I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.
-Evelyn Beatrice Hall
Free Speech and how free is free speech, is something almost every democracy is struggling with. Particularly with respect to hate speech. In India particularly, this discussion holds a lot of relevance. To my horror, almost everybody seems to agree that those that indulge in hate speech should be punished, i.e. they agree that hate speech should be criminalized. Some go even further to state the Free Speech and Hate Speech are, in fact, different all-together and hence, Hate Speech is not protected. The horrifying part is, nobody agrees on what Hate Speech is. And that’s a tiny bit problematic, you see, since, people will go to jail for something we don’t even know what it is. Isn’t that nice?
For example, to criticize Mohammad and Islam is Islamophobic and hateful, but drawing the sacred Trishul of Bhagwan Shiva as a penis or to call Prabhu Ram a “pig” is apparently free expression. But today I don’t want to reduce this argument to Hindu-Muslim or to reduce its importance by bringing in boring, relevant and burning socio-political issues concerning India as we are utterly incapable of rationality while talking of important problems that plague our Nation. So, let me tell you about a man you most probably have no clue about. His name is “Count Dankula”. Well, not really. His name is Mark Meechan and Count Dankula is the pseudonym he goes by on YouTube.
Before, moving ahead I want to ask you if you think to teach your dog to raise a paw and posting a video of your dog doing exactly this and some other things, is Hate Speech. Now, think very hard. Do you, like me, think it’s not Hate Speech? Well, think again because according to a United Kingdom Court it is, in fact, Hate Speech! *Dun* *Dun* *Dunn*
Yay First World Libertarianism!
Having laid out the ‘bhoomika’ (foundation), let us begin. Count Dankula is a small YouTuber, who described himself as a “Shit-poster” and posts funny videos for the small fanbase he has. One of his videos he posted on YouTube was of his girlfriend’s pug.
Mark’s girlfriend was always going on about how cute her pug dog was. When she was absent, Mark thought it would be funny to turn the pug into what he described as “the least cute thing that I could think of — which is a Nazi.” Meechan then made a video in which he showed his girlfriend’s pug watching videos of Adolf Hitler, raising his right paw (as in a “Sieg Heil”), and reacting seemingly excited to the phrase “Do you want to gas the Jews?” Meechan/Dankula uploaded this to YouTube and thought he would get some appreciation from his fans. In case any viewers were under any misconceptions, Meechan stated in the video that ‘he wasn’t himself a Nazi but thought that what he had done was funny.’
If it’s your kind of humour, you might find it funny. Not everybody enjoys the same sort of jokes.
But the law in modern Britain- specifically modern Scotland- does not seem to believe this, much like the law, here, in India. The Scottish Police arrested and charged him. At his trial in Airdrie Sherriff Court in Lanarkshire, Meechan was found guilty of posting “grossly offensive, anti-Semitic and racist material.” He pleaded not guilty but was convicted under the Communications Act in a crime that the court found was aggravated by “religious prejudice.”
“Grossly offensive”, “religious prejudice”- do these sound similar? Well, of course, they do! We are in India. People are arrested so regularly over Social Media posts for “disturbing communal harmony” that it’s not even surprising anymore.
Thank Congress for the First Amendment. “Reasonable Restriction” for the win!
And then there is also the infamous Section 66A of Information Technology Act, that was struck down by the Supreme Court of India as unconstitutional but under which police still, regularly, arrests people.
But these are all relevant things to discuss so, let’s not waste time talking about them right now and let’s discuss abstract concepts, as is required of armchair experts like me, and come back to where we began. And that is the question, “What is hate speech? Should it be punishable? Is Hate Speech not Free Speech?”
Merriam-Webster defines Hate Speech as “speech that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability)”.
This definition is surprisingly very specific, yet totally vague. Sarcastically praising someone’s beauty or intelligence (a “trait”) can be insulting and/or offensive. Is that Hate Speech? What if I made a joke about Chinese people? Is that Hate Speech because it is, apparently, racist? Or what about something more controversial like, a critique of certain monotheistic faiths, specifically one whose genocidal prophet raped a nine-year-old and which calls for the death of those that don’t worship the one true God, whose perfect and infinite wisdom is recorded in a book which is full of contradiction? Is that Hate Speech simply because it, despite being true, offends the peaceful followers of this extremely peaceful religion? Or what if I ridicule deities of a multi-theistic faith, or call them misogynists. Specifically, the one who forced his wife into exile upon untrue insinuations from random strangers or maybe the one who married all of the women except the one who he loved since childhood and who had also been in love with him? Is that Hate Speech simply because followers of this faith too get offended?
If taking offence is all it takes, everything is Hate Speech!
As displayed, Hate Speech is subjective. And “intent” is impossible to prove. How can anybody know the precise reason why a person said something. And so it must not be punishable because a law that defines crime on subjective criteria, where criminal intent can never be established will always be misused.
Coming to the last and most important question, is Hate Speech Free Speech? You may have heard, as have I, many a self proclaimed “intellectuals” declare with utmost pride and confidence that Hate Speech is NOT Free Speech, but let me just say that these “liberals”, who for some reason, are almost always leftists (but such “liberals” are aplenty in the right wing also), are absolutely WRONG and stupid, I might add!
How am I so certain? Because I am not stupid and I understand that it is idiotic to say that alkali does not base, or that junk food is not food or that tigers are not cats or that- well, you get the point. Yes, Hate Speech is different from Free Speech, but only in so far as it is a type of free speech. Imagine a circle within another, bigger circle. Are the circles different? Yes, but they are both circles. To say one is not a circle simply because they are different would be quite ridiculous.
Hate Speech IS Free Speech and hence, must be defended fiercely just like Free Speech. Because if we are not free to say ridiculous and potentially offensive things then what use is a democracy really? This was best explained by Jordan B Peterson in his interview to Cathy Newman, which was watched & shared worldwide, in which he says, “…. to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive…”