Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Liberalism and hate-based extremism

How should a democratic society handle the increasingly virulent challenges presented by hate groups, anti-government extremists, and organizations that encourage violence and discrimination against others in society? Should extremist groups have unlimited rights to advocate for their ideologies of hatred and antagonism against other groups within a democracy?

Erik Bleich has written extensively on the subject of racist speech and the law. Recent books include The Freedom to Be Racist?: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism and Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s. Bleich correctly notes that these issues are broader than the freedom-of-speech framework in which they are often placed; so he examines law and policy in multiple countries on freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of opinion-as-motive. In each of these areas he finds important differences across European countries and the United States with respect to legislation concerning racist expressions. In particular, liberal democracies like Great Britain, France, and Germany have created legislation to prohibit various kinds of hate-based speech and action. Here is his summary of the status of European legislation:
European restrictions on racist expression have proceeded gradually but consistently since World War II. A few provisions were established in the immediate postwar era, but most countries’ key laws were enacted in the 1960s and 1970s. The statutes have been tinkered with, updated, and expanded in the ensuing decades to the point where virtually all European liberal democracies now have robust hate speech laws on their books. These laws are highly symbolic of a commitment to curb racism. But they are also more than just symbols. As measured by prosecutions and convictions, levels of enforcement vary significantly across Europe, but most countries have deployed their laws against a variety of racist speech and have recently enforced stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. (kl 960) 
In the United States it is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the Constitution to prohibit "hate speech" or to ban hate-based organizations. So racist and homophobic organizations are accorded all but unlimited rights of association and expression, no matter how odious and harmful the content and effects of their views. As Bleich points out, other liberal democracies have a very different legal framework for regulating hate-based extremism by individuals and organizations (France, Germany, Sweden, Canada).

Here is the First Amendment of the US Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is pure liberalism, according to which the state needs to remain entirely neutral about disagreements over values, and the only justification for legal prohibition of an activity is the harm the activity creates. There is a strong philosophical rationale for this position. John Stuart Mill maintains an ultra-strong and exceptionless view of freedom of expression in On Liberty.  He argues that all ideas have an equal right to free expression, and that this position is most advantageous to society as a whole. Vigorous debate leads to the best possible set of beliefs. Here are a few passages from On Liberty:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. (13)
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (19)
This line of reasoning leads to legal toleration in the United States of groups like the White Citizens Councils, Neo-Nazi parties, and the Westboro Baptist Church to conduct their associations, propaganda, and demonstrations to further their hateful objectives. And they and their activists sometimes go further and commit acts of terrible violence (Timothy McVeigh, the murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming, and the murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi).

But as Mill acknowledges, a democratic society has a right and an obligation to protect its citizens from violence. This is the thrust of the "harm" principle in Mill's philosophy of political authority. Is right-wing extremism (RWE) really just another political platform, equally legitimate within the public sphere of debate in a democratic society? Or do these organizations represent a credible threat to personal safety and civil peace?

Certainly most of the disagreements between liberals and conservatives fall in Millian category -- how much a society should spend on social welfare programs, what its immigration policies ought to be, the legal status of single-sex marriage. The disagreements among the parties are intense, but the debates and positions on both sides are legitimate. Mill is right about this range of policy disagreements. The political process and the sphere of public debate should resolve these disagreements.

But RWE goes beyond this level of disagreement about policy and legislation. RWE represents a set of values and calls to action that are inconsistent with the fundamentals of a democratic society. And they are strongly and essentially related to violence. RWE activists call for violence against hated groups, they call for armed resistance to the state (e.g. the Bundy's), and they actively work to inculcate hatred against specific groups (Muslims, Jews, African Americans, gays and lesbians, ...). These groups are anti-constitutional and contemptuous of the common core of civility upon which a democratic society depends.

There are two fundamental arguments against hate-based speech and associations that seem to justify exceptions to the general liberal principle of toleration of offensive speech. One is an argument linking hate to violence. There is ample historical evidence that hateful organizations do in fact stimulate violence by their followers (Birmingham bombing, lynchings and killings of civil rights workers, the assassination of Yitzak Rabin). So our collective interest in protecting all citizens against violence provides a moral basis for limiting incendiary hate speech and organization.

