By Alexander Candlin
DISCLAIMER: I neither condemn nor praise any of the groups or individuals mentioned below, and only wish to use them as references. The views expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of aAh! Magazine.
While American law contains no legal definition of hate speech, in Britain, hate speech is defined under the Public Order Act of 1986 as ‘a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting.’ When it comes to how to confront those who spout hatred or intolerance against others, however, we enter murkier territory.
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire
There are many groups both in Britain and America who set out with the intention of confronting those who they perceive as fascists or preachers of intolerance. The actions of some of these groups have led to the disruption or shutting down of debates and political speeches involving those who are deemed controversial by others.
In America, political commentator and former editor of Breitbart News, Ben Shapiro, has been targeted on numerous occasions during his political speeches. Most famously, in 2017 at the University of California, Berkeley, his event was targeted by a group known as ANTIFA, who aimed to disrupt and shut down his speech. When Mr. Shapiro attempted to return to UC Berkeley, his event required a security fee of an estimated $600,000 – $800,000. In the UK in March of this year, the North East Somerset MP Jacob Rees Mogg was confronted by protesters during a debate hosted by the University of the West of England, Birmingham, which resulted in a brief altercation which was also filmed and shared online.
In February 2016, Hope Not Hate director Nick Lowles was reportedly blocked by NUS students at the Canterbury Christ Church University during an anti-racism conference. The university itself did not block his invitation, but many of its students did, claiming that he had spread Islamophobic comments. Dispute heading an organisation that has confronted Islamophobia on many occasions, Mr. Lowles was ultimately unable to speak at the event, and Hope Not Hate could not be represented at the conference. Mr. Lowles later stated: “It’s amusing in its absurdity but it does reflect the failure of a small section of the left to understand that we have to confront extremism and intolerance in all its forms.”
When confronting such ideas, it is important to view them as you would any other opposing viewpoint that you disagree with. Bad arguments can be easily put to rest as they cannot stand up against better arguments. By identifying and exposing weaknesses in an opponent’s argument, change can be affected far more effectively than by simply refusing to listen. It is also important not to simply go off what others say, or speculate about anyone you have not heard speak. Listen to them first-hand and form your own judgements. Bad ideas should be put on show for what they are.
"Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake" - Napoleon Bonaparte
If someone wishes to spout bad ideas, then you should do everything in your power to get them somewhere they can heard by everyone. Allow their own negative thoughts to be heard by all, and give them enough rope to hang themselves by their own poor arguments. This can be done with hate speech very effectively. To shut down a political speech or debate may be done with the intention of halting hateful rhetoric, but in the process, it tramples on free speech, which is far more important than any one person or group – censorship can just as easily be turned on the left as the right.
To prolong the confrontation is to prolong the problem. Take, for example, an incident that occurred around the President of the National Policy Institute and White Nationalist, Richard Spencer. In November of 2017, Richard Spencer attended a speech at the University of Florida to discuss issues regarding the alt-right and race in America. On arrival, he was met with protesters who over took the majority of the seating in the University auditorium. Only a handful of Spencer’s followers occupied the front row seating, with the rest of the crowd behind them in protest.
There are two aspects of this incident which I believe are interesting. To begin with, it highlights the importance of letting someone speak, as the name of the University of Florida would never be used by anyone as a byword for censorship, as has become of UC Berkeley. Secondly, bringing a controversial speaker to your own campus gives you a home advantage, knowing your debate will not be interrupted by supporters from either side. They have come to your turf, so they have nothing left to fight with other than their own words, and that levels the playing field. It has now come down to who has the better argument, and as I have argued previously, before good ideas stand up against criticism all on their own. You have put the person with the bad ideas on to speak, so they will become the cause of their own downfall.
Whilst conducting an interview in January of 2017, Spencer was assaulted by a protester, resulting in the creation of the hashtag #punchanazi. I think it is unwise to be quick to label people with such distinctive names such as Nazi, Fascist or racist as these terms are strictly defined. For example, Richard Spencer identifies himself as a White Nationalist, although he behaves like a White Supremacist, so this is a title that he has earned. However, he holds no views equivalent to that of a nationalist socialist. He may be a person whose ideas are reprehensible, but shouting names or slurs does not help to defeat him. It is important to stop using such specific terminology without a great deal of evidence and only under very specific circumstances in order to ensure that words do not lose their proper meanings. Calling people such names does not open debate, it halts it.
During the speech in question, the auditorium was predominantly filled with protesters, with only a small minority of attendees in support of Spencer. A room filled to the brim with people listening to Spencer talk would advance his status and provide him with attention. However, what if none of the protesters had turned up, or they simply left the room after a few minutes, as did protesters at Brunel University during a speech by Katie Hopkins in 2015? The result would have been that Richard Spencer was left talking to an almost empty auditorium with five or ten supporters instead of a packed building of people listening to him. Which of these images would go further in showing his ideas for what they are?
"In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive" - Jordan Peterson
A criticism I have of shutting down anyone from speaking is that it does not change anyone’s mind, nor does it end the debate. Silencing others treats the symptoms of bad ideas, but not the causes of hate speech. It instead prolongs the issue, and makes dialogue harder to achieve. Anyone who has been shut down or interrupted will not merely go away and never have the chance to speak again, so it is important to deal with the argument where it stands and listen to what your opponents have say. Tell someone they are wrong and why you think that, and explain a counter point of your own. Avoid inflammatory language – it will only hinder your own cause by allowing your opponent to frame you in a negative light. Furthermore, speech that is deemed too controversial to be heard is more likely to be sought after by those who wish to hear someone who has been silenced. Debate is the only way to defeat hate speech without harming free speech, because when someone says something hateful or outrageous, you have the right to say why they are wrong.
I believe that the cure to hate speech is, quite simply, more speech.
"If you're in favour of freedom of speech, that means you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise" - Noam Chomsky