Hate Speech Isn’t Freedom of Expression

BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma recently crossed a line in a televised debate causing much embarrassment for the Indian government worldwide. The suspension of Nupur Sharma for her alleged derogatory remark against Prophet Mohammad is a victory for civility. In this case, the push-back was entirely in the realm of opinion and condemnation, which is where it should be. Regrettably, the situation went bad the last Friday in many cities across the country when the disruptive forces among the Muslims indulged in violence taking her two-week-old remark as an excuse.

It’s hard to say if there is more hate in the world today or not. My instinct is no. The hate that we see today is certainly nothing new. But there are some new factors that impact the spread of this hate. First, social media makes it relatively simple to see speech produced in communities outside of one’s own. Different communities have divergent opinions about what kind of speech is considered “acceptable.” With social media, speech that might be seen as acceptable by its intended audience can easily be discovered and broadcast to a larger audience that doesn’t share the same speech norms. The digital world has made it all too easy for repellent and unedited use of language to offend many people.

What is Hate Speech?
Hate speech is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation”. Hate speech is “usually thought to include communications of animosity or disparagement of an individual or a group on account of a group characteristic such as race, colour, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or sexual orientation”. Legal definitions of hate speech vary from country to country.

As per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term “hate speech” is more than a descriptive concept used to identify a specific class of expressions. It also functions as an evaluative term judging its referent negatively and as a candidate for censure.

Hate speech is in itself a denial of the values of tolerance, inclusion, diversity and the very essence of the human rights norms and principles. Religious belief is sometimes the source of putative cases of hate speech, and sometimes its target.

The type of expression most often cited as the paradigm case of hate speech is slurs. Slurs are typically characterized as a type of insult that targets race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, politics, immigrant status, geographic region, and other categories.

Fine line between Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech
Free speech is sacred to any democratic society. Hateful statements, from a legal perspective, can be classified as opinions.  However, the sometimes painful bite of unfettered speech leads many to ask two perfectly logical questions: At what cost? And for what pain?

Upholding free speech is hugely important to open societies that respect human rights. An effective approach to tackling hate speech could be self-regulation and content moderation by public and private institutions, media and the Internet industry, such as the adoption of codes of conduct accompanied by sanctions for non-compliance.

On the presumption that hate speech is harmful — both particularly harmful for the members of targeted groups, and also generally harmful to democracy — the natural question that follows is: what should we do about it?

Awareness and counter-speech are also equally important in fighting the misconceptions and misinformation that form the basis of hate speech. Counter-speech is any direct response to hateful or harmful speech which seeks to undermine it.

Sectarianism, bigotry, and their horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now… If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if some people still dream of the exclusive survival of their own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity them from the bottom of my heart, and point out to them that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight”, “Assimilation and not Destruction”; “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”

Swami Vivekananda, Chicago, 1893

Hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace. As a matter of principle, hate speech must be confronted at every turn and be tackled in order to prevent armed conflict, crimes and terrorism, end violence against women and other serious violations of human rights, and promote peaceful, inclusive and just societies.

satyaṁ brūyāt priyaṁ brūyān na brūyāt satyam apriyam
priyaṁ cha nānṛitaṁ brūyād eṣha dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ

Manu Smṛiti 4.138

Speak the truth in such a way that it is pleasing to others. Do not speak the truth in a manner injurious to others. Never speak untruth, though it may be pleasant. This is the sanātana-dharma.

International Day for Countering Hate Speech: 18th of June
Marking an important milestone in the fight against hate speech, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on “promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech”. The resolution proclaims 18 June as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech, which will be marked for the first time in 2022.

18 thoughts on “Hate Speech Isn’t Freedom of Expression

  1. Nilanjana Moitra

    Nice post. Hate speeches and hate remarks in TV debates, and public fora must be countered. TV channels must take the responsibility for broadcasting such hate speeches. They should undertake content moderation and proper debate moderation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely written…
    As I posted in our WA group, the TV channels must be made accountable for the content of their programs and heavily penalized for disrupting peace because of their greed for rating points.
    Just an observation gathered from different sources, the comment made by NS is neither abusive nor derogatory as she merely quoted what’s written in the holy scriptures… In fact, there’s a video floating on SM of Zakir Naik wherein he also said the same thing.
    Therefore, the recent disturbances are more political in nature than any backlash for the said comment.
    Lastly, there have been instances of hate mongering by the members of one particular community showing Hindu Goddess in the nude and even desecration of the Hindu shrines, but besides condemning the acts no destructive measures never happened…
    So, there has to be a certain amount of tolerance in the human races irrespective of which faith they belong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nupur Sharma might have quoted from the Hadiths or Quran, but her tone and mood were abusive and full of hatred and her references were incidents of the medieval era. This is objectionable. More than Nupur, the TV channel should be held responsible for holding a debate on an issue which is sub-judice and inviting guests from opposing groups. They are neither experts in archaeology nor in history. The moderator instead of moderating allowed the temper to run high. As I said that there should be a system of content moderation and accountability on the media houses for allowing such debates through a system of self-regulations.
      Hate speech should always be countered by counterspeech and the push-back should entirely be in the realm of opinion and condemnation. Any act of violence is condemned and cannot be justified even if it may be a reaction, individual or political, spontaneous or organized. Any act of arson, violence should be dealt with as per the penal laws and criminal procedures.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Swami Vikananda was indeed a treasure of wisdom, and a great social reformer. His thinking was so ahead of his time, each of his words are still relevant today. Hate speech in the name of God is really reprehensible. Only God knows when the good sense will prevail!
    Very informative and sensible post.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Manojit

        Nice post indeed. I agree that even though she had quoted from Hadith, the tone of NS was to hurt the feelings of a particular community and it sounded like hate speech. Zakir Naki fled because he was also spreading g hatred through his speech. I strongly feel that it is high time that self regulatory bodies like BCCC along with Ministry of I&B should set an example by imposing heavy penalty on the concerned media house for failing to uphold the broadcasting content on the basis of various provisions given under Cable Television Network Act 1994, and the amendments made thereafter, so that such incidence does not happen in future in any debate in the name of Freedom of Expression. These types of incidents are hampering the strong relationships with some Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and UAE that MEA has been able to establish after painfully working so hard in last few years under NDA rule.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Well her tone was abusive which may be a reaction. Nobody is blaming the TV channel for selecting a subject like Gyanvapi- mandir or masjid? They invited participants from completely opposing groups while the issue is being considered at the court. They are not experts in history or archaeology to lend some opinion. The debate was destined to end like this as the moderator was quiet instead of moderating the debate or moderating the content while airing it. The TV channels should also be held responsible, they belong to the 4th pillar of democracy.


  4. Sunil Grover

    A man is beheaded.
    A woman is in hiding.
    The nation is tense.
    And a news channel that lit the fire – by not having an editorial layer or exercising editorial responsibility – gets away after having lit the fire!!!
    The news channel should accept its share of responsibility and all channels mend their ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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