In Defense of Hate Speech

My first encounter with the complexities of free speech took place in 6th grade.  I’ll never forget a comment our teacher, Mr. Courteol, made that changed the way I viewed free speech forever.   

“Free speech,” he said, “Is first and foremost for the person with which you disagree!  Nobody will ever seek to silence someone they agree with, and so it is through the infringement of free speech to those with which we disagree that free speech becomes threatened for all.”  

He went on to explain that even if we hate what someone is saying, it is important that we never infringe on their ability to have the right to say it, lest someone someday do the same to you.  

That was 29 years ago, and that concept still resonates with me.  Free speech is most importantly for the guy I don’t like.  I’m still thankful for Mr. Courteol for making that point so clearly, and today, in a world consumed with silencing hate speech and creating safe spaces, I appreciate those words even more.  I’m not sure how many people had access to teachers like Mr. Courteol, but I’m concerned due to the direction our society seems to be moving that teachers like him must have become more and more rare after my class passed through. 

The creation of a “safe space” is troublesome to me in its mere face value.  Think about it, a “space” is created for people to “go” in which they will be “free” from experiencing offensive rhetoric.  This is basically creating a cage, and convincing people to willingly enter it.  It is the opposite of is a prison.  But freedom?  Freedom comes in being able to leave the cage and navigate an entire world of hostile messages not by silencing the messengers but realizing I don’t have to listen to them either.    

This concept goes well beyond colleges creating these havens devoid of diverse thought, and speaks to the very mindset of future generations.  Lets be honest, hatred is pretty much a universally agreed upon problem in the world.  And hate speech, true hate speech, is vile and awful and while not something most of us would ever condone, the right to do it is different than the decision to do it.  If we were somehow able to silence hate speech forever, we will have made the world no more safe than removing the rattles from rattlesnakes would make the wilderness safer.  In fact, it would make things even more dangerous as the poison and venom that the chilling sound of the rattle reveals would still present, and now go undetected until the fangs had pierced your skin.  

Hatred is not contained in people’s speech....its contained in their hearts.  To silence the voices of the hateful does nothing to purge those hearts of the bitter venom within.  In fact, since pressure can’t be released though their hateful verbiage, instead it is simply built up inside,  like a pressure cooker of concentrated hatred.  

Personally, I kind of like hate speech.  Not because I like hearing it or doing it so much as I like that it gives me a heads up as to who might hate me!  The same reason I kinda like the rattles on rattlesnakes.  I’m not a huge poisonous snake fan, but of the poisonous snakes.....the rattlers are my favorites as they have, on several occasions in my life, provided me the opportunity to avoid them through their “hate rattling.”  

And who knows, maybe Mr. Courteol was on to something with the idea of defending my opponents right to speak.  In this world that seems to be moving farther and farther apart ideologically, perhaps the very first step toward reconciliation comes when we can reach out to our opponents and express, while we don’t agree with what was said, we can at least come together to ensure we each have the right to say it. small as it is.....would still be coming together on something.  


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