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Why I Disagree with Mill

March 28, 2011

John Mill suggests that limiting freedom of expression is tyranny. He argues that by putting limits on expression, the government would be robbing the people of the right to obtain knowledge from different opinions. While I agree that all people should have the right to speak their mind, I believe there should be limits on some kinds of expression.

Freedom of expression includes things like voicing your favorite presidential candidate, or taking a position on abortion. But, it also includes Hate Speech and Offensive Falsehoods. Mill would argue that these kinds of speech should be allowed.

I would disagree. The concept of “The Marketplace of Ideas” came up in class today. The idea is that all expression is a marketplace in which people sift through. The opinions and expressions that hold value will sell more, like a good batch of corn. The opinions that are not as important, like a rotten heap of potatoes, will be left unsold. With this logic, Mill can argue that things like hate speech should be permitted, like a new item of food. People can come into the market and decide whether or not to accept this type of expression, or leave it “unsold.” My argument is that, even if these ideas are left untouched by the majority, they are still lingering in the market, offending and hurting people as they walk by.

Some freedom of expression should be limited, like hate speech. Hate speech is uncalled for. There is a difference between voicing your opinion against someone, and purposely wanting to hurt them. Hate speech can have lasting emotional and psychological effects on someone. Hate speech is not free speech. I don’t think anyone should have the freedom to hurt another person in such a dramatic way. Just like punching someone can break a nose, hate speech can break someone’s emotional esteem and effect them for the rest of their life. Mill may think this is ok, but I refuse to.

In the mid-20th century, certain words were used against African Americans to degrade their race. Hate speech like this formed lasting dents in the African American psyche. People were spit on, yelled at, and protested against simply for the color of their skin. I can’t see any value in this kind of expression. Children that grew up in this era, had to endure sickening words, and violent actions against them. Imagine enduring such pain from such a small age. It would be amazing to come out of such a childhood unscarred by those remarks. Psychological trauma is lasting, and affects who we become as adults. Hate speech cannot be acceptable against any human. It is physically harmful, and completely valueless. There is not a single person who can benefit from it. If it has no purpose other than to bring harm upon another, why is it allowed? Mill would argue that it is allowed because it can be a means of obtaining knowledge, the theory of epistemology. What kind of knowledge can be gained by hearing someone call you a “negro” or a “fag?” Any knowledge gained through this type of speech is not anywhere near enough to justify it. And while others may be “learning” from hate speech, those receiving it are suffering. Knowledge is not a good enough answer.

Westboro Baptist Church exercises its right to hate speech at military funerals. Signs that read “God hates fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” are carried by small children under the age of ten. Some would argue that these people are exercising their right to opinion and speech. I think this is an abuse of such a right. Signs such as this are degrading and obscene. Not only is it grossly unethical to put this kind of obscenity in the hands of small children, the fact that these hateful words are being brought to private funerals is unacceptable. The families of soldiers who have passed away are in mourning. They have the right to hold a funeral without being bombarded with hatred. I cannot imagine the pain that these signs cause for the distraught families. The emotional and psychological stress that these people are going through already is magnified by the posters of the Westboro Church. There is no value in bringing this kind of hatred into the world.

Homosexual people are targeted by hate speech everyday, not only by the Westboro Baptist Church, but by common people as well. Hate speech can easily turn into violence. I believe that any kind of speech that triggers violence should be prohibited. Hate crimes against homosexuals are widespread, and many times start out with speech. Not only does it produce a violent atmosphere for those involved, it also causes an unsafe environment for all people. If minorities are constantly the target of hatred, what kind of effect does that have on their self esteem? I cannot imagine a person being able to function as a part of society when that same society is permitting hate speech to target him. Increased suicides and murders should signify that speech aimed at harming another does not belong in modern society. It causes suffering to the victim, and the people around him.

Another instance of increased suicide is that of young school-aged kids. Bullies can take a deep impact on kids from elementary through high school. Longterm exposure to bullying and hate speech can build up inside a person and cause them to take their own life. Hate is not free. You have to pay the price of pain and violence, and the lives of those affected by it. Would Mill be willing to pay those prices in order to allow hate speech to happen?

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9 Comments
  1. michaelambler permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:45 AM

    While I fundamentally agree that speech attacking gay people or other minorities is offensive and wrong, I strongly believe that it is unjust for the government to prohibit such ‘hate’ speech. For one thing, what actually constitutes such speech is necessarily subjective. Is someone who makes an academic argument that homosexuality is a choice, and not biologically determines, guilty of hate speech? How about a Christian preacher who claims that homosexuality is sinful? Are we going to criminalize that religious viewpoint? Or what if someone makes an argument that Islam is a violent religion? We might disagree, but do we really want to criminalize the expression of that belief?

    Ultimately, there is no need to protect universally admired or enjoyable speech; such speech isn’t threatened. Our constitutional protections of freedom of speech are designed specifically to protect speech that is controversial, even abhorred, and for good reason. For one thing, the idea of ‘hate speech’ is entirely subjective; what seems reasonable to me might seem hateful to you, and vice versa. For another, once we give the government the power to decide what type of speech is offensive and can be banned altogether, we’ve surrendered a very fundamental liberty, and set a dangerous precedent allowing the censorship of political thought.

    Censoring or criminalizing certain idea is definitely not the best way to defeat them. The best way to fight hateful ideas like that of the Phelps family is to bring them out into the open and explain why they’re deeply wrong and offensive. Trying to simply pretend they don’t exist can’t possible achieve actual change.

