There seem to be more and more claims that “hate speech” should not be entitled to the normal privileges of free speech. To my surprise, one of them is George Lakoff – famed cognitive scientist, philosopher and metaphor expert.
After that, some thoughts on why he might be wrong.
An extract from the post:
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.
The replacement problem
You can probably see where Lakoff’s coming from.
This argument has at least two weaknesses, though – and they are easier to express precisely because he’s done the hard work to make everything clear.
The first problem is this: Lakoff’s argument works almost as well if you replace “hate speech” with “disagreement speech” – that is, the things we tell people when we find them and their statements significantly wrong. Try this:
“Some people I know – sensitive and not particularly open-minded people – can be quite affected by ‘disagreement speech’. It affects their neural system, undermining their sense of certainty about the world and leaving them stressed, distrustful and no longer able to act as easily as before. This can be as tough on them than a physical attack. It imposes on their ability to think and act.
“That’s why disagreement speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the mild dislike. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, disagreement speech does not fall under the category of free speech.”
You could do the same for “atheist speech”, or many other examples. To take a famous example, Nicholas Christakis seemed to be creating stress, fear and distrust in what he said during the the “Halloween email” incident at Yale. Indeed, a large group of Yale students said that this was exactly what he was doing.
The second problem is that Lakoff’s argument seems to be an example of the (poorly named) fallacy of the undistributed middle. In formal terms this argument runs:
- Violence has a physiological impact.
- Hate speech has a physiological impact.
- Therefore, hate speech is violence.
You can see the problem with this when you substitute in other terms:
- Our cat has fur.
- Our dog has fur.
- Therefore, our dog is a cat.
Yep, poor reasoning.
The line problem
Now, I’m presuming (based on his first three paragraphs) that Lakoff is separating free speech from hate speech in order to argue that the latter warrants forcible restraint of some sort. If there’s a point where this has to be considered, I think it’s a last resort, a sort of nuclear option, and it suffers from a lot of the same problems as an actual nuclear option.
In particular: where do you draw the line?
Arguments that start “where do you draw the line” are often rightly dismissed. A lot of the time, it’s not that hard. But in the free speech debate, this question has a special character.
In Australia we once had a referendum on whether to ban the Communist Party, which at the time was arguing that wealthy capitalists were destroying the country. A lot of the communists’ rhetoric was not very generous – it certainly stressed a lot of capital-owners – and one might well have called it “hate speech”. Shall we say now that it was not free speech, and that communism should have been banned?
For that matter, what do we say about people who angrily yell “you nazi!” at mere right-wingers, who may be repelled by swastikas? Should these people be forcibly restrained?
As I mentioned, I can see the argument for a line. But I struggle to see how and where we draw it.
Others have struggled too. One was Karl Popper, whose “the paradox of tolerance” warns against tolerating the intolerant. Popper, of course, had close-up experience of actual nazis and communists. Everyone now cites the paradox:
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
But rather less people seem to have read the next sentence, where he writes of when we might suppress intolerant philosophies:
“In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would be most unwise.”
In the sentence after that, Popper effectively defends suppressing the intolerant in certain limited circumstances:
“We should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists.”
As a statement about where to draw the line, this remains pretty good. It’s not free speech absolutism, but it is free speech close-to-absolutism with some defined and well-defended exceptions.
Just remember that Popper was talking about actual German 1930s Nazis, who really did teach their followers “to answer arguments by the use of their fists”. He’d seen communists teach the same thing.
If you follow his advice, you don’t suppress the intolerant merely because you consider them intolerant or hateful. You only suppress them when they have forsaken argument and committed themselves to violence as a first response. You suppress them when they start beating people up.
Even this point may be hard to define, but it’s definitely pointing towards a definition.
The absurdity of brain chemistry arguments
Finally, I’m also unsure what Lakoff or anyone else wins from talking about language that changes the brain, the neural system or physiological effects. Technically any language that affects us does this. All sorts of speech acts affect in some way someone else’s ability to act freely.
Sometimes that’s exactly what needs to happen. Indeed, there’s a name for the process by which we learn to deal with the way that other people’s responses affect or brain chemistry. It’s called “growing up”.
So it’s not obvious to me where this sort of neurological claims and language get us.
But I’m not stressed about Lakoff’s opinion; I don’t feel my brain chemistry is being deeply altered for the worse. So I’m happy for him to keep on making these arguments.
Well, at least for the moment. I’ll drop him an email if my neurochemistry begins to suggest that he should shut up. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.
Footnote 1: I originally commented to this effect at Lakoff’s site, but it’s been in moderation for six weeks while other comments went up, so I’m guessing he didn’t see much merit in it.
Footnote 2: Noam Chomsky has a single-sentence argument on these issues which probably works better than all the verbiage above:
“If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
Footnote 3: For those who don’t know, Popper is just about the most readable philosopher of the past 150 years. Popper’s aim in life is to figure out how to set up good societies, not to just play language games. The Open Society And Its Enemies, quoted above, is so good that all of the Popper quotes above are contained in a single footnote. Popper’s footnotes are better than most philosophers’ body text.
Footnote 4: By the way, the cartoon below, which is being widely circulated on social media right now, is arguably pretty much a misrepresentation of Popper. His argument seems to call for tolerance up until the last possible moment. This image seems to be deployed mostly by those who want to stop the far right from marching in the streets.
If you think this graphic seems right and just, just try mentally replacing the nazis with pro-Stalin communists.