In this series, I examine the possibility of limiting certain kinds of speech, and especially the possibility of legal limits. As stated in the introductory post in this series, such limits are possible but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech.
So far, I have looked at two examples: holocaust denial and hate speech. In both cases, I believe that legal limitations are acceptable and even necessary in certain cases or circumstances, but I also pointed out the dangers of such limitations.
This post deals with another case, namely so-called derogatory speech, a form of speech which expresses ridicule, mockery, contempt or derision. It is a disparaging kind of speech that often takes the form of cartoons, caricatures, pamphlets, comedy shows, outright insults etc.
The main justification for limiting free speech (see the introductory post) is the possibility that speech violates others people’s rights. When I claimed that limits are justified in the case of holocaust denial and hate speech, I did so because I believe that these kinds of speech can violate rights, and when rights come into conflict, a balance should be found and one right has to give way for the other. In some cases, limiting the right to free speech of holocaust deniers or hate preachers is a lesser harm than the harm that would be done if they were allowed to speak.
In the case of derogatory speech I think this is not the case. Derogatory speech is often silly, sad and pathetic, but the only harm it does is the insult suffered by the target, or perhaps a feeling of dishonor and a loss of self-esteem. People should be able to live with insults and there are no rights to protect self-esteem or honor. The reason we have a right to free speech is to protect speech that causes offense. Inoffensive speech hardly needs protection.
But is it really true that insult is the only harm produced by derogatory speech? One could argue that derogatory speech causes other kinds of harm. It perpetuates negative stereotypes of certain minority groups in society, groups which are already relatively vulnerable. Or it devalues the collective image of the group, thereby deepening social divisions and increasing the risk of discrimination. It may also erode the capacity of the majority culture to be receptive of new identities or communities. Tolerance may suffer.
Moreover, derogatory speech makes it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. It poisons the debate. Neither the Muhammad cartoons, for example, nor the subsequent reactions from parts of the Muslim community did anything to foster the debate on the multicultural society. Ridicule, just as threats of violence, kill the discussion.
John Rawls reminded us that free speech should contribute to rational debate. The purpose of speech is to convince, to examine arguments, to revise one’s opinions in the light of as much information as possible, to submit one’s opinions to a critical public etc. Neither ridicule nor threats can advance such a vision of debate. (source)
All this is undoubtedly true, but is it enough to prohibit derogatory speech? I don’t think so. The best defense against harmful speech is either counter-speech or simple disregard. If we start to prohibit insulting speech, we take the slippery slope: anything can be insulting.