The second kind of argument concerns hate itself, and the insidious effects that hateful ideologies have on individuals, groups, and the polity. EU reports make an effort to capture the essential nature and harms of hate (link). Hate incites mistrust, disrespect, discrimination, and violence against members of other groups. The social effects of hate are toxic and serious. Do these effects suffice to justify limiting hate speech?

This is a difficult argument to make within the context of US jurisprudence. The realm of law involves coercion, and it is agreed that the threshold for interfering with liberty is a high one. It is also agreed that legal justifications and definitions need to be clear and specific. How do we define hate? Is it explained in terms of well-known existing hatreds -- racism, anti-semitism, islamophobia, homophobia, ...? Or should it be defined in terms of its effects -- inculcating disrespect and hostility towards members of another group? Can there be new hatreds in a society -- antagonisms against groups that were previously accepted without issue? Are there legitimate "hatreds" that do not lead to violence and exclusion? Or is there an inherent connection between hatred and overt antagonism? And what about expressions like those of Charlie Hebdo -- satire, humor, caricature? Is there a zone of artistic expression that should be exempt from anti-hate laws?

Here is Bleich's considered view on the balance between liberty and racism. Like Mill, he focuses on the balance between the value of liberty and the harm created by racist speech and action.
To telegraph the argument here, my perspective focuses on the level of harm inflicted on individuals, victim groups, and societies. For individuals and victim groups, the harm has to be measurable, specific, and intense. For societies, racism that fosters violence or that drives wedges between groups justifies limiting freedom of expression, association, and opinion-as-motive. (kl 247)
Racist expressions, associations, or actions that drive a wedge between segments of society or that provoke an extremely hostile response have little redeeming social value. Their harm to other core liberal democratic values such as social cohesion and public order simply outweighs any potential benefits to be gained by protecting them. At the same time, if the statements or organizations are designed to contribute to public debate about state policies, they have to be rigorously protected, even if they may have potentially damaging side effects. (kl 3403)
And here are the closing words of advice offered in the book:
How much freedom should we grant to racists? The ultimate answer is this: look at history, pay attention to context and effects, work out your principles, convince your friends, lobby your representatives, and walk away with a balance of values that you can live with. (kl 3551)
The issue to this point has been whether the state can legitimately prohibit hate speech and organization. But other avenues for fighting hateful ideas fall within the realm of civil society itself. We can do exactly as Mill recommended: offer our own critiques and alternatives to hatred and racism, and strive to win the battle of public opinion. Empirically considered, this is not an entirely encouraging avenue, because a century of experience demonstrates that hate-based propaganda almost always finds a small but virulent audience. So it is not entirely clear that this remedy is sufficient to solve the problem.

These are all difficult questions. But the rise and virulence of hate-based groups across the world makes it urgent for democracies to confront the problem in a just way, respecting equality and liberty of citizens while stamping out hate. And there are pressing practical questions we have to try to answer: do the non-coercive strategies available to the associations of civil society have the capacity to securely contain the harmful spread of hate-based organizations and ideologies? And, on the other hand, do the more restrictive legal codes against racism and hate-based organizations actually work in France or Germany? Or does the continuing advance of extremist groups there suggest that legal prohibition had little effect on RWE as a political movement? And if both questions turn out unfavorably, does liberalism face the possibility of defeat by the organizations of hatred and racism?


Anonymous said...

Even social movements soberly critical of another group to the highest degree probably lead to hatred somewhere on the 'social spectrum'. But there is (or should be) effort to distinguish these two qualities, as such criticism is essential for the 'progressive' element of speech Mill defends.

Can hate have a constructive, 'truth' at its core? I suspect it can, yet perhaps our knowledge of its (seeming) inherent corrosiveness justifies suppression. And what place do mass movements based on emotional vitriol have in the modern age? Point of contrast - problems like climate change are proving intractable through sober, debate (not that hate would solve this!).

One exception is hate applied to individuals. It lacks the risk exponential growth that can follow group stereotypes?

