The Harm Is Not in Hate Speech

I wanted to come back to the sad events of last weekend, when a mosque in Saguenay, in Québec, was smeared with, purportedly, pig blood, and angry letters were sent both to the mosque and to the local Radio-Canada station, demanding that Muslims “assimilate or go home.” As Radio-Canda reported, police are considering charges, both for vandalism and for hate speech ― though they’d have to find those who did it first. (I don’t think I’ve seen any good news on that front.) The community leaders, however, stress that this is an outlying incident, and that the town, or the province, should not be judged by it. Fair enough. But, as others point out, the current climate in Québec, with the government’s proposal, to be finally unveiled on Monday, of a “Charter of Québec Values” stressing secularism ― or, more accurately, suppressing much visible expression of non-Christian religious beliefs while preserving, under the label of “cultural heritage,” Christian symbols such as the crucifix which Maurice Duplessis had hung in the National Assembly ― is a context which we cannot ignore when thinking about the significance of the attack on the mosque.

There is always a danger in trying to link a single crime to some wrong, real or perceived, in the society at large, as people are too often tempted to do in response, say, to mass shootings. However, when a crime seems to have a political purpose, such a link probably ought to exist, if only in the mind of the criminal. This is not to say that society in general or some individual politicians to whose decisions the criminal is reacting have caused or are directly responsible for the crime. Without more, it also does not mean that they have done anything wrong. No one committed any wrong that could have justified FLQ terrorism for instance, though it obviously was a response to the political situation of the late 1960s Québec. But, quite clearly, sometimes politicians do contribute to creating a social climate in which certain sorts of crimes become more likely, even without calling for or even directly encouraging their commission. An obvious current example is Russia, where the enactment homophobic legislation is coinciding with a rise in brutal anti-gay violence.

The situation in Québec right now is, I am afraid, not dissimilar. Much of recent talk of “Québec values” and “secularism” and even, alas, “male-female equality” is code for expressing, in terms that are intended to be acceptable in and indeed appealing to polite society, a barely disguised hostility to those who look and think differently from the majority ― above all, religious Muslims. Instead of trying to convince the people insecure at the prospect of social change that Québec will not be different for looking different, the government is fanning the flames by embracing this language. And so, although I fully believe that Québec’s Premier is sincere in her denunciation of the mosque attack, the policies of her government give heart to those who think like the attack’s perpetrators, and tell those against whom the attack was directed that they are not welcome here. Even assuming that this is not these policies’ intent, it is their foreseeable effect.

And this brings me to the legal point pf this post. I wrote at great length last fall about Jeremy Waldron’s book on The Harm in Hate Speech. As I explained here, the core of Prof. Waldron’s argument “that hate speech must be prohibited in order to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.” Although the society’s laws might, objectively considered, be egalitarian and welcoming, visible expressions of hatred and contempt undermine the promise of these laws, and must be banned. I also wrote that I was not persuaded by prof. Waldron’s claims. Now the attack on the mosque in Saguenay, and the letters that accompanied it, seem to be a perfect illustration of the sort of thing that worries prof. Waldron ― a visible manifestation of hatred obviously intended to tell its victims that they are they are at best, second-class citizens, and indeed not welcome at all in the society, whatever our other laws might say. Was I wrong to disagree with prof. Waldron? I still do not think so. As the reaction of the local community leaders shows, they are not particularly worried about what they know is an isolated act. It is not that which seriously undermines the assurance of their equal citizenship.

The talk surrounding the forthcoming Charter of Québec Values is a different matter. Because it comes from on high, it does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard, including that proposed by prof. Waldron.

My point, of course, is not that we ought to change the law so as to allow us to drag the members of the Québec government before the criminal courts. It would not be possible to word the law in a way that would not prevent all sorts of legitimate debates and create massive chilling effects. Nor should we even try. Bad ideas ― including bad ideas that would relegate some of our fellow-citizens to the margins of society ― ought, if at all possible, be defeated politically. But that is not to say that such ideas, even if they eventually are defeated, are harmless. Yet the harm about which prof. Waldron worries is not so much in hate speech. It is, to a much greater extent, in the polite-sounding pronouncements of the the cynics who try to use an undercurrent of bigotry and hatred to their electoral advantage.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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