Is silencing the racist good for democracy?

2016-01-27 17:56

Do racists have the right to freedom of expression or free speech? When should we consider their perspectives hate speech? Who gets to decide whether a racist opinion is harmful? Should we all conform to the opinions of the party line, state or the majority?

There was a time when so-called blacks in this country were labelled heretics because they had the outrageous and even appalling view that they deserved the same rights as so-called whites. What use is freedom of speech if it does not accommodate the person who thinks differently? So-called white Americans once believed they had the moral majority on segregation laws. How are we to trust that the majority view is always right? Whose opinion matters on the issue of euthanasia, animal rights, and climate change? Are we saying that the majority always gets to decide on ethical issues?

A great source of racial hatred comes from religious texts. There is hate speech (xenophobia, genocide) in the Bible, Quran and the Vedas. Now, do we censor these texts? Scientific research finds that the IQ (intelligence quotient) of Chinese and Japanese Americans generally outperform other races in America even after controlling for social circumstances. Should we silence research that claim a possible genetic link between intelligence and genes?

Noam Chomsky wrote: "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like... If you're in favour of freedom of speech, that means you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

I agree. We have the right to publicly disagree with the government when we believe they have made stupid decisions. We have the right to challenge traditions that attack human dignity. Similarly, we have the right to hear the empty sounds of the racist. We have the right to listen to their incoherent and illogical mumblings. We should not render them invisible.

Following the reasoning of John Stuart Mill, only racist remarks and actions that intentionally incite hatred or harm, or impedes the rights of others, should be restricted. If we begin to prosecute racists for their trivial opinions and beliefs, we will isolate their followers. This will make their irrationalities more private, and ultimately mask their proselytising to their children.

Change begins with difficult conversations, not silence. Conversations can open minds. Conversations can develop more radical individualists who transcend the symbolic trappings of their skin pigmentation. The kind of leaders we desperately seek. If we are serious and sincere about improving race relations in this country, and recent controversies amount to more than just spin meant to 'encourage' voters to vote for a specific political party, then we need to create platforms that support open discussions.

If freedom is conformity, then surely that kind of freedom is a farce.

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