Thursday, August 02, 2012

UC's Misguided Flirtation with Hate Speech Ban

The Forward has an interesting story up about a proposal by a University of California community to regulate hate speech -- in part because of alleged anti-Semitism as part and parcel of various anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests.

While I'm perhaps a little more ambivalent than most on this issue, I still lean towards skepticism. There's just too much room for manipulation with regard to what counts and what doesn't. One of the co-directors of the panel, when asked about whether calling Israel an "apartheid state" would count as hate speech, replied "I couldn't give you an answer without looking at the definition of how courts define hate speech." Bzzt. American courts don't have a definition of hate speech, because hate speech isn't a legally cognizable concept in American law at the moment. The panel grandstands about the inevitable legal challenge (urging the university to "accept the challenge."), but it isn't altogether clear they know just how shaky their position is.

And furthermore, it seems like a ban is the easy way out. Banning hate speech is a sign not just that one's community has racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic members. It's a sign that the community as a whole does not have a strong enough commitment to liberal ideals to defeat them by normal means. It is easy to sign an order barring a racist protest. It is considerably harder to mobilize the community to counterprotest, to flood the newspapers with condemnatory editorials, and to otherwise make it known that the fringe is a fringe. It strikes me that UC's flirtation with this move is done with the knowledge that the fringe isn't so fringe at all, and a corresponding lack of confidence that, left to their own devices, the Cal community really can be counted on to stand against bigotry. There is irony in the report chiding UC President Mark Yudof for condemning a protest of a pro-Israel event, for in a sense that's precisely the right tactic -- people can protest however they want, and we hope that the university leadership and student rank-and-file makes known their contempt for the protesters. That's how one reconciles free speech with combating hate speech -- "more speech, not enforced silence."

None of this is to say that issues of racism and anti-Semitism aren't problems on California campuses. The JVP, for example, is complaining about a co-director of the panel who apparently is biased because he's (*gasp*) pro-Israel. They're also making the banal and irrelevant point that Jews have a variety of positions on Israel, though it is altogether unclear why that would make it impossible for any particular statement or protest against Israel to be anti-Semitic (as usual, the JVP's main contribution is to act as Jewish voice for what non-Jews want to say about Jews with impunity). But that the JVP has an institutional hostility to the belief that anti-Semitism exists does not mean that any policy geared at combating it is appropriate. I'm skeptical of Cal's ability to manage an anti-hate speech program, and I'm worried about such a policy serving as a short-cut against what needs to be done -- an actual, concrete, substantive, broad-based commitment by the entire university community that bigotry is unacceptable and does not represent California values.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Strange. Of course, you're right that a ban would be difficult to define and therefore difficult to enforce. However, it seems the thrust of your argument against a ban is that the alternative won't work either.

My own view is that hate speech has the effect of silencing "more speech." We recognize that threats of violence have this effect, and so we ban these from debate. However, in doing this, we generally understand "threats of violence" in a very limited way. Hate speech generally is a threat, even if only implied. (Or even if it only "hangs in the air.") The report, according to the article, notes that many students do, in fact, feel intimidated. And that is always part of the difficulty in organizing a mainstream response against hate speech.

That we would then have the problem of defining hate speech -- well, it would be good if we were talking about what antisemitism is, since so many communities are determined to avoid that discussion.