I know we’re inundated with ‘raising awareness’ days these days when we’re supposed to wear a bracelet or grow facial hair, but I’ve got a great idea for a new one – Hate Speech Day.
It occurred to me while reading this Atlantic piece about gay rights by Jonathan Rauch in which the author came out with a brilliant sentence explaining how liberal societies should work.
‘The best society for minorities is not the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities (and from majorities, too).’
Exactement! The best route towards maximum freedom, peace and happiness is through open debate, and that requires that all theories be tested, even the hateful ones.
America has a tremendous capacity for optimism and a belief in redemption and freedom, which is why the Civil Rights movement could emerge there, despite deep-seated racial animosity, and why gay liberation followed. I’d like to share Rauch’s view that gay equality won because it had the best product in the free market of ideas; but, being a miserablist Brit, I’d say it’s probably only two-thirds true; there is no true free market of ideas, because it’s just not human nature to accept things that ridicule or offend our beliefs, and sexuality is as open to censorship or self-censorship as any other area.
The evidence, as we know it, suggests that none of the fears about gay liberation have been borne out; that gays were more likely to be predatory to young people, that heterosexual adolescents could be turned gay, that gay equality would undermine heterosexual partnerships. But people who make the case otherwise should be allowed to make arguments without fear of boycott.
This is important partly because we are always learning new things about humanity, and setting our beliefs in stone can only hamper this journey. Take, for example, the pertinent question of whether children raised by gay couples do as well in life – on average – as children raised by heterosexuals. We don’t know for sure; indeed how on earth could anyone know for sure at this stage? There have been some preliminary studies, with various results, and I couldn’t say what may be true, but I wouldn’t say the intellectual climate in either America or Britain is that open to someone suggesting findings that could upset people. The problem is that people tend to believe that prima facie something must be true because to suggest otherwise would be hateful or hurtful; it’s just human nature and applies to all sides and on all subjects. And gay equality is by no means the most contentious subject out there.
That’s why it’s important to have an arena where people can honestly, tactlessly, crudely and offensively debate any subject in a way that might cause others distress or alarm, so long as they are making a coherent, reasoned argument. But, since we’re not really capable of that, maybe we should choose one day a year, a sort of Feast of Fools, when anything can be said and it can all be forgotten in the morning. We can call it Hate Speech Day.