Hate speech — the search for a definition

First, what this thread is NOT about:

It’s not about whether a particular word is hate speech. I’m not interest in (yet another) discussion about how “nigger” is but “white trash” isn’t without any more context than that. Or whether “fundie” is or isn’t. And it’s not about SDMB policy, which would force it into the Pit, where “discussion regarding administration of the SDMB” is supposed to take place. So please, no debate about whether our board should or should not allow hate speech. And finally, it’s not about whether there is such a thing as “hate speech”. Let’s just stipulate that there is, and that the board policy to disallow it is wise and reasonable. For the sake of this discussion, those particular things don’t matter.

So, here’s what the thread IS about:

I want to talk about the underlying theory of how you determine what hate speech is. If it’s like obscenity — something ineffable but recognizable (we know it when we see it) — then what are its attributes that tip you off? Would it be targeting a specific racial or ethnic group? If so, and if there is little more to it than that, then why is it called such a broad name as “hate speech” when it means specifically “speech that is hateful of particular racial or ethnic groups”?

If a person hates atheists, and calls them pejoratives, is he engaging in hate speech? What about if he hates Christians? What about Jews? If you differentiate between ethnic Jews and religious Jews, does hate speech apply only to the ethnic Jew but not the religious Jew who is not an ethnic Jew? What about people who really do hate people of another religion or of no religion? When they speak in slurs about their targets, is their speech merely offensive but not hateful?

If we can’t define what hate speech is (and if you can, please do), then can we define the demarcation between offensive and hateful? Clearly, speech can be offensive based solely on the sensibilities of the hearer. References to faith as belief in sky pixies offends me, but I don’t get a sense of hate from it. I suppose I would if the speaker had made clear his hatred of me, but then if that were the case, I would get a sense of hatred from every word he uttered.

So, I’m going to take a stab at this, at least to get it going. Perhaps there is a certain trigger factor to hate speech that unveils a violent intention. “Nigger”, for example, has a long history associated with it of its utterence being followed by violence. It has long been what a racist might have shouted as he and his posse chased a black man through the woods for looking the wrong way at a white woman.

But clearly, there is a lot more to it than that. The same posse, running through the woods shouting “Pedophile!” might not likely be branded as hate speakers. That might be because it is a nearly universally hated group, so that nobody cares about them. Or is it because it’s not an ethnic group? Well, I’m not sure we can say that because there are groups that are not ethnic groups that have also suffered longstanding bigotry. The posse shouting “Faggot!” is targeting a group, but not an ethnic group. And I don’t think anyone would disagree that if “nigger” is hate speech in that sense then so is “faggot”.

But what if the posse were shouting “Fundie!”. That might actually bring a laugh because, in the United States at least, fundamentalist Christians have not really been the targets of violence even though they clearly are the target of at least some bigotry. But what if it’s “Muslim!” instead. Even though the history isn’t as long as the history for “nigger” (or even “faggot”), there is certainly some amount of violent bigotry that these days is aimed at people fo the Muslim faith. Are we to give the speech a pass as merely offensive but not hateful on account of Islam not defining a racial or ethnic group?

Which brings us to another aspect — namely, if the definition is to be extended to groups beyond ethnic and racial groups, then which ones? What if the posse, for example, is screaming “Abortionist!” Surely, no one will deny that abortion doctors and clinics have been the targets of violence. So why don’t we see the word “abortionist” in most list of words that are nominees for hate speech?

And that brings us to the final aspect that I intend to deal with for now, and that’s whether it matters that the targeted group is in its group voluntarily. In other words, I’ve seen the argument that certain terms are not hate speech because the people they target have chosen a lifestyle — meaning, I guess, that the word targets the lifestyle and not the person. For example, if only the person would move out of the trailer park or the mountain shack, he would no longer be “white trash”. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with trailers and abject poverty. Maybe a person of good character who of necessity must use his Appalachian outhouse is not “white trash” after all.

But if that’s the case, then hate speech isn’t about groups at all, but about individuals. It’s very hard to know by the above reasoning whether calling Ebeneezer “white trash” is hate speech until we look very closely at Ebeneezer and his family to determine what their character is. And how do we even do that? Do we administer tests of morality? If so, who decides what’s moral and what isn’t?

So, I’m not intersted in some declaration that “nigger” is hatespeech but “white trash” isn’t or vice-versa or both or neither. I’m interested in your thought process that brought to you one position or the other. My hope is that we can compare thought processes and, with enough participation, look through the processes and determine who includes X but not Y in their consideration. Who includes Y but not X? And so on. I’m interested in whether ethnicity, for example, is required, optional, or excluded from your consideration in determining that what you have seen is or isn’t hate speech.

You know it when you see it? Fine. What is it that you see?

I would say hate speech is a perjorative motivated by hate, against a specific group (or members of a specific group). Since it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what “hate” would entail, I would say aggression would be a good way to weed it out. So “idiot” can never be hate speech; it’s a pejorative, but it refers to no specific group. “Nigger” can be, since it’s both a pejorative and targets a specific group, but I would say it’s only hate speech if there’s actual hate involved.

Those would be my definitions, then. Is it meant to be insulting? Is it against a specific group? Is it hateful?

Why, in your thought process, does it have to be a group? Isn’t every person a part of some group, or even many groups? Isn’t there more than one idiot?

I prefer to stick with the “Fighting Words” definition of the Supreme Court:

When you get into Hate Speech, I can’t tell if you are trying to narrow the Fighting Words group, or expand it. Much if it so dependent on both the intent of the person saying the words AND the reception from the listener.

Because when you call someone an idiot (and use it as an insult) you’re suggesting that to be an idiot is bad. Which it pretty much is. When you use nigger or the like (and use it as an insult) you’re suggested that to be black/group of choice is bad - which it isn’t. You could of course call someone an idiot hatefully, though.

I would say it has to be a group rather than a person purely because of my own semantic definition of “hate speech”. You can certainly speak hatefully towards an individual, rather than a group, I just choose to use it to describe only group hatred because that’s the common definition. I’ve never heard someone say that using an individual insult against a sole person is hate speech, although technically it is. I guess in that respect i’m just going for understandability.

But Chaplinsky is a horrible, horrible decision, IMHO, and the entire fighting words exemption is totally flawed. We will limit your speech, not because of anything you say, but because other people will commit violent acts in response to it… Kind of violates the whole point of the First Amendment, really.

I wish I had an answer to the OP. The fact that it is so subjective makes me very nervous indeed about basing any kind of government laws on it.

I actually agree with you. I don’t like hate crime laws, hate speech laws, speech control laws, fighting words, etc.

Too much potential for abuse.

Of course, in my perfect world, I would simply re-legalize formal dueling to handle these situations. If you don’t like my tone of voice or words, then challenge me and we shall meet in the arena.

I see it as needing certain characteristics:
-It needs to be used in a hateful manner
-It needs to target a member of a group that has been subjected to violence for membership in the group
-It cannot be the default term for the group, the term used in passionless discussions to denote the group
-It needs to have been associated with violence against the group, OR the actions of the speaker need to imply the danger of immediate violence.

This does mean that I wouldn’t consider some slurs against racial/ethnic groups to be hate speech, although they’re slurs. Mick, porch bunny, handstabber: these are not hate speech, for the last reason. They’re not polite terms to use, but I wouldn’t call them hate speech.

It means that words can move. If there’s a movement to lock up atheists, and if handstabber becomes the epithet used by the movement, then handstabber could move into hate speech. If atheists start burning empty spots in the lawns of born-again Christians, and the hooded terrorists jeered at the fundies from the shadows, “fundie” could become hate speech.

Without the pejorative AND the violence, I don’t see it as hate speech.


I guess it is intention that makes the difference between hate speech and everything else. Some words (fighting words, as described) could always be considered hate speech. But even those get a free pass under certain circumstances (black people calling themselves “nigger”).

“Muslim” should never be hate speech but I can imagine some ultra conservative christiam fundamentalist saying it to another to irritate him because he is being soft on his hatred against muslims.

In the end, it boils down to what the person saying it meant when he said it. If it was meant to hurt, it is hate speech. Without a context there is no such thing.

This post by Sampiro in July of 2005 was memorable to me. I understood his frustration in reaction to hate speech:

Some tried to make the point that homophobia and slurs against gays can’t be compared to use of the word nigger against Blacks. SolGrundy insists that we need to use the analogy because the fight for civil rights has been a success story for Blacks:

Sampiro may have felt a similar reaction to this woman’s words as I did to comments made using another term.

One thing that both situations (his and mine at ATMB) have in common is the misattribution of negative characteristics to a group of people and the perpetuation of that misinformation and stereotyping. For me it becomes hate speech when it is used to offend or if the user knows that it denotes or connotes inaccurate information.

I think hate speech is speech which implies that the insult is based on the fact that the person is a member of a group. It implies that the victim of the speech is in danger from the speaker simply because of who he/she is, not because of anything he/she has done as an individual.

The problem with that (if indeed it is a problem) is that I could insult you by saying, “You’re a damn nigger.” And you could insult me by saying, “You’re a damn kike.” Since you’re not black and I’m not Jewish, neither of us would be targeting a member of either group. And yet, I suspect that many would view it as hate speech.

I wouldn’t. Insult, yes, because the intent to do so is clear, but hate speech, I’d say not.

I’d say, strictly IMO of course, that you have to at least believe the target is a member of the group the slur belongs to (so, I’ve had non-applicable ethnic slurs for Indians and Muslims mistakenly applied to me before, and they counted, IMO, even though I am neither) But if you know I’m not Indian, and you call me a “coolie” or whatever, then the insult’s pretty much on your own intelligence, not me.

That’s similar to what I’d say. Once my wife and I were walking down the street, hand in hand. I’m not totally effiminate, but it’s not been rare for people to mistake me for a woman. Someone drove by and shouted, “Jesus hates lesbians!” at us.

It was mostly absurd. According to my definition, it wouldn’t really be hate speech, and I didn’t really feel like it was hate speech. But I agree with Mr. Dibble that the definition should deal with the intent of the speaker in this regard: the speaker must believe that they “target a member of a group that has been subjected to violence for membership in the group.”

Which means that if a child calls another child “faggot,” not knowing the history of violence the word conjures, it’s not hate speech.

I’m not really sure how I feel about that.


The first task would be to define “hate speech” in a manner that would satisfy a majority of civilised people.

The second task would be to have a majority of civilised people agree that whatever falls under the agreed definition of “hate speech” should never, ever be classified as protected “free speech”.

Not even to the smallest degree.

My definition of hate speech would be based on two primary divisions:

1. The Root:

Espousal of doctrines, to followers of a defined “in group” and their children, to regard as unclean or inferior beings any person, or class of person, that does not belong to the defined “in group”.

Espousal of doctrines that require people of a defined “in group” to never associate with people of other groups and to define those other groups as unclean or inferior.
This definition would apply to the two basic types of human group (with numerous combinations of the two, naturally).

a - Ethnic.
b - Political/Religious.
2. The Branch:

Espousal of doctrines, to followers and their children, that persons who have been defined as unclean or inferior can, and should, be physically harmed, deprived of property or killed.
The Moral and Civilised Response would be to:

∙ Criminalise the teaching of such doctrines.
∙ Jail any adult who has been found guilty of propagating hateful doctrines for an extremely long period of time. (No suspended sentence, no pretend sentence like community service or similar stuff).
∙ Place in foster care any offspring of the jailed indoctrinators of hatred who might have been indoctrinated with hateful beliefs.
In these circumstances, civilised people would be able to enjoy their freedom of speech without having to worry about someone wanting to harm or kill them for having a different opinion.

If, on the other hand, the principles of free speech are interpreted in a way that allows people to operate under the first or second primary divisions of hate speech described above in the Root, Branch paragraphs with no fear of any legal sanctions then, in that kind of social environment, the freedom of speech of civilised people has, in effect, been abolished.

As I am not prepared to become a member of an organisation that espouses doctrines of hatred, even as a method of appeasement, I would have no practical option but to carry a high velocity .40 with me at all times.

I think most people know when they are listening to someone giving a hate speech. I don’t think it would hurt to have laws against hate speech as well as hate groups. They tax churches when they preach to much politics. Hate should have some kind of punishment so people would become aware of what they are doing.

I hate to wimp out on a call for thoughtful analysis of the meaning of an act, but I really do feel it’s

… and while I could type out a handful of examples I couldn’t really say “now THAT would be hate speech” or “THAT, on the other hand, would not be hate speech”. I suppose I just don’t utilize the term myself. I could more readily say “That would make me mad if I heard someone say that” or “That would make me mad if it were said to me like that”. I could say “I would assume the person who said ‘Example A’ was deliberately trying to provoke and insult, whereas the person who said ‘Example B’ was clueless about how politically offensive that term is”. And I could say “Yes, under the circumstances described, to say what this person said in the fashion that it was said, to the people to whom it was said, is to commit an inflammatory act, one that the average person would understand to result in a disturbance of the peace in a fashion akin to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.”

I mostly agree - I try not to use the expression too much, and I’m much more likely to point out that something is “an ethic slur” or “insulting” than that it is “hate speech”, but it’s useful to have an expression that covers “lynch the niggers” or “let’s stone that gay guy” that indicates a commonality that is there…