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  • Writer's pictureDr. Nathan T. Morton

What "Hate Speech" Laws Cannot Do

Why do we disagree? Semantics, it’s semantics, not substance that divides us--Is it? “If you wish to converse with me,” said Voltaire, “define your terms.” But what if we refuse to agree on the definition of those terms?

In truth, there is likely no clearer measurement of present division than the definition of our terms. Ask a Calvinist and an Arminian to define the word “world” in John 3:16. Then, listen to the defense of their chosen definitions and you will see that I am not wrong. I wish such distinctions were limited to theological discourse, but they aren’t. Today every community, town, and city has become a virtual “tower of Babel” in which each group speaks a language radically different from the other groups.

One might think that conflict over the definition or usage of a word would be inconsequential, and that would likely be true if these differences were merely organic and not socially constructed.

Social constructionism emerged within postmodernism in the latter part of the 20th century with the idea that the meaning and value of words was not inherent but intentionally developed in coordination with others with the thinking that these developed meanings and values would be goal-oriented.

In other words, in social constructionism, the meaning and value of words, objects, and even events are neither innate nor historic but instead are chosen with purpose. Facts are no longer in play, only socially constructed meaning and value. Nietzsche wrote, “It is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.”[1] This is the rationale behind social constructionism.

Social constructionism says, "truth is impossible and all we are left with are interpretations." But whose interpretations? Herein lies the crux of the issue.

According to critical theory, interpretations belong to the ruling class or hegemonic power. Antonio Gramsci, who developed the concept of cultural hegemony out of Marxism, believed that one social group could dominate society through the manipulation of cultural and social structures. Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. explains how this works:

Cultural hegemony functions by framing the worldview of the ruling class, and the social and economic structures that embody it, as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though these structures may only benefit the ruling class ... because it allows the ruling class to exercise authority using the "peaceful" means of ideology and culture.

This is cultural subversion. This is “Critical Theory” (CT) in action. It is rooted in German (Immanuel Kant’s transcendental) idealism, and Marxism. It is developed “from Kant’s (18th-century) and Marx’s (19th-century) use of the term “critique,” as in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Marx’s concept in his work Das Kapital (Capital) which proposed a “Critique of political economy.”[2]

What was called Critical Class Theory during the Springtime of the Peoples of 1848 in Europe and the Bolshevik Revolution, in postmodernity evolved into Critical Race Theory which fragmented society into racial, rather than class identities.

From Kant came the idea of overturning what he called unprovable dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs. From Marx came the practice of social revolution as he writes, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."[3]

Today “changing it” is part of what drives “hate speech” laws.

The freedom of expression is a powerful deterrent to re-interpreting the world, which is what provoked the German Student Union to conduct book burnings in the 1930s. If you want revolution you must “flip the script,” redefine the terms and embrace a new language.

Free speech, which is one of the basic tenants of liberty, was a threat to Nazism. Therefore, the state sought to control even language. [See Henry Friedlander’s chapter “The manipulation of language” in Holocaust.]

Where freedom of expression is protected, even to the protecting of unsavory expressions, oppression is hindered. And yet it seems, we have become even more radical in our rejection of the freedom expression moving beyond the censorship of authors and works of prose, to the criminalizing of individual words and phrases.

Freedom of expression is the underpinning of democracy. John Stuart Mill wrote in his work On Liberty:

... there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered. ... If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. [4]

Words are how we interpret our lives. They allow us to organize our world into manageable and communicable categories. As Simonetta Resta explains, “Language plays a vital role in what has been called the “social construction of reality” creating frames of consistency.” In simple terms language has the power to shape reality, ideology, and culture. Language without freedom, void of constancy has the power to bind and destroy whole societies.

To paraphrase George Orwell in his 1984: by controlling and limiting language, one controls the way people think, what they think, and how much they can think. To restrict people of the right to express themselves and communicate without fear is to diminish their dignity and limit their freedom. To impose mantras upon people or force “saying it a certain way” is to eviscerate our academic institutions of their greatest asset—the free exchange of ideas.

But what about “hate speech?”

