Debate over the censorship of offensive and hateful speech has been an important feature of American political discourse since the foundation of our republic. The temptation to censor has been found all across the political spectrum.
On the right, to offer a couple current examples, the current United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has banned the use of the term “climate change” in official reports, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) barred its scientists from presenting research on climate change at a conference.
On the left, a certain segment of people openly advocate for government bans on hate speech regardless of whether or not it is considered incitement. The latter faction has been the focus of much discussion and has inspired a thousand mediocre takes on the First Amendment, the viability of identity politics and so on.
In light of this, I will be adding the one-thousand-and-first mediocre take to the discussion, not because I consider right-wing and left-wing censorship to be morally equivalent—for I do not—but out of the desire for the left to adopt the most effective tactics in the pursuit of a more just world. Also, to clarify, when I write “censor” or “ban” hate speech, I am exclusively referring to government legislation and enforcement against hate speech. The measures private entities like Vassar College or Twitter, for example, take against hate speech is a matter outside of the scope of this piece.
To understand how censorship of hate speech is ineffective in actually defeating hate itself and therefore not a goal worth giving substantial time and resources, it is important to leave behind arguments exclusively rooted in morality and human rights. Instead, we must engage with the track record of expansive anti-hate speech legislation in parts of the world where it has been implemented.
Many European countries, despite passing and often enforcing such legislation, have been unable to halt the momentum of far-right fascistic movements and political parties. Alternative for Germany (AfD), for example, became the first far-right party in the German Parliament since WWII by propagating racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments. In late October, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), founded by former Nazis and prone to use imagery reminiscent of the Nazi period, was invited into coalition talks with the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) be- cause of their shared beliefs on immigration.
“Fascism can be defeated in the street and at the ballot box, not just a session of Congress.”
60,000 people marched in a rally on Saturday celebrating Polish independence alongside ultra-nationalists and, ironically enough, neo-Nazis. Reporters saw signs with the slogans “clean blood,” “Islamic holocaust” and “white Europe.” According to the Washington Post, “Police had arrested 45 counter-protesters—but not one of the marchers seen carrying white supremacist symbols or heard chanting ‘Sieg Heil’ in a country where Nazis carried out some of the Holocaust’s worst atrocities” (The Washington Post, “Poland defends massive far-right protest that called for a ‘White Europe’,” 11.13.17).
These international developments indicate that anti-hate speech legislation is of limited use in curbing hate itself. A savvy far-right political party can always shift from using banned phrases or imagery to new words and symbols that are then endowed with the same meaning. “Muslims are incapable of proper assimilation” replaces “Muslim men are rapists” and “George Soros is funding this liberal NGO” replaces “This is a global Jewish conspiracy.” In the case of contemporary Poland, banned symbols (e.g. the swastika) can be out in the open, seeing as how the central government has no discernible will to enforce the legislation already on the books.
Prosecution under anti-hate speech legislation has made popular martyrs out of some of the most vile politicians in Europe. The countercultural appeal of being against the social conventions of political correctness is nothing compared to the appeal of being against the law. Geert Wilders, leader the Party for Freedom (PVV), a Dutch party which has called for the end of immigration from Muslim countries and the banning of new mosques in the Netherlands, has been brought to court on hate speech charges numerous times. The public attention he garnered through these trials has elevated him from the obscure fringes of Dutch politics to a position of global fame and notoriety. In 2017, his party placed second in the Dutch general election.
This begs the question, if anti-hate legislation is ineffective in Europe, what has actually restrained the far-right and fascists since the end of WWII until now? A partial answer is that the most effective resistance to the far-right and fascism has come from institutions like labor and student unions, left-populist movements and religious organizations that have historically been able to mobilize vast constituencies to protest or to vote. A sustained campaign by minority, labor and leftist organizations led to the decline of the fascist National Front party in the UK in the 1970s.
One of the main reasons hate-fueled movements and parties have come to the forefront of global politics is that the institutions that previously acted as a bulwark against fascism have declined due to worldwide cultural and economic shifts.
Instead of directing our limited energies towards advocating legislation against hate speech, American progressives should focus our efforts on rebuilding or replacing the institutions that have been the most consistent opponents of hate itself by organizing workers and students, restoring and building partnerships between religious groups and participating in a myriad of other forms of community organizing and activism. Fascism can be defeated in the street and at the ballot box, not in just a session of Congress.
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