Hate Speech Is a Hate Act

If those bemoaning the preemption of Breitbart editor and racist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech in Berkeley the other night sincerely cared about the First Amendment and free speech, as they so vociferously claim to, they should be hailing those who shut the speech down as heroes of free speech, not branding them as terrorists. Why? Because those who shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech were articulating actual and symbolic political speech. Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and the other white nationalists of Breitbart and the so-called alt right, may claim to respect free speech; they claim this very loudly. However, consistent with their generally dishonest rhetoric, this is not the case.

Little more than opportunistic pretense, their claim to respect the First Amendment is just part of their act (acts that these days are sideshows to the main reality show in the White House). Rather than genuine political speech, Yiannopoulos et al typically voice a blend of falsehoods, insults, provocations, and conspiracy theories that amounts to something like group slander and libel. And slander and libel, as everyone knows, is not protected speech.

Not only is this hate speech not protected speech, in many respects it’s not even speech at all. Rather, it’s more of a political act, a performance, an attack performed via hate speech: i.e., a hate act – one that carries threats of deportation, violence, and, that euphemism for genocide, ethnic cleansing. Indeed, it’s no secret that, among their other anti-democratic goals, white nationalists like Bannon and those featured in Breitbart, desire to either forcefully deport all non-whites and all non-Christians, or encourage, via harassment, so-called self-deportation. But let’s return to the concept of hate speech.

More specific than Ludwig Wittgenstein’s claim that “words are deeds,” hate speech is arguably distinct from the so-called speech act, or performative utterance (acts performed via speech, such as vows, promises, or commands). Something that is done in the world via speech aside from communicating an idea, a classic example of a speech act is a marriage vow. When someone says “I do,” or issues the command “go,” they are acting in the world via speech. And since this type of speech is an act, it can be neither true nor false. This is where speech acts differ from hate speech. For the latter simultaneously operates on an ideological level, pronouncing demonstrably false statements such as conspiracy theories, or pseudo-scientific myths, or multiple contradictory statements. Because this ideological component is secondary, it doesn’t matter (for the speaker, at least) that the hate speech is not true, or that it can be shown to be untrue. What is primary for hate speech is not its truth. What is primary is the act – and the act is an essentially violent hate act, part of a larger program that is essentially violent, potentially genocidal, and, especially now that this program is ensconced in the White House, particularly disturbing.

In light of all this, it’s more than a little hypocritical for the fascistic anti-democrats attacking groups of people via hate acts to defend their democratic right to free speech. That they are hypocritical (a word that literally means sub critical), however, is as unsurprising as it’s beside the point. The point being, those protesting Milo Yiannopoulos’ group slander and anti-democratic agenda were not merely expressing literal and symbolic political speech, they were defending actual thought (and society in general) from the perversions of superstitious, racist ideology. For this they should be celebrated.

Moreover, those defending Yiannopolous, arguing that those protesting Yiannopolous don’t welcome debate, ought to recognize the historical fact that there is no debate. The debate is over. The debate as to whether women are inferior to men is over. The debate as to whether or not there is such a thing as biological race is over; it is a fiction. The debate as to whether some of these fictional groups are genetically superior to others is over. Superstitious, pseudoscientific, and genocidal, these debates have been over for decades. But it seems that many never learned this, or were misled by sowers of disinformation like Yiannopolous, Bannon, and others. So what are universities (institutions that historically have done so much to both promote these superstitions and expose them for the hateful nonsense that they are) to do? Should they assist in reopening these settled debates?

Institutions ostensibly devoted to rational, evidence-based scholarship and discourse should not re-open these debates. However, in the interest of edification, the promotion of dialogue, community, and exposing these apparently flourishing superstitions for what they are, universities ought to consider allowing speakers such as Yiannopolous to speak, but only on the condition that competent historians, and/or other relevant scholars, actively fact check them, and correct disinformation (pointing out, for instance, the idiocy of Yiannopolous’ equation of the Black Lives Matter movement to the KKK, or correcting his distortions of sociological facts concerning inequality and discrimination). Rather than enabling this fascistic disinformation, universities ought to correct it, just as they ought to correct global warming deniers, and other conspiracy theorists from further mutilating what’s left of the minds of the people of this society.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber