Free Speech and Hate Speech

woman holding sign
Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash

The recent hate speech versus free speech debates (or screaming matches) at Vancouver (VPL) and Toronto Public Library (TPL) have demonstrated an irreconcilable contradiction between two values that are at the very heart of public libraries: freedom of expression and safe spaces. We cannot open our doors to all points of view and also guarantee that our libraries feel safe for everyone. Given that we cannot reconcile these values, do we have to major one and minor the other? Public libraries provide democratic public space and we should not deny that space to anybody, even if we vehemently disagree with their point of view. We may hate what they say but we must defend their right to say it in our libraries.

It is not possible to change somebody’s mind by denying them the right to speak. This only confirms and reinforces their point of view and drives it underground where it festers and grows. Condemnation will arouse suspicion and skepticism – emotions that close the possibility of dialogue. Moral outrage and condemnation is likely to be a waste of energy if the objective is to encourage a change of mind. Superimposing our own values on other people, in the hope of corralling them to our way of thinking, is not only naive, it is futile. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion:

‘If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.’

We should not dismiss or monster other points of view but seek to understand where they come from. The person we think of as a racist is as firmly rooted in the reality of their own moral world as someone with an opposing view. Shaming will not work because it does not change the underlying conditions that create that moral world in the first place. Censorship will not solve the issue which will re-emerge in a more virulent form further down the line. Patience, tolerance and cultural sophistication are needed as much as condemnation and moral outrage. This approach means temporarily disengaging from our own sense of what is right and wrong and opening ourselves to the moral logic of people with whom we disagree.

Many people express views in a racist manner because of their upbringing or because the only people prepared to listen to them happen to be bigots. But this doesn’t mean they cannot be persuaded otherwise, in the right circumstances. Writing someone off as racist implies they are unsalvageable and futureless; that they are beyond hope. Outright condemnation risks reinforcing the feelings of exclusion that push people into the arms of the far right; locking people out of the discussion enables the far right to capitalize on the vacuum left by those who refuse to engage with this issue. It’s not rocket science: listen and those who feel ignored will re-engage. People used to being dismissed will form bonds of trust with the individuals, movements, organizations and political parties that include them. If we can change our posture towards racists and engage them, many will begin to believe there is value and turn away from the far right, which preys on anger and exclusion as political propulsion.

John Pateman – www.tbpl.ca. If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. Please comment below!

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