During Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before Congress, it emerged that Facebook will soon have artificial intelligence programming in place that can identify and delete hate speech before it is even published.
Surveying a few different social media platforms, I could not find much reaction to that news, either in support or opposition, which leads me to believe that “the elimination of hate speech” is considered an unqualified “good” by most.
Certainly, as a society, we should go all-in on discouraging hatred between peoples; as Christians, moreover, we should do all we can to work for peace wherever we find discord, and teach the way of love wherever we find the energy of hate at work. We cannot merely pay lip service to those ideas, or sing songs about letting peace “begin with me.” Noble and true as such sentiments are, their expressions become mere sloganeering—expedient, but worth exactly nothing—unless we are ready to put our words into action every chance we get.
The thing is, can we discourage hatred or bring harmony to social discord if we are never permitted to see either? A ban on hateful expression doesn’t resolve the hate. It doesn’t make the hate go away. It just sends it underground, traveling by other means. Simply because we cannot see something doesn’t preclude its existence. Where I live, we currently appear to be stalled in an eternal winter; we haven’t seen the sun in months, but it’s still there. Due to the long absence, though, when its rays finally do appear, they will seem all the more glaring and hot.
As Zuckerberg gave his testimony, I watched a Twitter thread where bright men explored the “badness” of a controversial academic and author. They debated whether his “wrong” ideas should even be permitted public discussion when our greatest ambition should be to “make people less racist” (and, of course, less all of the other “ists” that bedevil our age).
One man suggested that America has “made great progress” against these ists and assorted isms. That is undeniably true, but I couldn’t help wonder, as I watched, about the quality of that progress—how much of it was superficial, how much of it was deep and lasting, and what was the catalyst in each case?
I’d argue that deep and lasting progress on social issues comes from leadership whose behavior and tactics are rooted in honor, dialogue, and genuine sacrifice—whose words inform and inspire to such a degree that we want to reach higher, to urge each other up toward the better places. Lasting achievement is always arduously hewn, but non-toxic.
Superficial progress, on the other hand, is forged on an easier path: one of public labeling and shaming, social exclusion, and the well-intentioned but false idea that human kindness is something that can be legislated or fined into existence. It creates harmful side effects.
Preventing hateful speech before it is uttered (or published) creates an illusion of comity—we don’t see the hate anymore, so it must not exist! It still does, though, and—as with our hidden sun—each time it comes out of hiding, the hatred will seem that much more vivid and febrile.
To truly do battle against “wrong ideas” one needs to make the strongest possible case against them, and that means permitting them to represent, and as accurately as possible.
I have written a few times about having been a bullied child. I understand all too well that bullying is terrible, sinful behavior that can leave the victim feeling worthless and unlovable for a lifetime.
But I also understand that bullies are cowards—that a bully given the chance to hide will take it. Social media bans and the risk of professional ostracism may scare a bully into silence, but it does nothing to change the heart, in which seething resentment grows.
It is by changing hearts that we effect deep and lasting change.
Personally, I’d rather be able to see and hear the bully. I’d rather risk having my feelings hurt for a little while, and let the bully fully expose himself in the light (permitting myself the option of responding or not), than to have him huddled in the darkness, feeling victimized and waiting to lash out in unsuspected ways.
Beyond its non-effectiveness, silencing “hate speech” turns each of us into Potter Stewarts, unable to clearly define what hate speech is but quick to say “I know it when I see it.”
Such subjectivism permits any remark to be understood and prosecuted through one’s own peculiar lens. One person might hear “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no” (Matthew 5:37) and see it as a call to unstinting personal clarity, while another might declare the phrase a “dogwhistle” against biological or philosophical fluidity and voila, Jesus is accounted a bully whose words are hate speech. No media platform for him, even though every one of us could stand to be exposed his other utterances, like: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
Stopping difficult, controversial, or “hateful” words before they are uttered or published will ultimately destroy authentic engagement between people. It may leave our feelings unhurt, but the price of insult-free living will be more loneliness, more isolation, not less. People will wander about, having empty conversations, checked-out and silent because they can’t risk confrontation, or they just don’t have the energy to fight against the trend toward silencing and insta-labeling.
Bishop Robert Barron recently wrote about actor-director John Krasinski’s new thriller, A Quiet Place, calling it the most “unexpectedly religious film of 2018.” He sees numerous religious motifs running through the film, and I suspect he is on the money.
But to me, the story as described sounds a lot like an allegory for a time when all speakers—for that matter, all artists and writers—are expected to exist uncomplainingly within a narrow lane of social conformity, or risk being eaten alive.