Certainly, as Christians, we are morally, ethically, and spiritually opposed to every evil word—racist, hateful, profane, etc. But should we advocate for laws to punish language offenders? Do we believe such laws will achieve domestic peace, or would legislation of this type ultimately devolve into Frankenstein’s monster—just another more insidious weapon of oppression?

As horrific as hateful language is, “hate speech” laws undermine freedom and liberty.

It is just and right to care for the vulnerable, and I understand why some might believe that such laws would be good. Those who advocate for these laws believe they will protect groups that have historically been abused and thereby force society to be more inclusive. But consider the ultimate consequence of such laws. “History has taught that the very groups that were intended to be the beneficiaries of the protective measures [...] would be the ones hardest hit.” [5] In the end “hate speech” laws are often enforced against those very groups they were originally meant to protect.

These laws quickly lose integrity, soon disenfranchise, and grow in abusiveness every time the hegemonic power shifts and power rarely shifts to the masses; most often it shifts to the power brokers. David D. Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU writes,

“Here is the ultimate contradiction in the argument for state suppression of speech in the name of equality: it demands protection of disadvantaged minorities’ interest, but in a democracy, the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority.” [6]

I would only change one part of his quote—"the state acts in the name of hegemonic power,” not necessarily the majority. Stalin did not free the majority, he empowered himself. Liberty and justice did not flow through the streets of Russia, the blood of its citizens did.

The phrase “hate speech” is vague and ambiguous and therefore open to what the current definitions of hate are understood to be at any specific time, culture, and circumstance. Consequently, understanding and enforcement of laws are always left to the ever-changing whims of the ever-changing hegemonic power.

Over-reaching executive orders that gave Clinton and Obama the advantage during their terms in office then gave Bush and Trump an advantage during theirs. Legislative rules that benefit Republicans today will benefit the Democrats tomorrow.

Being opposed to “hate speech” laws could be perceived by some as hateful, while supporting such laws could appear compassionate. But things are not always as they appear to be and, in the end, political posturing is not substantive. The real question is what will be the ultimate outcome of such laws? “Hate speech” laws threaten, education, democracy, freedom, and liberty.

As a Christian, I am indwelled by Christ and exhorted to love and care for my neighbor—even as I care for myself. I wish for everyone, inside and outside the community of faith, to have a life free of duress, coercion, marginalization, and racism. However, the reality is that as long as there is sin there will always be injustices.

I’m not saying accept injustices. As Christians, we should advocate for justice for everyone, but we also need to recognize human and political limitations. As “Frank LaRue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression elucidates: ‘The State has an obligation to prevent the people from harm. Not necessarily from offence. People can feel offended [...] by cartoons or by many other means. And that still falls in the category of freedom of expression.” [7]

Please allow me a risky transparency. As a child, I was trained to be a racist and taught by the example of my community to use racist terminology. I sang racist songs to the tune of our Sunday School choruses. I thought of others as "less." But then there came a day when I had to stand before the congregation I pastored and publicly repent of my racism. Today, many years later, when I hear those familiar terms, I am physically repulsed not only by the horror of those words but also by the memory of my past transgressions.

The source of this dramatic change was neither legal nor academic. As a Christian, while being conformed into the image of Jesus my sin was made obvious, my ambitions were altered, my affections were transformed, and grace (not law) made me less of what I was and more of who God wanted me to be.

Laws and government will never bring about Utopia; the only type of government that can bring paradise and peace is a monarchy; the only monarch with that capacity is King Jesus!


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967).

[2] Arris D. Collier, Origins of Sociological Theory, (London: ETP, 2018) p. 50

[3] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach from Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 1, translated by W. Lough from the German, (Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969) p. 13-15.

[4] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978), p. 15-16.

[5] Andrea Scheffler, The Inherent Danger of Hate Speech Legislation: A Case Study from Fwanda and Kenya on the Failure of Preventative Measure, edited by Mareike LePelley, (Windhoek, Namibia: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2015), p. 10.

[6] Nadine Strossen, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, (USA: Sheridan Books, Inc, 2018) p. 81.

[7] Ibid, p. 47.

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