Should we be free to hate?

By Saskia Solomon, 22, University of Edinburgh (published without alterations to text)

When I was in my early teens I fell down an internet rabbit hole. At the time, I enjoyed drawing to audiobooks and lectures on youtube, absorbing big words and appropriating ideas even if I didn’t entirely understand them.

Saskia Solomon Saskia Solomon. Photo: Saskia Solomon

I listened to prominent academics, historians and artists. The likes of Lucy Worsley, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer and Christopher Hitchens, tickled my ears and became my teachers of choice as I sketched on. I waded through psychobabble, took note of debating techniques, patterns of speech, humour. Then one day the algorithm threw up a lecture by David Irving, the holocaust denier.

I remember putting down my pencil to watch the screen. Irving was a powerful orator, his language clipped in that British grammar-school fashion, his voice steady unlike the others I’d watched who would pause for effect or stutter to be heard. The video, still the first result when you type Irving’s name into youtube, has garnered almost a million views. Performing ‘The Faking of Adolf Hitler for History’ at the Institute for Historical Review, Irving sought to deconstruct what he saw as the ‘great holocaust delusion’. Irving’s claims that the holocaust is a fabrication, that the photographs of the Bergen-Belsen camp were really taken after a typhus epidemic, built a picture of deceit that called out to be challenged. I watched several more videos, each one more convincing than the last. I suppose this is how conspiracy theorists are made: ordinary, susceptible citizens drawn in by the power of rhetoric.  

My father was deeply concerned when I told him, the following day, about Irving’s lecture. His eyes bulged. ‘He’s a very dangerous man’, he said. I was perplexed. Dangerous? All Irving was doing was talking - not to mention talking in a non-violent manner. His tone was one of ‘laying down the facts’, voicing ‘an opinion’ - isn’t everyone entitled to their opinion? This was the first time I’d heard the notion of ‘danger’ being applied to a non-physical act. After that conversation with my father, I never watched another video of the kind again. From then on, I sketched in silence.

Daily Mail_Saskia Daily Mail Online, ‘Still spouting poison: As Hollywood makes a movie about his views, how Holocaust denier David Irving continues to pervert history’. 2016.

I was ashamed of how gullible I was, prepared to listen to anything and anyone with good production value and a wikipedia page. And I had another reason to be ashamed of myself: my own grandmother had been a jewish refugee, had fled with her family from Berlin in 1938. She was just old enough to remember the Night of Broken Glass. Her cousins, uncle, and aunt, had been killed. Her story was the story of thousands; and there I was, her granddaughter, privileged with an expensive education, lured to the side of conspiracy. I was surrounded by people who knew better, luckily, and who had the patience to explain to me that a podium and an audience did not necessarily mean the speaker was worthy of our attention. I only wish others have the guidance to decide to whom and what they listen to, for themselves. 

We live in a world where sensationalist headlines monopolise attention. A time in which dissonant voices, that once would have dwindled, can form a keyboard chorus. Joined with the ephemeral notions of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ that are so abundant under the Trump administration, these voices are gaining attention. People more than ever are in need of groups, of self-definition. The anonymity of the internet has made this happen, herding malleable minds into social-media echo chambers, in loco parentis.

Thus, more than ever traditional news sources need to be held to account, frequently. They need to be checked, both factually and morally. They need regulating. But can this go too far? Placing restrictions on ‘hate speech’ is one thing, but policing? What exactly is hate speech, anyway?

Wikipedia defines ‘Hate Speech’ as ‘speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender’.

Now that I’m in my twenties my perspective on ‘hate speech’ has changed. Rather than silencing vitriol and offence, which can be subjective, I now think it would be more conducive to public freedom to enter into a dialogue with these  ideas. This is especially pertinent in the Internet Age, in which any ‘banned’ video is bound to attract attention.

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I am in favour of free speech, along with its right to offend. I think that the term ‘hate speech’ has been manipulated to incorporate varying forms of intimidation, to matters of sexual humiliation. We have become a more permissive society in many ways, with same sex marriages and increasing pro-choice choice. So why is our freedom of expression, be it to adulate or to hate, being suppressed?

Irving’s lecture is indeed a form of hate speech. It is a speech powered by hate, with the intention of generating hatred. It is a textbook case, rhetoric designed to ignite “racial hatred”, and perhaps even incite violence. But I would argue that banning the expression of such ideas would be even more dangerous. Society is never free of hate. Suppress it, medicalise it, or saw it off like a diseased tree limb, and watch as something more frightening occurs in its place. Hate speech is the expression of social discontent, a revolt against the status quo that must be dealt with, head on.

The tired axiom that ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ is in no ways democratic in its implications. It might as well regard that everyone is entitled to their opinion provided it is the one ‘I want to hear’. We are, as many baby-boomers have bemoaned, an increasingly moralistic generation.

Named and, as of yet, unashamed ‘Hate speech’ pedlars, Milo Yiannopolous and Katie Hopkins, are dangers merely in their eloquence. They are not easily riled. They are funny, masters of self-deprecation. Any verbal attack direct towards them barely makes a dent in their armour. They are in need of adversaries, not stifling.

Meanwhile the list of ‘Persona non grata’ within academia is fast growing. Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell are the martyrs of the free speech cause, with countless others prevented from speaking because their views seem to conflict with the notion of ‘safe spaces’. Listening to authority figures is ingrained in us at school to be a form of agreement. This why, in my opinion, the topic of ‘free speech’ is so contentious. People have been encouraged to associate the act of listening with the act of agreeing. I think that students need to learn to engage with conflicting views, and, more importantly: they need to know that they have right, and should exercise such a right, to offend when it is fit.

Oh, and another thing:

note saskia I was studying in the university library when this leaflet landed on my desk: What did I do? I ignored it. Why? Because I have a choice: engage with the conspiracy, feed my own anger, or just get on with my life. (Photo: Saskia Solomon)

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