On balance, Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh is somebody I admire. His excellent memoir, Love and Courage, shows what a remarkable life he has lived and reveals him to be a compassionate and honest political thinker and activist.
In a recent interview with CTV news, Singh was asked about the wisdom of expanding hate speech laws in Canada. At the recent Trucker Convoy protest, which brought an unusual amount of international attention to Canadian politics, a handful of protestors were seen brandishing symbols of hate, including a Nazi swastika. In response, Singh argued for an expansion of Canada’s hate speech laws to explicitly make certain hateful symbols illegal. He made an intriguing point: “Hate is like a fire. Once it’s allowed to take hold, it spreads and it starts consuming everything.” He then emphasized that the legislation is specifically tailored to address three clear-cut examples, and no more: the swastika, the Confederate Flag, and KKK symbolism. Watch Singh’s full comment below:
At first glance, Singh’s argument can sound compelling. He starts by raising an important spiritual point, namely that hatred can be compared to an all-consuming fire. This is indisputably true. Hatred can consume minds and societies if left unnoticed. There are countless horrific historical examples of what human beings are capable of when hatred takes hold and becomes fashionable: Jim Crow, the Holocaust, you name it. We have a responsibility as a culture and a society to reject hatred, but we should also ask: is state power the appropriate means for doing so? Even if we deem it appropriate, will it work? Worse yet, will using state power to regulate speech have harmful unintended consequences?
Canada already has hate speech laws, and some argue that banning specific symbols would be redundant, given that “hate propaganda” is already illegal here. This is a point of contrast with the United States, where the Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favour of freedom of expression except in circumstances that would lead to clear and present danger. The classic examples are that you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre if there is no fire, and you cannot incite others to riot or engage in violence.
Who decides what is “hate speech”? Not you!
What is the reason for this contrast in approaches? On balance, Canada and the United States have been exemplars in the realm of freedom of expression by international standards. Do such fine legal distinctions and marginal considerations matter, especially when it’s hate speech we are talking about? Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) passionately believes so. Although he is Jewish, politically progressive, and a staunch advocate for civil rights and racial justice, he and the ALCU famously defended the right of neo-Nazis to free speech, and won. An excellent documentary on Glasser entitled Mighty Ira is available on YouTube, and gives an excellent account of this history.
Why on earth would Glasser defend the free expression of people whose views he detests, and who would wish him harm because of his religious and ethnic heritage? At first glance, it can seem crazy and self-defeating. When comedian Bill Maher said to Glasser “I’m guessing the Nazis don’t reflect your values,” Glasser replied, “That’s a good guess! In fact, most of the speech we defended [at the ACLU] didn’t reflect our values. That’s what it is, that’s the point!”
For Glasser and the ACLU, it was a matter of simple logic. “Everybody supports freedom of speech when it is their speech,” he is fond of saying. If we are going to have hate speech laws, who decides what constitutes hate speech? The government. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Glasser concludes: “If the government is going to … decide what hate speech to ban, it’s not going to be the same speech you hate. It’s going to be the speech they hate.” He goes on to speculate about what might have happened in American history had the notorious Red-baiter Joe McCarthy or racist Southern governors during the Civil Rights Movement had hate speech laws at their disposal. He also gives an example from the UK, where Zionist students succeeded in having their university ban hate speech, only to be barred from speaking themselves a few years later, under those very same codes! Hear Glasser flesh out his views below.:
What is concept creep?
I first encountered the idea of concept creep in The Coddling of the American Mind, an excellent book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff. The authors cite an academic paper by the psychologist Nick Haslam of Melbourne University in Australia. Haslam argues that concepts such as bullying, abuse, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice have expanded in meaning in recent years. At first, each of these terms were carefully defined and covered only a narrow range of clear examples. Over the years, these concepts have “undergone semantic shifts” in both “vertical” and “horizontal” directions. Vertically, the boundary of each of these concepts has shifted “downward” to include less extreme phenomena, and horizontally these concepts have “extended outward” to include “qualitatively new phenomena.”
Let’s take “mental disorder” as an example. In 1943, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) listed 47 conditions. By 2000, that number had ballooned to more than 300, and the threshold for diagnosis of various disorders had been lowered substantially. Prejudice, likewise, has expanded in meaning. While the label used to only be applied to explicit bigotry and expressed hatred for identifiable groups, researchers such as McConaghy (1984) and Sears et al. (2000) broadened the definition to include those who opposed affirmative action policies, even if they did not express explicit hatred for the groups in question.
Concept creep is not always a bad thing, and I choose the above two examples to illustrate its complex consequences. Obviously, 70+ years of research on the human brain and mental health would help us to identify and better understand the maladies that afflict our minds. And of course, no discussion of racism’s impact would be complete without an analysis of its legacy impacts on institutions and economic mobility. Sometimes, concept creep simply reflects our expanded understanding of a topic, and I don’t object to this.
