Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hate speech? Really?

One of my goals in life is to participate in a true political debate. Not a shouting match, but a true debate where both sides argue their points reasonably and, crucially, are open to the fact that they may be holding the wrong ideas and willing to change their beliefs. The Internet, allowing for an easy way to facilitate discussions across a very large, very diverse group of participants ought to have made this easier; alas, it seems that the past few years has only increased the vitriol and spitting bile in these shouting matches.

When I read news articles, sometimes I think "this sounds thought-provoking", and I turn to the online comments to see if it started one. Almost invariably, most of the comments turn out to be rants that are only distantly germane to the article (e.g., any article on the Middle East sets off a firestorm with ... well, you can guess; any article on Ron Paul sets off commenters screaming about how he's being "ignored" by the media, etc.). Sometimes, the ones I think are most thought-provoking have no comments (typically any article that mentions Africa). Go figure.

It is also surprising how many people you think ought to know better end up doing nothing but shouting. I went to a well-regarded selective-admissions public high school (the mean score for the standard college-admissions test in the US is not far from perfect) (and no, I did not get a perfect score on said test), but when we had a sponsored debate between the Democratic and Republican groups in our school, it still devolved into a (literal) shouting match.

Which brings me, in a roundabout manner, to the true topic of this post. Apparently, there is a firestorm currently brewing over a post on planet.mozilla.org that dealt with a political topic of current interest to some people. I discovered, years ago, that you catch a lot more flak if you write a post that goes to an aggregator that people disagree with than if you write one they agree with (I explained why I did not like the results of the 2008 presidential election, and caught more flak than the few posts earlier celebrating those results). I don't mind political discussion—indeed, as I described earlier, I'd love one. But I can understand why people might not like sensitive political topics being collected on a site which can be interpreted as official Mozilla policy.

However, there is one thing I don't like about it. Some people have taken it upon themselves to call the viewpoint presented as hate speech. I don't know what hate speech is exactly, but I don't think it should ever exist, no matter what one defines. That is because terming something as hate speech is an attempt to avoid discussing it: it is a way to say "that statement is so wrong I am not going to bother to refute it", or, equivalently, "I am so right that any opposition to my idea cannot be rationally argued." It is at best an insult to one's opponent and at worst an admission of outright arrogance.

Even worse, I think, are people who want to outlaw hate speech. Speech is, fundamentally, a reflection of one's belief. Attempting to outlaw the utterance of specific beliefs is nothing more than trying to outlaw those beliefs in the first place. Sure, some of them are injurious insults (such as those who deny that the Holocaust happened), but there is, to me, a steep slippery slope you start out on. Why outlaw denials of the Holocaust but not also outlaw denials of other historical religiously-motivated genocides? Hell, why stop there? We could outlaw any false statement: think how much more rational our discussions would be if people didn't state such lies as "Sharia law is invading the US legal system" or "the New Deal did nothing to bring us out of the Great Depression." Wait, maybe that's why.

I remember, when doing a project for a US Government class that involved redebating several key cases on freedom speech, that I found a Supreme Court decision which mentioned something to the effect of "Free speech is at its best when it causes discomfort" (I cannot find the exact quote right now, sadly enough). At that moment, I think, I solidified my stance on free speech to the following: all speech ought to be free, no matter how insulting, radical, or slanderous it may be. It may be that your speech causes injurious actions, but it's only the intent and the action that matters (e.g., falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is grounds for manslaughter, but because the action was intended to create a stampede, not because you actually said "Fire"). Attempting to censor others' opinions—whether through legal means, or through attempts to shame them by calling their words "hate speech"—is not an action I can support.

And if you disagree with me, feel free to try to discuss it with me. Who knows, I may just change my mind.

17 comments:

Jim B said...

Your thinking is muddled here. In the comments I read on said blog post, most were along the lines of, "Get this off the Mozilla feed." I didn't see anyone (or if there was, it was buried by all the other comments) saying Gerv couldn't have his opinion or that he couldn't say it, just that putting it on the Mozilla feed was inappropriate.

Further, nobody actually censored the blog post -- the simply commented on it.

I'm sure you are quoting someone who labeled it hate speech. One may agree or disagree with this label. But you yourself are calling for a ban on using that phrase, in effect. For someone who is fearless about hearing contrary opinions, why are you getting riled that someone would try and attach a label that you find offensive?

Michael Kaply said...

