The limitations of the ‘more speech’ solution

30 november 2012 | In Crime Hate Crime media Moral philosophy politics Uncategorized | Comments?

On the 25th of november the youth wing of the swedish social democratic party held an action they called ”nätfight” (”net-fight”). The idea was, for this day at least, not to let all the xenophobic nonsense that flourish on various internet fora to stand unopposed. Arguments were to be made. It’s a ”take back the internet from the Trolls” kind of initiative. Most non-xenophobic people dislike engaging in these conversations (especially those that have tried without result) as very little good is likely to come out of such an engagement. Perhaps we believe that engaging will only make things worse. Xenophobic views are not primarily based on arguments, and are unlikely to disappear or be made more moderate on the basis of argument.

This action is similar in idea, but different in content, to two other recent attempts to counter the dark sides internet. The first was launched by a swedish journalist and involves ”love bombing” of sites and Facebook pages where young people are subjected to bullying. The other started with the #signyosonisgay hashtag, which started as a homophobic method of ridicule, but was turned into a medium to show love and support for homosexuals.

The first initiative is based on argument, the other two is based on ”crowding out” bullying and xenophobia. But they have one central feature in common: they are based on the idea that the harm being done in the name of free speech (especially on the internet) is effectively countered by more speech.

Some will say this is the ONLY acceptable way to counter harms done via speech. The ”more speech” solution is preferable to regulation of speech – it’s results outperform in every regard, or so goes the argument. It’s more effective in discouraging harmful speech, it empowers the victims of such speech by demonstrating that both the arguments and other people are on their side, and it does not threaten free speech (and we should be reluctant to equip authorities with the means to restrict speech).

There’s no question that ”more speech” is for the most part a good solution. But the reasoning applies to almost any cause of harm: we should alert the police when we see an assault taking place but we should also intervene. Intervention, when possible, is often more effective on the precise same grounds. But should such a duty, and such initiative, replace the police and laws? Surely not.

Even if the ”more speech”, and ”intervention”, solution, is effective when active, it is basically unfair. It only protects those with friends or advocates active and good enough to make enough of a difference. The law exist, or should exist, to provide protection for those who are not protected by such resources, those who are not currently popular. To argue that ”more speech” should replace hate speech laws is similar to a rich person saying that the police is not needed when one may as well hire body guards.

The other reason is that, as stated above, evidence suggest that xenophobia is not based on argument, and thus will not disappear by argument. Arguments are effective in other ways, by strengthen the victim, and the victims advocate, but it is unlikely to deter the assailant. Criminal sanctions have the benefit of providing reasons to desist no matter whether you accept the argument or not. This, to, is the rationale behind the two non-reasons based initiatives above. Even if you cannot persuade the haters to stop, you may crowd them out, you can bore them and limit the impact of their statements.

But there’s nothing to suggest that these effects would be lessened by the presence of a hate speech law.


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