Ideology and prejudice: when does free speech become hate speech?


I’ve noted, as you probably have as well, that civil discourse in this country especially around political issues is almost impossible to find on the Internet. Here’s a sample from some comments on a recent article on Salon.com:

“Rot in hell authoritarian scum.”

“Authoritarian progressives are the worst sort of humanity”

“You right-wingers are the most despicable cowards on the planet.”

“you gun freaks need to sit down and STFU you are a dumb ass”

This is only a fraction of the over 500 comments on the article. Sure not all were this blatantly abusive, but spread this vitriol over the entire internet and you can see how bad things are.

A question entered my mind; if you substituted your racial/gender/sexual orientation epithet of choice in for “progressives”, “liberals”, “republicans” and so on, this would incontrovertibly be considered hate speech. Just for fun let’s try it!

“Rot in hell faggot scum!”

“Ragheads are the worst sort of humanity”

I hope you see my point.

It seems now that political affiliation or ideology is the new open field for hate speech. While prejudice still exists obviously, as words like “fag” refuse to go away, there’s much less tolerance in the general public for racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs than there used to be even 10 years ago. However as these forms of prejudice have been driven largely underground, ideological prejudice is becoming mainstream.

And it’s not the case that one group (i.e., liberals) is more prejudiced than the other. A study in 2012 found that both groups had prejudices towards those outside their group:

For example, conservatives expressed more prejudice than liberals against groups that were identified as liberal (e.g., African-Americans, homosexuals), but less prejudice against groups identified as conservative (e.g., Christian fundamentalists, business people). In the second and third studies, participants were presented with 6 divisive political issues and descriptions of racially diverse target persons for each issue. Neither liberals’ nor conservatives’ impressions of the target persons were affected by the race of the target, but both were strongly influenced by the target’s political attitudes. From these findings the researchers conclude that prejudices commonly linked with ideology are most likely derived from perceived ideological differences and not from other characteristics like racial tolerance or intolerance.

The problem is that this kind of prejudice is not just acceptable but encouraged by the anonymity of the Internet as well as media pundits that throw terms like “right wing nut jobs” and “liberal fascists” on the airwaves across the country. There is little effort to tone down rhetoric from either side, apparently. Just as lines were drawn between blacks and whites, with no room for discussion in between, the ideological lines being drawn in the American political spectrum are rigid and any move toward accepting or even understanding other ideologies is seen as caving in or treason.

This has to stop. It’s damaging the American conscience and our very moral fiber. For discourse to exist there cannot be prejudice on either side of the argument. We can no longer lump someone into a group because of their ideology and then defame, demean and disrespect that group with ugly speech. Disagree? Certainly. Dehumanize? Never.

The best example of two diametrically opposing viewpoints meeting in dialogue rather than hate speech occurred between Truett Cathy, President and COO of Chik-Fil-A, and Shane Windmeyer, an outspoken gay advocate. Windmeyer wrote,

 I have spent quite some time being angry at and deeply distrustful of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A. If he had his way, my husband of 18 years and I would never be legally married….Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. Even when I continued to directly question his public actions and the funding decisions, Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective. He and I were committed to a better understanding of one another. Our mutual hope was to find common ground if possible, and to build respect no matter what. We learned about each other as people with opposing views, not as opposing people.

He went on to say that he noted how the Chik-Fil-A brand had been commandeered by both sides of the gay-rights agenda, with the result being a dehumanization of the other by both sides, as well as increased anger and hatred. The main point Windmeyer made was that by lumping Cathy and his company in with an ideological group (one socially constructed, by the way) it made dialogue impossible and dehumanized the people on both sides of the argument. By re-humanizing the other and not lumping them in with under the umbrella of a group such as “queers” or “homophobes”, both individuals not only learned that dialogue could take place, but that they were wrong about their assumptions about the other person. Even more important, both sides actually allowed for compromise and change – Cathy stopped funding “divisive” groups such as Family Research Council, while Windmeyer’s group Campus Pride ceased ceased a campaign against Chik-Fil-A.

It’s sad to me that this mostly went unnoticed. There was great uproar on both sides when Cathy went public on his stance toward gay marriage, but little mention of how these two ideological opposites could come to an understanding of each other.

We all need to do the same. If you have a strong opinion about a particular subject, such as abortion or gay rights, seek out someone you know and trust on the other side of the line and talk about the issue. Don’t do so in order to win over or debate. Do so with a listening ear, and I think we will all grow and learn in the process. It may not change your mind about the issue, but it hopefully will change your mind about the people behind the issue.

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