Banning 'hate speech' is not the answer

TOUGH CALL: Banning hate speech won't work, because people need to let off steam and there is no way to do it fairly.


    Jan 22, 2015

    Banning 'hate speech' is not the answer

    THE greatest trick "hate speech" has ever pulled is, it seems, to exist only on "the other side". Which is why the Constitution Drafting Committee's idea to make it illegal will only scratch the surface of the problem. "Hate speech" is abstract, highly subjective and absolutely capable of making anyone a hypocrite. Most of all, it can come in various forms, even in the most beautiful language.

    You can take this article and describe it as hate speech. Why not? It lambastes hypocrisy, and thus, encourages people to "hate" hypocrites. It demonstrates a degree of contempt, and contempt is a key ingredient of hate speech. It will surely make some people angry, and what triggers anger also causes hatred, doesn't it?

    Let me be clear on one thing. The assumption that Thailand's political divide has a lot to do with hate speech in both the conventional and social media is reasonable. Banning hate speech, however, is not the solution. And that's not only because people actually need to let off steam, but also because there is no way to do it fairly.

    "Hate speech" is judged or measured by emotions. I can say to a woman "You bitch!" and be cute in the process. In the same way, she can say to me "You rat!" and get kisses in return. In the political world, a columnist who calls a female politician a slut cannot credibly claim he meant it affectionately, but you get my point. Feelings are the hardest thing to judge, let alone tackle with legal measures.

    And what about political cartoons or those doctored photos, or genuine ones with "creative" captions? Some laugh at them, but others are genuinely angered by their content. Are they hate speech? And who will decide that? If, say, extrajudicial killings are carried out by the army or police, and a cartoon depicts the prime minister holding a bloodied sword, is that hate speech or social commentary?

    Moreover, there are plenty of hate-speech haters out there who get carried away and fail to practise what they preach. How should we classify these people? They are usually polite and often draw "likes" and supportive comments for their Facebook posts, but they alternate between looking down from their high horse and getting off it to join the fray, albeit unknowingly.

    Hate-speech haters can be selective as well. They may raise hell when someone they don't like says something, then go quiet when a similar or worse statement comes from someone else. Selective hate-speech haters are not hard to spot, as the Thai political divide generates volatile remarks from both sides on a daily basis.

    Last but not least is the "Who did it first?" dilemma. What if a person arrested or fined for calling someone a moron claims he is responding to somebody else who called yet another person an airhead? Should the other suspect face legal action too? If so, what if this other suspect insists he was responding to an offensive remark in YouTube's comment section? It could go all the way back to the beginning of time.

    Yet words like "whore", "stupid" or "murderer" are easier to deal with than another form of hate speech. This tricky type of hate speech uses normal language to amplify misunderstandings or flaws of the other side. Polite generalisation - using words like "slaves" or "elites" - can gradually build resentment, which can easily turn into hatred.

    There you have it. Hate speech is a lot more subtle, prevalent and complex than you might think. It does not necessarily provoke outright anger or hatred. It can cause one to first feel low and sorry for oneself, but that self-pity can turn into wrath, and the wrath can fester. It can have the same effect as pillow talk - slow but sure.

    Since hate speech can be virtually everywhere - on rally stages, in opinion columns, on TV, in Facebook posts condemning political wrongdoings, or during seminars held to decry rampant verbal abuse - what should we do about it? Throwing the hate-speech makers in jail or fining them won't work, for all the reasons mentioned above. Unfair treatment of hate-speech makers will only magnify the hatred, defeating the apparently noble purpose.

    The trick is to expose hate speech's greatest trick. And that task belongs to all of us, not Charter drafters. We must first accept that it's not just the other side that is using hate speech, but that we are, too - unknowingly or not. Keep that in mind when taking the microphone or clicking "publish", and hopefully, hate speech will be less intense one day and we won't need politicians or "reformists" to tell us what to say.