My understanding of Mills On Liberty, is that the 'pure liberalism' which he spends his time expounding is underpinned by tacit qualification : provided society is sufficiently stable to secure peace, and ensure the stability of other democratic institutions. Hence his famous remark justifying authoritarian rule for less developed societies. [this may be slightly different in emphasis to points in your post - society focused rather than individual/group, victim/perpetrator]

It has never occurred to me before, but Millian doctrine may not provide a strong commitment to the 2nd amendment. The constitution may be the major hurdle to both.

Interesting questions.

RS said...

"And, on the other hand, do the more restrictive legal codes against racism and hate-based organizations actually work in France or Germany? Or does the continuing advance of extremist groups there suggest that legal prohibition had little effect on RWE as a political movement?"

Good questions, but you're missing the most important one. Would hate speech laws actually be used as intended? I highly doubt it. The day laws against "hate speech" become acceptable in the United States is the day conservative forces will begin harassing mosques and black churches with legal threats doused in pink-washed claims of hate against women and homosexuals, even "anti-white/anti-Christian bigotry" if they're feeling particularly audacious. Take a look at the comments coming out of the alt-right about protecting gays and women and you can already see the groundwork being laid. Their own wellsprings of hate, of course, will be protected by legions of lawyers.

Anonymous said...

BLM is almost certainly the largest and most important "hate" group in the United States. BLM isn't just rhetorically violent, it inspires murderous attacks on police officers and civilians. Since BLM is PC, the establishment supports BLM, both financially and politically.

Since 9/11 (excluding 9/11), radical Islamiss have killed twice as many people in the U.S. as "right-wing extremists". However, somehow "RWE" is the real problem.

The definition of "hate" on display here amounts to anything the PC establishment doesn't like. Oppose Open Borders because Americans need jobs... That's "hate". Dare to suggest that crime rates across groups aren't equal... That's "hate". Point out that bad students make bad schools... That's "hate".

The facts don't matter. PC repression and censorship is the issue. "Hate" is just another word that has been weaponized to impose the PC agenda.

Anonymous said...

doesn't liberalism presuppose a commonality of goals at least vaguely? Surely it mandates that any result without democracy has to be resisted by any means? Also, can liberalism be tolerant of illiberalism? A case in point - a fully (or partially) covered muslim woman - should that be tolerated by "liberalism"? What if cult becomes bigger than tolerant portion of society?

greg said...

The legal status of hate speech, and eventually hate action, is quite irrelevant.

What is relevant are the economic and social circumstances which motivate it. Most people who are doing well generally feel good, and do not bother with hate. When a segment of society, however, sees their share of the pie slipping away, they look for someone to blame.

Throughout history, societies which grow at a sufficient rate hold together with a unity of purpose. The haters are marginal, and may be kept marginalized. When the growth of societies slows, dissension arises and increases, both among the lower classes, and among the elites. Hate becomes endemic, and the different factions of the elites seek to recruit the lower classes to their cause.

It is the economic elites which are the origin of the lower classes misery. It is they who manage and control society, and are responsible for the allocation of resources. If the lower classes are suffering, it is because the economic elites are depriving them of the resources and the capital the lower classes need to prosper. However, The lower class, perceiving themselves weak compared to the elites, in particular the economic elite on which they perceive themselves to depend, displace their hatred on those weaker than themselves.

Eventually, these become the intellectual and political elites, which become objects of hatred, unless these elites, by making clear the origins of lower class misery, rally the lower classes to themselves. These elites must point out and coherently oppose the increasing exploitation of the entire society by the economic elites. Of this relentless exploitation, increasing inequality, indebtedness, economic stagnation, and the impoverishment of the lower classes, are symptoms.

The moral high ground is to oppose, rather than to passively allow, the destruction of all the people's liberties. The economic elite, having gained essential control of the material wealth of society, seek to plunder what remains: The political, social, and spiritual wealth of society. They seek only gain. They will not, they cannot stop, and there is nothing else for them to take. And for this, the speech and actions or the haters is but an instrument.

The legal status of hate speech is quite irrelevant, because hate is driven by, and funded by, the actions of the powerful, who are increasingly insulated from any law. If the larger economic and political situation is allowed to progress, in the end, no law will contain it. Instead, the law will be bent to the ends of hatred.