There are multiple places to follow this besides the comments on Gerv's blog, and the phrase hate speech and the idea of firing Gerv came up in those places.

http://blog.mozilla.com/planet/2012/03/06/concerns-with-planet-content/
http://soberbuildengineer.com/blog/2012/03/a-stroll-through-planet-mozilla-history/

Joshua Cranmer said...

The primary thing I'm responding to is this post (Hate speech is not free speech), although, as Michael Kaply pointed out, there are other people who are strongly objecting to his content, not to the fact that it was on Planet Mozilla.

As far what I'm saying, I'm just pointing out that "Hate speech", as that term is used, is nothing more than a crude attempt to dodge the discussion. I'd rather see discussion than see shouting matches, so it disappoints me to see that people--especially those who I think ought to know better--are resorting to such a crude methodology.

I certainly do want to hear contrary opinions, and I do try to. That doesn't mean I can't say they're wrong, as long as I can explain why I believe them to be wrong.

K Lars Lohn said...

The term "hate speech" is an overly dramatic label that has a lot of impact. However, I can see why someone would use the term as the original posting was clearly a threat and not just a "let's discuss this issue" request. Gerv’s posting recruited people to take political action against another set of people.

Would you feel threatened if there were a political movement that would result in the dissolution of your marriage or being forbidden to marry your partner of choice? Would you find this a threat to your family, knowing that, under the current political environment they could actually pull it off?

What would the reaction have been if the posting was not about gay marriage, but interracial marriage? If you were in an interracial marriage, would you be threatened enough to use the emotionally charged term “hate speech”?

In 2008, the California Supreme court accepted the premise that gays are a "suspect class" that experiences unlawful discrimination*. I believe that puts them in the same category as racial minorities. So return to the previous question, in legal terms, how are the two cases different?

I think that we can agree that declaring an Aryan disapproval of interracial marriage would have been inappropriate for a company owned Web site. I submit that soliciting for help in marginalizing gay people is just as inappropriate on a company owned Web site.

I’ve been with my partner for fourteen years. We cannot marry. He cannot get Social Security benefits if I were to die. Unlike married people, he has to pay taxes on the Mozilla health insurance that he gets. There’s a long list of things that most people take for granted that are out of our reach. Gerv’s posting was threatening to me. Seeing that posting on a Mozilla domain, suddenly made me feel unwelcome in the community and as an employee. On top of that, seeing all the defenses of Gerv’s rights to threaten me, I am alienated even more.

I think that’s why members of Mozilla’s queer community used the term “hate speech”.

* for discussion's sake, I'm ignoring the fact that Gerv’s posting was about Britain and not California.

Kaida said...

The issue at hand seems to me (as an outsider) to mostly be that Planet Mozilla is considered the public face of the Mozilla Project.

And Gerv, by posting to Planet Mozilla with a comment that is perceived by some as homophobic* makes Mozilla look like it is an intolerant place.

It appears that this is why many community members are upset, as they do not want their participation in the Mozilla Project and Planet Mozilla to be construed as support for Gerv's discriminatory views.

While I do strongly support free speech, the views Gerv expressed were disheartening and greatly saddened me.

I'm a recent college graduate and was considering getting involved with the Mozilla Community. Gerv's post (and the fallout, including the (somewhat implicit) defense of the position) has made me reconsider this, though.

I don't want to contribute to a project that considers me and many of my friends sinners and abominations (and don't really want to work on a project that considers any group such). I had thought Mozilla was not such a place, but now I am not so sure.

*Basically anyone gay or friends with anyone gay has the viewpoint that opposition to gay marriage stems from homophobia.

K Lars Lohn said...

@Kaida, the turmoil of the last 36 hours due to Gerv's posting is not representative of normal daily life at Mozilla. If you would like to have an inside perspective, please contact me at my middle name at mozilla.com. I'd be glad to discuss Mozilla it with you.

Joshua Cranmer said...

@K Lars Lohn:
I don't think complete dissolution of all gay marriages was what Gerv was aiming for. What he was supporting appears to me to merely be the oft-discussed compromise: give gay couples the same rights, legal facilities, etc. as straight couples but just don't call it marriage.

Gerv's opinions are not my own, nor are they yours. You may feel threatened by them, but I'm sure that Gerv did not intend them to be threatening. In contrast, you probably hold opinions and may have done calls to action that I may similarly feel are threatening to my lifestyle without you having intended them to be threatening me.

