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What is hate speech?

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | October 3, 2017

I have been asked what hate speech is. It is not exactly hard to detect.

Hate speech defames, belittles, or dehumanizes a class of people on the basis of certain inherent properties — typically race, ethnicity, gender or religion.

Hate speech attributes to that class of people certain highly negative qualities taken to be inherent in members of the class. Typical examples are immorality, intellectual inferiority, criminality, lack of patriotism, laziness, untrustworthiness, greed and attempts or threats to dominate their “natural superiors.”

The method of defamation typically includes:

  • Salient exemplars — that is, using highly rare and very ugly individual examples that have been sensationalized by the media and taking them as applying to the whole class. Examples: Trump’s racist attacks on Latinos and Muslims, attempting to stereotype all of them and smear entire classes of people on the basis of a handful of individual cases.
  • Extolling the false virtues of the opposite class, suggesting that the defamed class lacks those virtues. Example: The racist right falsely claims that whites are responsible for all advances in civilization. This deliberately covers up the enormous contributions and advances made by non-whites in order to undermine their status as human beings.
  • Metaphor based on fallacious understanding: “Whites are more evolved” — from a survey of racist right-wing members. Note the mistaken understanding of evolution. The statement suggests that non-whites are lower than whites on an evolutionary scale, as if they were animals.
  • Perhaps the most dangerous form of hate speech comes from the government itself when the president excuses racist violence and supports the oppressive use of governmental force — large, organized crowds of armed demonstrators, police who target minorities, ICE trapping undocumented immigrants for deportation, discriminatory laws that intimidate minorities from voting, etc.

Hate speech these days is not just speech by an individual. It has become an industry for the racist right — organized, purposely provocative, a recruiting tool, and a show of power aiming at greater power.

Mass-marketed hate speech is not “mere speech” by an individual. It is actually physical in nature because all ideas are physically constituted by neural circuitry in our brains. When you are repeatedly told by those protected by the president and his government that you are a lesser being and are hated, it can have a crippling effect, physically, on your brain, mind and heart.

Freedom in a free society is freedom for all. We are not free to prevent others from being free. Hate speech can affect those who are repeated objects of hate with a crippling toxic stress and a sense of distrust and fear that can keep those hated from living full and free lives. Mass-market hate stands resolutely in the path of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

Institutions whose role is to promote freedom of speech, thought, and action need to rebut hate speech, rather than give the honor of official invitations to purveyors of mass-market hate who bring with them a mass of violence-prone supporters to exploit and dishonor widely publicized “free speech” events.

Crossposted from

Comments to “What is hate speech?

  1. Why did you include immorality? If I think what you’re doing is immoral is that hate speech? Seems rather harsh. I could call promiscuity between heterosexuals immoral and I bet you wouldn’t call it hate speech.

  2. The problem with regulating so called “hate speech” is that you cannot truly define it because the definition of what is hateful is as vast as the number of people in a society. In fact, most legal definitions of hate speech include anything that is “insulting” to another. That is truly the most open-ended and potentially all-encompassing definition possible. Ironically, that very definition is insulting to my intelligence and therefore should be considered hateful.

  3. On the basis of my observations about American mediascape I would claim that hate speech is actually often directed to men (toxic masculinity), white males, conservative thinkers, localists, nationalists etc., i.e. to those who are generally thought to represent patriarchy and are often directly or indirectly associated with white supremacy. If leftist and liberal forces in society define ‘hate speech’ with such essentially “conservative straight white male” as a paradigmatic target, i.e. as a group to be controlled by regulating hate speech, is there are a risk that the definition of hate speech or at least the way it is applied to social reality becomes biased or one-sided? To make a complicated question short: why is not the hate speech generated continuously by man-hating radical feminists, black hate groups such as BLM or SJWs who try to silence conservatives in university campuses identified, stigmatized and sanctioned as is the hate speech generated on the other side of the political spectrum? Is there really a bias in this respect, and if so, what should we do about it?

  4. Tolerance seems only to be an obligation imposed only on “conservative” thinkers. I thought that embracing diversity meant respecting everyone’s point of view, Conservative or not. I find the term “dead white men” a little disturbing as if these men had no worth at all…BUT, I don’t pull out the picket signs and make myself a victim. There is no shortage of dead African/African American men, Asian men, Arab men, who have committed many atrocities and have set up oppressive regimes the world over. It goes all ways. All of these diversions, as related to speech, and attacks on a person’s use of words have created an era of NON-dialogue. Who wants to express an opinion to a rabid liberal? or vice versa? You need a playbook to have a conversation with anyone these days, the problem is that the vast amount of different people are requiring different playbooks. It is all still a power game nonetheless. This deference hypersensitivity is a pitiful digression. George Jefferson calling white people “honkies” was funny and should always remain so.

  5. The problem for you is that we live in The United States of America where the 1st Amendment guarantees the right to free speech.

    Why should you be the purveyor of what is or is not “hate speech”.

    Get over yourself.

    Cary Michael Cox

  6. Go to a progressive cocktail party and record the love directed at non-progressives.

    Or perhaps you forget Clinton’s basket of deplorables?

    What a bunch of hogwash to imply that only one side is at fault.

  7. When you smear all conservatives as bigots aren’t you engaging in the same kind of stereotyping that your article is supposed to be denouncing?

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