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.