Jeremy Waldron, in the latest NYRB, has reviewed what looks to be a valuable book by Anthony Lewis, Freedom for the thought that we hate: A biography of the First Amendment. However, Waldron ends his review with a rather insidious plea concerning the legal restriction of public pronouncements about other races and ethnies. Here’s what he says (p. 44) [emphasis added]:
Lewis’s settled position, I think, is that we do better to swallow hard and tolerate ‘the thought that we hate’ than open ourselves to the dangers of state regulation. I am not convinced. The case is certainly not clear on either side, and Lewis acknowledges that. But it is worth remembering a couple of final points.
First, the issue is not thought that we hate, as though defenders of hate speech laws want to get inside people’s minds. The issue is publication and the harm done to individuals and groups through the disfiguring of our social environment by visible, public, and semi-permanent announcements to the effect that in the opinion of one group in the community, perhaps the majority, members of another group are not worthy of equal citizenship. The old idea of group libel — as opposed to hateful thoughts or hateful conversation — makes this clear, and it is no accident that a number of European countries still use that term.
Well, the term “libel” is a good one. But when applied to the libeling of a private individual, whose reputation has supposedly been unjustly tarnished, the libeler has to have made a false statement. If the statement turns out to be true, it is not libel. “Reputation” is a critical feature of social relations. It can take a long time to establish a good one and an instant to lose it. But when an accusation is valid, the person’s reputation deserves to be affected. The same holds for “group libel” when one calls attention to group differences (e.g., blacks have lower IQ) or mentions the activity of ethnic organizations (e.g., the role of the organized Jewish community in ending immigration policies that favored the European majority in the U.S.).
A court punishes a libeler via due process in which both the falsity and the harmful nature of the statement must be demonstrated to the court’s satisfaction. But truth is a perfectly adequate defense. If the truth is harmful or distasteful to a group, that’s just too bad, just as is the case for an individual. Of course, when people are interacting in good faith, there is no reason for not conveying the truth diplomatically and politely.
One must also consider the fact that to be consistent with principle, any law must apply equally to all parties. Therefore harsh criticisms of ‘whites’, ‘white society’, and ‘Western civilization’ would also have to be examined as potential cases of ‘hate speech’. In that case, would the words of Rev. Wright constitute an offense? Or those of the late literary darling of NY intellectuals, Susan Sontag, who retracted her remark that the white race is the cancer of human history by saying that it slandered cancer patients? To do otherwise would be to violate neutrality, one of the fundamental principles of, dare one say it, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ jurisprudence?
Secondly, the issue is not just our learning to tolerate thought that we hate — we the First Amendment lawyers, for example. The harm that expressions of racial hatred do is harm in the first instance to the groups who are denounced or bestialized in pamphlets, billboards, talk radio, and blogs. It is not harm — if I can put it bluntly — to the white liberals who find the racist invective distasteful. Maybe we should admire some lawyer who says he hates what the racist says but defends to the death his right to say it, but this sort of intellectual resilience is not what’s at issue. The question is about the direct targets of the abuse. Can their lives be led, can their children be brought up, can their hopes be maintained and their worst fears dispelled, in a social environment polluted by these materials? Those are the concerns that need to be answered when we defend the use of the First Amendment to strike down laws prohibiting the publication of racial hatred.
Of course people may be offended, deeply hurt even, when members of other branches of humanity look down on them because of behaviors which are indeed widespread within the targeted group. But traditional Mormons (LDS) and Muslims really do sanction polygamy and many of these polygamous families are indeed on welfare. And the organized Jewish community is indeed the main force influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. We should be able to say these things even if those discussed are offended by such remarks.
This is something that Waldron and other racial apologists cannot accept and why his special pleading is insidious. Of course, Muslims who oppose polygamy and Jews who oppose the Israel lobby don’t deserve to be included as guilty of these actions. But they either have a moral imperative to control the perpetrators in their midst or, if that is not possible — as it usually is not — to dissociate themselves from them and their anti-social acts (as many members of many groups have).
Human cognitive systems are evolutionarily preprogrammed to attend to cues for danger and to avoid things that are disliked. Such stereotyping, when applied to other human groups, may not appeal to many people’s moral sense, but it is a form of generalization which is an invaluable and constant cognitive process for all humans — even when the stereotype does not apply to all members of the group.
Stereotypes are rules of thumb. When we are in an in-group, we tend to exaggerate the extent to which members of out-groups have negative traits. These perceptions are useful for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they make us cautious in dealing with members of the out-group. If I know that young black men are much more likely than whites or Asians to be street criminals, I would be well advised to keep a good distance from a young black man even when a particular black is not a criminal. “Better safe than sorry” is a good mammalian rule. Like it or not, our evolutionary history has been dictated by an eye toward survival, not canonization.
And if the information that young black men are much more likelyto be street criminals is useful in everyday life, then we should be able to state it without incurring the wrath of the thought police — even if it hurts the feelings of blacks.
Typically lost sight of is the fact that hate is a complex emotional/motivational mechanism that evolved as part of a defense system. If it were totally absent, our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted long in the face of the predatory humans of other tribes, ethnies, or races. Why? Because they wouldn’t have been motivated to defend themselves. Remember all those propaganda images from WWII. They promoted hatred toward stereotyped enemies.
Of course today’s politically correct dogma has pathologized “hate”, presumably on the grounds that there is no good reason to have negative stereotypes of certain targets, especially other races and ethnies. To the extent that we can know anything in the social sciences, this is simply untrue.
Often the people complaining most about negative stereotypes are quite prone, themselves, to stereotyping when it suits their interest (e.g., blacks blaming white “racists” and “hate mongers” for their own especially high black crime rate). And it is doubtless true that people do sometimes make mistakes and falsely accuse others (e.g., certain extreme varieties of “Holocaust Denial”). But the solution to that is to educate, inform and explain.
If a public verbal attack on a group turns out to be malicious accusation where the accuser cannot back up his accusation with facts, then the accuser might well be held accountable for “group libel,” even if the punishment is nothing more than hostile public opinion. For example, the loss of one’s job as a broadcaster for saying blacks have superior athletic ability because of breeding practices is certainly substantial punishment — especially since the essential notion (that racial differences in talents can arise through differential breeding) is true. To go beyond that and enlist laws and tribunals of the state to penalize such speech, as a form of “group libel”, would absolutely require following the logic of libel for individuals: prove that the defendant intended to defame a whole group and not just some individuals within it and that what the defendant said was false. This won’t be easy since most people who hold negative views of out-groups probably genuinely believe whatever they may have expressed publicly.
Thus, if “group libel” is so difficult to prove, don’t mess with the First Amendment! The best solution, if ethnic or racial groups cannot seem to resolve their hostile opinions of each other, is that they simply live separately where they can’t get on each other’s nerves. As Steve Sailer says, “It’s what separate countries are for.”
Those tempted to take the anti-hate speech arguments seriously, might want to reflect on the words of Heinrich Himmler, quoted by Lothrop Stoddard who interviewed Heinrich Himmler in Germany back in 1939 and asked “Is any political opposition allowed?”
“What a person thinks is none of our concern,” shot back Himmler quickly. “But when he acts upon his thoughts, perhaps to the point of starting a conspiracy, then we take action. We believe in extinguishing a fire while it is still small. It saves trouble and averts much damage.
Sounds like Waldron’s view of the First Amendment.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to the editor and Travis Woodson for their suggestions on the article.
Anthony Hilton is Associate Professor of Psychology (Ret.) at Concordia University, Montréal, Québec, Canada.