be used against them.

The latest one to notice and to have second thoughts is Erik Nielson,  associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond and a “well-known… expert in the use of rap music as evidence in criminal trials”, who writes in “The New York Times”:

It’s tempting to applaud this move [to ban Alex Jones/Infowars], but we should be wary. While Mr. Jones’s rhetoric is certainly repugnant, mounting pressure from the political left to censor hateful speech may have unintended consequences, especially for people of color.

That’s because “hate” is a dangerously elastic label, one that has long been used in America to demonize unpopular expression. If we become overzealous in our efforts to limit so-called hate speech, we run the risk of setting a trap for the very people we’re trying to defend.

The good associate professor is worried that the “elastic hate” might also cover black nationalist groups (and here he out-lefts the Southern Poverty Law Centre, arguing with their designation of many of such groups as hate groups), the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or Black Lives Matter. “If people engaged in a boycott can be silenced, even criminalized, for discriminating against the group they accuse of discrimination, we begin to see how problematic it is to punish ‘hate’ speech,” Nielson writes. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

Be that as it may, it’s good to see that some at least are waking up to the dangers inherent in encroachments on free speech, even if the born again 1st Amendmenters do it largely for the wrong reasons – self-preservation as opposed to principles. It’s also good to see that an overwhelming majority of comments about the op-ed are in favour of freedom as opposed to restrictions.