However, concept creep as a phenomenon lays bare how our understanding of language impacts us socially. The meanings of words and phrases can change substantially over time. If homosexuality could have been considered a “mental disorder” as recently as the 1970s, who is to say that there are not other problematic “mental disorders” listed in the DSM today? Could the sheer number of possible diagnoses available tempt mental health professionals to over-diagnose and over-medicalize people who would have been considered healthy a generation ago? How does this impact their mental health and resilience? These are uncomfortable questions, but they are inevitable if we understand that concept creep does not always manifest itself in positive ways. Haslam writes: “By misrepresenting normal sadness, worry, and fear as mental disorders, the mental health professions overmedicate, exaggerate the population prevalence of disorder, and deflect resources away from more severe conditions.”
The danger of concept creep in politics
Concept creep is not only at work in the world of psychology. It is also very much a part of the world of politics. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt and Lukianoff discuss some of the disturbing consequences of concept creep in relation to the idea of “safety.” While in the past, “safety” referred to being protected from bodily harm, today, a pervasive “culture of safetyism” on university campuses has become obsessed with policing language and deciding who is allowed to express their views on campus. This has led to professors being fired, speakers being shouted down, and worse. Watch the video below for a summary of the issues on university campuses.
One would hope we would learn from history here. As Ira Glasser frequently mentions, Zionist students in the United Kingdom were at the forefront of arguing for bans on racist speech on university campuses in the 1970s. Imagine their shock and horror when, just a few years later, the people in power at those universities decided that Zionism was a form of racism and banned those very people from expressing their views!
University campuses, while a popular example of such things, are just the tip of the iceberg. A dangerous dialectic exists between the social phenomenon of concept creep and the demonstrated truth that governments rarely give up their new powers, even when those expansions were achieved by previous governments led by their political opponents. This is because regardless of ideology, power is useful in advancing a political agenda.
Let’s look at a classic example in American history: the power to declare war. The Constitution of the United States specifically gives Congress the power to declare war, based on the idea that there ought to at least be a majority vote on such a serious matter. After World War II, however, Presidents began to use the legal concept of “emergency intervention” or “police actions” as a way to declare war unilaterally and bypass Congress. Every single American war since then, including the infamous Vietnam and Iraq wars, has been carried under this pretext. Congress, effectively, has no power to stop the President from engaging in whatever war(s) s/he chooses, short of voting not to fund the military, which would be political suicide. “Emergency intervention” has experienced so much concept creep that the words have no relation to its legal meaning in America anymore. Far from giving the President the power to deploy the army to assist with a natural disaster or peacekeeping mission, it is now used as a basis to declare decades-long wars that costs tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
It’s important to recognize how poles shift in debates over time. When I was growing up, the left was normally associated with defense of free speech and other civil liberties. I remember hearing right wing individuals, especially concerning the War on Terror and the Iraq War, argue for restrictions on dissent and increased surveillance in the name of national security. Today, the poles have shifted. Now, it’s predominantly the left that wants to ban “hate speech,” and suddenly the right is in favour of freedom of speech. This brings to mind an instructive quote from Glasser: “Everybody supports free speech when it’s their speech.” The temptation to suppress dissent is part of the nature of power. Even if we approve of the particular kinds of speech being banned when our preferred government is in power, why would we be comfortable giving the opposition the same power? Concept creep will provide governments of all stripes with wonderful excuses for continuing to expand the definition of “hate speech” in ways that serve their own objectives.
How do we deal with the fire of hate?
“Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”
“I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, or hateful.”
~ John Lewis (1940-2020)
In closing, I’ll return to Singh’s excellent fire metaphor regarding hate. The fact that hatred is a combustible force is not something to be taken lightly. While I disagree with Singh’s contention that we should pit the force of the state against speech we don’t like, I agree with his assessment that hate speech is a problem that must be taken seriously and dealt with.
Hatred’s ability to overtake minds and spread like a virus underlies two vital ethical responsibilities.
1) The individual must do everything possible to cleanse even the smallest ember of hatred from his or her mind. Each of us should go out of our way to get to know people who are different from ourselves. “You can’t demonize people you know,” as Father Greg Boyle says.
2) Likewise, we have a responsibility as a culture to reject hatred.
This is where political power reaches its limits and can even be counter productive. Just as ignoring a fire in a closet is extremely foolish and will lead to disaster, allowing hatred in society to simmer beneath the surface is just as dangerous. Hate speech laws cannot purge minds and societies of hatred. Quite the contrary, they can be a source of resentment, thus pouring gasoline on the proverbial fire of existing hate, and providing combustible material for the hate-fire to break out in new minds. Just as a fire must be noticed in order to be extinguished, hatred needs to be visible in order to be effectively addressed.
The above two quotes from the late Civil Rights legend John Lewis sum up the antidote to the problem of hate speech: more speech! Yes, we must expose the ugliness of hatred for what it is in the public square. But much more importantly, we need to engage in speech that promotes tolerance, understanding, and mutual respect; and, before even speaking a word, we need to learn to listen to one another, so that what we say actually has the potential to make a positive impact rather than inflame the state of discourse even more. This is the only serious way to address the problem of hatred in the long term.
One of the most inspiring and courageous examples of this approach is the musician Darryl Davis. As a black man who wanted to understand the roots of prejudice and do something about it, he began attending KKK events and attempting to engage the members in a dialogue. His actions have led hundreds of KKK members to throw away their robes, and some have even become his friends and activists against racial hatred. Watch his TED talk below: