Hate cannot kill

Does hate kill peo­ple? I think we can all agree that hate is patent­ly unhealthy for all involved, but is it a dead­ly weapon? Should we be required to have a license in order to car­ry it around? Or should just gov­ern­ments ban it all together?

In mid-March of this year, Amer­i­can provo­ca­teur Ann Coul­ter — noto­ri­ous for her vir­u­lent and inflam­ma­to­ry remarks direct­ed at all sorts of eth­nic, reli­gious, and polit­i­cal groups — was sched­uled for a speak­ing engage­ment on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa. A bit­ter con­tro­ver­sy flared up in the days lead­ing up to her appear­ance, focused on issues of free speech and its lim­its. (I am not going to recap the episode; I am sure a quick Google search for coul­ter and ottawa will sat­is­fy what­ev­er curios­i­ty you may have on this.) The debate hinged large­ly on the bal­ance between the sacro­sanc­ti­ty of free speech and the haz­ards of ‘hate speech’ in a soci­ety striv­ing to be pluralistic.

The best (read: ‘most bal­anced’) of the oppo­nents to Miss Coulter’s appear­ance, in my view, were those who rec­og­nized the real, prob­lem­at­ic ten­sion between these two points: that activists for one extreme of the polit­i­cal spec­trum can­not sim­ply demand that the vocal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the oppo­site extreme be silenced, and hope to retain their claims to integri­ty at the same time. 

What most engaged me in all this was a state­ment I read that seemed less con­cerned with the para­dox­i­cal quandary of this bal­ance. “Hate also kills peo­ple,” one per­son wrote in a com­ment on a mutu­al friend’s Face­book post; “that is why it is crim­i­nal­ized in some coun­tries like Cana­da.” Now, there are two crit­i­cal errors in this state­ment — can you spot them at home, read­ers? — the first of which grabbed my inter­est, and prompt­ed an imme­di­ate response.

I think it is an over­state­ment,” I wrote back, “to say that hate kills peo­ple, just as it is inac­cu­rate to say that guns (or any oth­er instru­ments) kill peo­ple. Peo­ple kill peo­ple. They may be moti­vat­ed by hate, or by one of many oth­er emo­tions, but it is not the hate that kills.”

Now, this did not con­vince the oth­er per­son, and I even­tu­al­ly let the mat­ter drop on that par­tic­u­lar forum. But I have not been able to let it rest. This strikes me as a very impor­tant seman­tic dis­tinc­tion. I know the phrase “a ques­tion of seman­tics” is most often used pejo­ra­tive­ly and dis­mis­sive­ly today, but that is a dan­ger­ous mis­take. Def­i­n­i­tions are extreme­ly impor­tant, and in no con­text is this more emphat­i­cal­ly true than in rea­soned dis­course (aka ‘argu­ment’) around a con­tentious top­ic. Dis­course is about com­mu­ni­ca­tion (not, as com­mon­ly thought, about win­ning, or even about mak­ing your inter­locu­tor lose). In most instances of this sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, we use words: words which are only use­ful if they con­vey mean­ing. And unless par­ties first estab­lish a clar­i­ty of agreed mean­ing regard­ing the words they are using, I don’t real­ly see what such dis­course can real­ly be imag­ined to achieve, aside from pos­si­bly fill­ing the prover­bial air with more misunder­stand­ing.

I com­plete­ly agree that hate is a hor­ri­bly ubiq­ui­tous moti­va­tion for acts of human evil through­out human soci­eties and his­to­ry. But to my knowl­edge, no one has ever actu­al­ly died sim­ply from being hat­ed: what has hap­pened is that uncount­able mil­lions have died as a result of human actions, actions that were indis­putably moti­vat­ed by hate.

I have giv­en a great deal of thought to those “uncount­able mil­lions” and to the spe­cif­ic, con­crete human actions that robbed them of their lives. Tor­ture, geno­cide, war crimes — the study of these has been ‘my thing’ for a long time now. I have read many, many, many accounts of such human actions, sto­ries I know I can nev­er share with those I love: they are too hor­ri­ble. But it is the sort of thing I have felt that I need­ed to exam­ine, and in so doing, while what­ev­er inno­cence about the world I might have imag­ined worth keep­ing is gone, I believe I have learned many impor­tant things about human­i­ty. Cen­tral among these things I have learned: humans do very bad things to oth­er humans. Also of inter­est: we don’t have to; we can do very won­der­ful things, too.

Again, my pri­ma­ry con­cern is the (mis)conception of hate as a dead­ly force. Hate is a moti­vat­ing emo­tion; a feel­ing that can, and does, instill a strong impulse toward action of wide­ly vary­ing degree. But the emo­tion does not — can­not — car­ry out those actions; that is some­thing only the human per­son can do, as an agent, an act-or, one who does. To draw a straight line from moti­va­tion to deed, gloss­ing over human will and agency, is ulti­mate­ly to dis­count the respon­si­bil­i­ty of human per­sons for their actions.

And this dogged delin­eation I am mak­ing is not lim­it­ed, as has been sug­gest­ed, to overt, vio­lent acts. I was offered as counter-exam­ple sit­u­a­tions where “hate caus­es oppres­sion, and a lack of resources, which leads to many peo­ple being killed through a lack of food, a lack of safe­ty, etc.” But is this not quite clear­ly a case of “peo­ple killing peo­ple” as well? One doesn’t need to put a knife through the heart of anoth­er to active­ly kill them. The enact­ment of poli­cies that lim­it access to need­ed resources is an action as well. In the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion we have the notion of the sin of omis­sion; even the deci­sion not to enact poli­cies that aid those in need is an act. Choose and ignore are just as much verbs as are shoot and stab. There are many ways to act to the detri­ment of oth­ers; any and every one of them can find moti­va­tion in hate. In every such pos­si­ble case, how­ev­er, it is always human per­sons who are the actors. Killing is a action: it is done by humans with their actions, not by the hate those humans may feel with­in their hearts.

That brings us to the sec­ond thing that was wrong in the state­ment that start­ed me down this par­tic­u­lar train of thought. Cana­da does not crim­i­nal­ize hate. Lat­er in that exchange the same poster seemed to cor­rect the mis­take, refer­ring more specif­i­cal­ly to Canada’s hav­ing “leg­is­lat­ed against ‘hate speech’” which I am will­ing to grant was prob­a­bly what they meant to begin with. But I am going to con­tin­ue to bela­bor the point for the very sim­ple rea­son that, regard­less of whether or not that is what was meant, it is not what was com­mu­ni­cat­ed. And the two state­ments must not be con­fused as being interchangeable. 

Remem­ber a few years back, when a cer­tain super­pow­er declared a ‘war on ter­ror’? Now even­tu­al­ly, more log­i­cal and gram­mat­i­cal minds pre­vailed and it was revised to the (bare­ly bet­ter) ‘war on ter­ror­ism’ but in the mean­time a lot of ridicule and oppro­bri­um was (right­ly) heaped on the lead­er­ship of that nation for com­mit­ting their mas­sive mil­i­tary com­plex to the pros­e­cu­tion of open war­fare against an abstract concept.

While atti­tudes and soci­etal mores are con­sid­er­ably dif­fer­ent north of the bor­der, I am not sure that even Cana­da would com­mit them­selves to such an extrav­a­gant­ly Orwellian project as explic­it thought-polic­ing, which is pre­cise­ly what ‘crim­i­nal­iz­ing hate’ would entail. Besides, unless Cana­di­an mind-read­ing tech­nol­o­gy is con­sid­er­ably more advanced than any­thing cur­rent­ly con­sid­ered fea­si­ble, such an enter­prise would be impos­si­ble. At most, they could crim­i­nal­ize the expres­sion of hate: speech, con­ver­sa­tion, pub­lished books and jour­nal­ism, pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence, per­son­al diaries, et cetera. And as I read the Crim­i­nal Code of Cana­da, §§ 318 and 319, it seems that the let­ter of the law does not go quite as far as that. Yet.

I want to be quite clear on some­thing here: I am not a fanat­ic for the First Amend­ment. All speech, free or oth­er­wise, has its lim­its. The prin­ci­pal point I want to make on this mat­ter is that we sim­ply can­not have it both ways. There can be no integri­ty to our claim to free speech if we in the same breath clam­or to silence those who dis­agree with us, even if our oppo­nents seem clear­ly to be act­ing not in good faith, but with mali­cious ill-will. There are count­less knot­ty dilem­mas behind this, which I will not here attempt to unknot. But I want us to at least rec­og­nize the impor­tance of care­ful dis­tinc­tions in our debates and the ter­mi­nol­o­gy we employ there­in, and to be con­scious of the dan­ger, in defend­ing and pro­mot­ing the caus­es of jus­tice, that we do not end up advanc­ing new injus­tice, until we wake up to a world we did not in our dark­est dreams intend.

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