    In the words of Justice William O. Douglas: “Restriction on free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”

    • Layne Simescu permalink
      March 29, 2011 1:38 PM

      I believe a good way to differentiate between free speech and hate speech would be that hate speech is physically, emotionally,and/or psychologically detrimental to another individual. It causes pain and is directly correlated to hatred against another being.I would say that you’re examples of the academic argument that homosexuality is a choice, the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and the opinion that Islam is a violent religion do not fall into this category. They do not represent physical harm to another, nor are they voiced through pure hatred. So, yes I would agree that these types of speech should be allowed. The speech that I am talking about are words that harm someone’s psyche and cause lasting damage. Words like “Go to Hell, you faggot,” or “You’re just a filthy Jew,” are the types of words that can cause permanent psychological damage. I would argue that if one can prove physical and/or emotional harm from the words of another person, that type of speech should not be permitted. The government is supposed to protect its people, even the minorities. If a person is not protected from physically harmful hate speech, then the government, I feel, is not doing its job.
      You’re idea that the best way to defeat different types of hate speech is “to bring them out into the open and explain why they’re deeply wrong and offensive.” The hate speech that is occurring in America today is widely known, for example the Westboro Baptist Church. The majority of Americans would agree that their speech is “deeply wrong and offensive.” But while Americans are agreeing on that, the victims of this type of speech are still in pain. What, then, does that accomplish? It does not keep these victims safe against abuse, and it does not benefit any citizen in America to know that the family is still harming others with their words. I agree with you that we can’t pretend that hate speech doesn’t exist, and that is precisely why we need to combat it. We need to protect our fellow Americans, no matter what sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender they are. They should be protected against physically harmful speech.
      The idea of hate speech may be subjective, but is there really anyone that would argue that “Go to Hell, you faggot” is not hate speech? I can’t think of anyone that would believe that those words are not hateful. And even if they don’t believe these are hateful words, proof can still be made that they are seriously harmful to an individual’s psychological state.

  2. Shane Malone permalink
    March 29, 2011 1:35 AM

    I would also agree that hate speech is not a good thing. And while I see the point that the Westboro Baptist Church has the freedom of speech. I still think that what they are saying is so offensive that it could be considered harmful to others. I believe that what was being said in lecture was that if speech actually causes harm to others then it can be considered illegal. If this is true then the physiological damage that the Westboro Baptist Church protest are cause to the families of dead soldiers is so great that it actually causes harm, and thus should be illegal.

    • michaelambler permalink
      March 29, 2011 2:30 AM

      Right, but like I said above, that ignores the fact that offensiveness is subjective.

      “…the idea of ‘hate speech’ is entirely subjective; what seems reasonable to me might seem hateful to you, and vice versa. For another, once we give the government the power to decide what type of speech is offensive and can be banned altogether, we’ve surrendered a very fundamental liberty, and set a dangerous precedent allowing the censorship of political thought.”

      So who, in your opinion, should get to decide what type of speech is allowed and what type of expression people should be jailed for?

  3. Valerie Van Hulle permalink
    March 29, 2011 11:39 AM

    The first Prime Minister of Isreal, David Ben-Gurion, stated, “The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.”
    While there is no doubt in my mind that you present excellent examples of hate speech, we are no longer a democracy if we restrict one of its greatest gifts, speech, no matter what type of speech it is.

  4. Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
    March 29, 2011 5:21 PM

    I think hate speech is terrible and inexcusable, but unfortunately I don’t think its just to prohibit it. People’s opinions will always range from one end of the spectrum to the other. The problem with limiting any type of speech – including hate speech – is that it devalues opinion by essentially saying that certain opinions are wrong. While outrageous and hurtful, hate speech is expressing an opinions. It is impossible for any opinion to be wrong, no matter how ridiculous it is to some. Also, it’s practically impossible to limit speech that can be offensive – some people are more sensitive than others, and almost anything can be taken offensively.

  5. apnash permalink
    March 30, 2011 8:58 PM

    I believe that your post clearly points out what Mill was suggesting was the benefit of all speech being allowed by law. The reason that this is allowed to go on is through the complacency of those around the victim. No one steps in and tells the perpetrator that they are wrong; their ignorant opinions go unchecked. This cannot be if a society is to be strong in its morals and sense of purpose. Outlawing the speech would not change the attitudes which are the real problem. But us standing up for those around us who are oppressed would go a long way to showing the bigots out there that their opinions are not acceptable and would build a strong sense of community value and cohesiveness. It would also show the victim that they really had a stake in the community, a lack of which I believe has led too the suicides resulting from bullying. If anyone person, let alone an entire community would have taken a risk, taken a stand, and intervened in this abuse those who tragically took their own lives might have not felt so alone and might be still alive today. I agree with Mill that the risks of banning speech far outweigh the benefits, even for the worst situations imaginable.

  6. Justin Kucera permalink
    March 31, 2011 3:07 AM

    I think this post perfectly demonstrates what we discussed in class today. While reading this post I had a flashback to our activity in lecture when we had to place a dot on the line where we thought harmful was. And also our activity of defining the word “harm”. It is a sticky situation to decide what exactly is harmful to society as a whole. Obviously, these protests are harmful. I sincerly hate everything about these protests: I hate their message, I hate their antics, and I hate the people participating in the protests. I disagree with them 100%, but it frustrates me to say that I do actually agree with the surpreme courts ruling in their favor. If i was a judge on the surpreme court, I would have voted that way. Free speech is a staple of our country, and we can’t go back on it.

  7. sulphuroxide permalink
    April 1, 2011 4:06 AM

    Hate speech is hurtful, but sometimes trying to prove it is hate speech is much more difficult. Is Huckleberry Fin ‘hate speech’ because it has the n- word in it? Of course, we should have bad things around too, because people do need to understand the larger picture and what’s at stake…

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