I believe people should be able to say what they believe, even if others may find them offensive. As I said earlier, free speech does its best work when it forces people to confront others who have radically different views.

@Kaida
Planet Mozilla is not, and never has been, an official word of Mozilla. It is merely an aggregation of the blogs of the entire community. I am continually puzzled by the number of people that think that all content hosted at *.mozilla.org is official company policy.

Anonymous said...

i don't think you should equate what happened to you with this issue.

your example was democrats vs republicans, this legitimate party vs that legitimate party (and i agree, your comment was as out of place on p.m.o as pro-obama comments).

his post was calling for action to vote for repressing some human rights for a group of people.

and that is intolerable!

i wouldn't call that hate speech, and he has the right to his opinions, but he shouldn't be allowed to use any part of the mozilla project as his soapbox.

Joshua Cranmer said...

Let me be blunt:

You may find it intolerable. Others may not find it intolerable. Why should your definition be used to condemn it and not the speaker's?

That is the gist of the entire post.

Anonymous said...

i thought that, as a society, we had an understanding that limiting human rights for a group, any group, is not only disallowed, but not even open for discussion.

i guess i was wrong..

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you said "i thought that, as a society, we had an understanding that limiting human rights for a group, any group, is not only disallowed, but not even open for discussion."

According to Gerv (I'm no expert in UK law) the UK law already provides the same civil (and human) rights for same and opposite sex couples. One is called Civil Parnerships and the other is called Civil Marriage.

I disagree with Gerv's advocating that the two institutions continue to have different names, but if it's true that the civil rights are the same, then you're attributing content to Gerv that he did not post - and that does nothing to advance the dialog.

Stella Omega said...

telling me that what i am does not deserve equal rights and that I am not moral enough to deserve a happy partnership-- unlike heterosexuals--

That is hate speech. it's certainly hateful!

And yes, there are days when I would love to not have to discuss the issue for the bazllionth time. Just because it's new to you does not mean I haven't lived with it all of my life. To talk to someone-- I need to have an inkling that it will be worthwhile. Sometimes it's obvious that it's a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

You may find it intolerable. Others may not find it intolerable. Why should your definition be used to condemn it and not the speaker's?

people who get rocks thrown at them find that intolerable. The people who are not being hit by rocks are not hurt by those rocks.

Anonymous said...

"telling me that what i am does not deserve equal rights and that I am not moral enough to deserve a happy partnership-- unlike heterosexuals-- That is hate speech. it's certainly hateful!"

Stella, the only problem with your statement is that's not what Gerv's post said. Gerv's post (and follow-up comments) said "in the UK we have equality of civil rights for opposite sex and same sex couples. We have two different names for those institutions. If you support my position that two names is good, then go sign this petition."

That is a far cry from telling you that you do not deserve equal rights and do not deserve a happy partnership.

I can imagine how sensitivity to politics in the US where same sex couples are being denied civil rights might cause you to be acutely sensitive on this issue, but you do yourself and your cause a disservice when you fail to recognize what is actually being said and instead leap to conclusions and make unsupported assumptions and accusations as you have here.

I recommend you go back and read what Gerv wrote in his post and if you still believe that he was calling for anyone to be denied civil rights, that you come back here with actual quotes that you believe communicate that. I think you will have a difficult time doing that.

Robert Kaiser said...

100% agreed with you there, Joshua. Thanks for that statement.
I live in a country where denying the Holocaust is a capital law offense (because it happened right here, after all) and while I understand the reasons for it, I agree that it's fundamentally against free speech to have such a law.
And I respect that different people have different opinions, some of which may even hurt me. But they need to be allowed to express those as much as I need to be able to express myself.
And I'm happy that Planet Mozilla is about all the facets of the people in our community, and not just sterile work-related stuff.

Anonymous said...

all this "it's not limiting human rights, its same thing under different name" sounds a lot like "separate but equal".

colored get their own drinking fountain. it's fine, they have a human right to water..

Asa Dotzler said...

If you enjoy having planet that personalizes the people on the project and helps you learn more about them than the particular bits of code or whatever that they're working on, you should speak up because those who would have an editorial regime put in place are going to be vocal about it. Let your voice be heard. http://groups.google.com/group/mozilla.governance/browse_thread/thread/6abe8b6a24eb3102/952101e4dd0bd0c7