Hate speech seems to be the hot button issue of the moment. From the anti-gay bullying that led to several highly publicized suicides of gay teens last month to the current DKE fiasco this may be the one topic that everyone has an opinion on. At the end of the day most of us won’t take up the cause of net neutrality or copyright law, but as members of society we have a vested interest in creating a hospitable environment for ourselves and others. However, the use of the “hate speech” discourse hinders meaningful conversation.
As the recent DKE controversy has illustrated, misogyny and inappropriate conduct are still widespread even among we “enlightened” Yalies. Rape isn’t funny. Necrophilia is pretty messed up. But labeling the actions of the DKE pledges as “hate speech” and a “call to violence” is completely counterproductive. It prevents dialogue surrounding the specific misconduct and instead turns to character judgements of the individuals involved. The guys of DKE said stupid things. Really really stupid, offensive things. But calling it hate speech implies that these men are violent, woman-hating sexual deviants. To them, their chants were funny. To the rest of us, not so much. Rather than demonizing them as misogynists, Yale could benefit more from a dialogue and culture that makes it clear that such behavior is not amusing to the vast majority of us. “No means yes, yes means anal!” is an immature and offensive slogan, but it does not translate directly to “I hate women and advocate rape and other forms of sexual violence.” It just means that some people have really bad taste and a messed up sense of humor. Likewise, “that movie was so gay” is intended to mean it was lame, not that it had a subversive homosexual agenda and homoerotic themes which offended the homophobic sensibilities of the viewer. Is the phrasing inappropriate? Yes. Offensive? Absolutely. But painting this conduct as hate speech turns it into an all-or-nothing debate in which neither side benefits.
The derailing potential of such black and white thinking is evident in the campus response to the DKE pledge incident. DKE looked like a bunch of jerks. But then the Women’s Center declared that the behavior was violent and imminently threatening. To most Yalies (us women included), that’s just not the case. This polarization has actually hurt the dialogue by reinforcing the stereotype of the Women’s Center as somewhat radical and just a tad overly sensitive, and making us sympathize with the plight of the beleaguered frat boys. Not what the WC was going for. (Not to knock the Women’s Center, their sponsorship of a forum on the sexual climate was a positive step forward.)
The debates around hate speech tend to take the focus off of the misconduct and instead focus on the values of the individuals involved. In D.C. v. R.R., the legal proceedings focused entirely too much on the personalities of those involved. D.C. and his parents insisted he wasn’t gay. R.R. tried to defend himself by pointing out his acceptance of a gay family member. While R.R. was clearly kind of a sick kid and a total jerk to boot, as a pluralistic nation we don’t have the right to regulate his views on homosexuality. Libel, sure. Threats of physical violence, of course. But whether or not he actually has a problem with homosexuals is not and should not be relevant to the case. There will always be homophobes and misogynists and racists, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. If we want freedom of speech and religion, we’re going to have to take the flip side of the coin as well and swallow freedom to hate. But let’s not conflate insensitivity and immaturity with hate and the incitement of violence. Some people say really stupid stuff they don’t mean. And as for the ones that do mean it, well, haters gonna hate.