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FIRE article in Quillette pushes back on the claim that “hate speech” causes violence

By January 24, 2018

A recent article published in the online journal Quillette illustrates why social science research undermines the common assumption that “hate speech” causes political violence.

In the article, FIRE’s History Research Fellow, Gordon Danning, contends that the common assumption makes little sense logically, and is not supported by research:

The claim that “hate speech” causes hatred, and thereby causes violence, is superficially appealing, but the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. Is it really likely that otherwise reasonable people will be driven to hate others, and to violently attack those others, simply because they were exposed to hate speech? The proponents of that view rarely, if ever, offer direct evidence for that claim. There is a simple explanation for that failure: such evidence does not exist.

Gordon goes on to illustrate that point by discussing the current state of research on political violence, focusing on the Rwandan genocide, and the role of the “hate radio” station that broadcast in the months preceding and during the genocide. He observes that most scholars find little direct connection between the broadcasts and the violence; instead, he finds that it was more personal connections with local elites that prompted individuals to participate in the violence, and that the main effect of the radio was to help those who had already decided to act coordinate with others.

Most importantly, Gordon notes that the research indicates that there is an important distinction between “hate speech” by government and “hate speech” by ordinary individuals.  In the case of the former, some scholars argue that government “hate speech” can sometimes encourage violent individuals to act by making them believe they will not be punished for their actions. In contrast, there is little research that implies that “hate speech” by ordinary people is dangerous. Therefore, efforts by governments or social media companies like Facebook to censor “hate speech” by ordinary citizens are pointless and possibly even dangerous, since censorship of speech can cause people to try to express themselves in less peaceful ways.

We encourage those interested in these important issues to check out the article on Quillette.