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'Hate speech' censorship: the reality

By Laurence Maher - posted Monday, 28 September 2015

The ordinariness of "hate"

Why all the fuss about so-called "hate speech"? "Hate" is an ordinary English word which bespeaks an ordinary human emotion. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry is, in part, "1. An emotion of extreme dislike or aversion; detestation, abhorrence, hatred." The short answer is that the unhelpful but influential expression, "hate speech", is no more than an ideological label used to dress up the latest manifestation of the ever-present human impulse to gag other human beings from expressing opinions which differ from the censors' approved opinions.

The long answer involves probing the modern censors' attempts to define "hate speech" and contemporary arguments for suppressing selected categories of dissent. The essence of the "hate speech" dogma is that there is a hierarchy of ideas, some superior, some inferior, some approved, some disapproved and to be suppressed.


In 1990, members of the Supreme Court of Canada referred to "hate" as "the most severe and deeply felt form of opprobrium." Reasonable minds will differ as to whether that formula adds anything not conveyed by "extreme dislike".

The reality is that public controversy in Australia is notable for daily doses of "intense dislike" or, in a word, hate. Intense dislike of ideas and those who express them is, in the sense contended for by the late Ronald Dworkin, a "constitutive" characteristic of a free and open and equal society.

Former Prime Minister Abbott and the Leader of the Opposition are hated men. In 2015, there have been as many examples as might normally be expected of their dedicated haters subjecting both men to torrents of vituperation. And megalitres of vitriol have been released in condemning a former Leader of the (ALP) Opposition and a former Justice of the High Court.

In the long Australian tradition of dissent, adherents of conflicting social, economic, political and religious opinions hurl hate-filled epithets at one another. To draw attention to that reality is not to approve or encourage vulgar, scurrilous, bigoted, malicious, or blindly prejudiced habits, or content, of speech.

The volume of hateful language and prejudice increases by the day. For some of the citizenry, the World Wide Web (WWW) is, at best, an agglomeration of humbug, cant, trivia and drivel. And, to borrow the arresting alliterative tag applied by W J V Windeyer QC at the Petrov Royal Commission in 1954, at its worst, the WWW attracts "farrago[es] of facts, falsity and filth", to which might be added - fable, fabrication, fantasy, fear-mongering and fatuousness. And then there is the more recent arrival of social media, a great advance in freedom of communication or an open sewer depending on one's opinion.

In recent times, the selective acceptance of "hate speech" has been evidenced in the conspicuous failure of the proponents of "hate speech" censorship legislation to be troubled in the slightest degree by public exhortations (in one case violent) that then Prime Minister Abbott, anthropogenic global warming "deniers" and persons who "insult" religious ideas and beliefs be put to death. What is "hate" to one person is "truth" (earthly or divine) to another. What is "respectful discourse" to one person is "nauseating" to another.


"Who could disagree?"

Both the self-identifying "Left" and "Right" in Australian politics have their pet doctrinal verities some of which are shared. The dogmatic censorial cast of mind is that since it is inconceivable that that any sane person could disagree dissenters should not be tolerated.

Opinions will, of course, differ, but the "Right" seems more inclined to resort to hatred, contempt and ridicule than imposing legal penalties on the folks they abhor.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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