Free Speech vs Hate Speech: The Conundrum

*Deep Breath*

Over the last 18 months, I have been confronted with my world view being challenged, and with that, I have had to look at Free Speech, how it is used, and its limits. Its a hard, but necessary discussion to have. I hope that this post shines a light on how you can have Free Speech and have it fight Hate Speech, and how you cannot have both.

This week, Reddit has banned r/altright, a subreddit for the self-professed “alt-Right movement” (Here is another article if you want to avoid reddit in general), the official reason for the ban is that the subreddit would “Dox” or expose the identities of critics of the subreddit and the movement, which is currently forbidden on the website. But tacitly, it plays into the whole discussion of Free Speech, Censorship, and Hate Speech.  This is not the first time that Reddit has stepped in and banned “hate subreddits,” last year, the website banned r/fatpeoplehate and later r/pizzagate in an effort to stop witch hunting, shaming, and harassment.

Each time this happens, there is a loud and pernicious argument about Free Speech on the website and how censorship is becoming the norm online.

It is a tough discussion because as a Gay man, I have had to fight hate speech for a long time, and for much of that time, I was unable to stop that speech. When I first contemplating coming out (in the mid to late 1990’s), there was information everywhere about the dangers of Homosexuals. Even on the early net, it was acceptable to be anti-homosexual. One of the most well known sites that advocated hate speech towards gays was God Hates Fags, by Westboro Baptist Church. This group would later become famous for picketing gay and US Veterans funerals, condemning the nation to hell for accepting homosexuality into the greater part of society.

When I came out, and had to confront that speech, I always said that “I have a right to say what I want, and so do they. I know that I will win in the end because I don’t speak hate.” And I used that argument to advocate for what I wanted: equality under the law. Their extremism was what I found repugnant, but also a tool I could use to get people to understand my side of things. And it largely worked. People repudiated their insane rhetoric and it helped serve as an example of what we do not as a country. I often credit Westboro in being that extreme voice that pointed unequivocally that hate has no business being encoded in our laws.


For me back then, Free Speech was simple: everyone had it, and while you are not immune to criticism, there is a fundamental right to being able to say what you wanted to say, anywhere, anytime. I feel like my understanding was not total, and somewhat simplistic.


-XKCD Comic

This struck a cord in me because it reminds me of what Free Speech is: The ability to redress the government without being persecuted for it. I have worked in the Refugee world where people are often persecuted by the government for their political feelings, or their dissent at the government. That is what Free Speech has become for me. The problem comes with the Internet Mob. What should we allow? Hate speech is still speech many will argue, and you cannot criminialize thought. For Reddit, it has made a line in the sand that Hate Speech is not allowed, and because it is not a government website, and a private enterprise, it can moderate whatever speech it wants, and I feel that is good. While this ban was a round-about way to do so, they wanted to make sure they did not attract (more) White Nationalists openly to the website.

I do not want a top 50 website hosting content made to promote hate rhetoric in the world.

Conversely, I know what it is like to be a minority opinion, and the tyranny of the majority has always made me feel uneasy, good intentions can lead us all to Hell, and I am especially wary of it when I am on the majority side of things. How does the Tolerance Movement deal with hate speech? Can you be tolerant yet intolerant of hate?  It is a hard question, and one I struggle with.

Tolerance is defined by the No Hate Speech Movement as:

“Tolerance: It is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is being yourself without imposing your views on others. Tolerance is not giving in or giving up. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. The practice of tolerance doesn’t mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s conviction. Tolerance is not always a positive concept. More traditional meanings of the word tolerance do not include respect or acceptance.”

– UNITED for Intercultural Action

I like this definition because it strikes a firm line of where tolerance ends. Tolerance isn’t about letting everything be fair game, it is about promoting basic human rights and fundamental freedom of everyone, not just yourself or your group. Even within science, the term Tolerance is not infinite, there is still a limit to the tolerance, and it is something we tend for forget when it comes to speech. As we move forward in these “interesting times,” we need to keep a clear head about accepting and respecting speech, but also calling our and repudiating hate speech when it rears its ugly head. That fight will always be around, and it is up to us to make sure that hate doesn’t make us forget our tolerance of others.

One thought on “Free Speech vs Hate Speech: The Conundrum

  1. Pingback: This Post is probably about you | Wandering ExPat

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