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Hate speech has no boundaries

November 7, 2010 – 12:09 am111 Comments

Free speech vs. hate speech - a delicate balance

By Larry Stillman

Hate speech is often characterized as ‘words that wound’, words that are deliberately intended to cause severe discomfort, stigmatization, a feeling of being sullied, and humiliation in the face of others.”

Within the Melbourne Jewish community, there appears to be a well-established tradition of encouraging public hatred through the denunciation of people, mostly for political sins, some of which may be true, more often than not (in my opinion) fabrications.

Recently,  on  Galus Australis, I was accused by an observant Jew of being part of a group of “whores who would let their own nation perish,”  with a suggestion that a tree and rope as  part of the solution for dealing with people with opinions such as mine. Others used the word ‘traitor’.  The president of the JCCV has now said that the AJDS is engaged in ‘vilification’ against Israel, and a number of brave pseudonymous individuals continue to regularly interrupt reasonably polite online conversations  on this site with the intent of causing discomfort and stigmatization. Alex Fein suffered such a fate on ‘Sensible Jew’, with simply appalling behaviour by a number of people who clearly delighted at inflicting pain and hurt.  Someone associated with AJDS has been called a ‘capo’ in the pages of the Jewish News, and the list goes on and on and on of insults which are clearly examples by hate speech.

Of course, many Jews and Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation Commission are highly critical of what they claim are expressions of hate speech by artists or actors, Palestinians activists, politicians such as Julia Irwin, Antony Lowenstein (who I think is often wrong), and even journalists (at the Age and Sydney Morning Herald in particular). Getting close to the bottom of the anti-Semitic sewer, there are people like the truly horrible egomaniac known as Frederick Toben, of the Adelaide ‘Institute’ a promoter of neo-Nazism and holocaust revisionism, and self-martyrdom for his cause.  For his sins, he has spent time in a German prison, and been pursued in the courts by the ECAJ. The ECAJ has also pursued the obscure Tasmanian Olga Scully as well as Muslim extremists.

We also know that manifestations of hatred of Israel which at times melt into anti-Semitism are manifested in chants of ‘Israel out of Palestine’, and the Israeli flag has been burned on the steps of Parliament by Palestinian extremists.  Fortunately, more intelligent Palestinian advocates deplore and have nothing to do with such material, but in an environment of strong political anger, things do go awry (as we see with settlers burning Korans).   And of course, there are plenty of people who hate other minorities such as Muslims, with a hate pamphlet being circulated in Elwood recently.

Locally, in 2004, Joseph Gutnick won a landmark lawsuit for libel for material published online in the US but available in Australia, albeit to very few people.  The magazine article made a connection between his business and religious associations that Gutnick particularly objected to.  While there were no grounds to bring suit in the US, a judgement was sought in Australia because of tighter libel and defamation laws.  The case has major free speech implications because it is made it possible to sue for online materials published in one place and read in another.  There is now a case before the courts in which Andrew Bolt, the nasty and quite vindictive Herald Sun commentator has complaints made against him by a number of indigenous Australians, and the judgement when made, could also have significant implications for free speech.

Whether in the case of Jews slandering each other, others slandering Jews, or others slandering others (indigenous Australians, gays), what are the limits to free and particularly hateful speech in today’s environment when language and symbols are in endless play in different contexts?   I understand that a very recent case has ruled that a swastika graffiti done in a workplace was not necessarily offensive—but just graffiti. In fact, it is getting harder and harder to draw a boundary between critical remarks and hate speech, given the free use of swear words, and a culture of confrontation in the media and politics.

My solution is that in the age of the internet, we increasingly need thick hides and ear-plugs, and at the same time, deal with invective as rationally as possible, thereby isolating those who write or speak drivel from their supporters.  Pursuing such people legally only gives them oxygen, and banning their material only sends them onto another website.

The Gutnick case, and potentially the Bolt case, are warnings about the dangers of bringing about lawsuits for viewpoints and statements that disturb people, because they can limit free speech.

Thus, in the case of the Jewish community, which has by and large supported strong legislation against hate speech, I do not think that it has been considered that members of the community could in fact be guilty of encouraging hatred, yet Jews as much as anyone else can be vitriolic haters.

What is the solution?

I think we need to err on the side of free speech rather than censoring people.  If they rant, there is no need to lie down and play the victim, because the new media allows us to hit right back.  We need to counter with rational argument and public excoriation that shows what fools the haters are.   We also need to educate the community, particularly kids about the dangers of prejudicial thinking and action.

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