Limiting Free Speech (44): Hate Speech as a Speech Act

As in J.L. Austin’s phrase, “how to do things with words”, we actually do things when we speak. When we use language, we don’t just say things, describe things or communicate, but we also act, very much in the same way as when we pick up a stone or push someone around. When we use language in education we educate people and make better persons. When we apologize we heal people. When we command we make people do certain things. Etc. Now, my argument is that hate speech is a kind of speech act understood in this way, and more specifically it is a form of command. Those who engage in hate speech typically use speech that takes the form of a command, explicitly or implicitly. They want to coerce other people to act in certain ways, and they do this in two ways (usually combined in one single speech act):

  • They want to coerce their (potential) followers to act in certain ways towards hated groups. For example, people proclaiming that homosexuals are sinners are not just describing a reality (or what they believe to be reality) or communicating information about homosexuals (or what they believe to be information). On top of that, they also want other people to avoid homosexuals, to ostracize them, to discriminate them, or even to kill them. To the extent that they succeed, they engage in speech acts, and not merely speech.
  • They also want the hated groups to act in a certain way. In most cases, they want them to go away, know their place, keep silent, change their habits etc. The burning of a cross in the front yard of the only African-American family in the neighborhood is a clear sign that these people aren’t welcome. Again, when these speech acts succeed in driving people away they are more than just speech.

A speech act is an act or an action in the dictionary sense of the accomplishment of an objective, the causation of change by the exertion of power etc. Given that it’s not “pure speech” it’s not obvious that it should be a priori and absolutely protected by freedom of speech. (Just like abuse in private is not merely a private act and shouldn’t a priori be protected by the right to privacy). It’s a form of speech that, like other actions, has real consequences for real people. These people may have rights that protect them against these consequences, such as the freedom to choose a residence, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life etc. When speech acts violate these rights, there’s some balancing to do and it’s not the case that some people’s right to free speech always takes precedence.


2 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (44): Hate Speech as a Speech Act

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s