As America’s left abandons its working-class roots and embraces identity politics, outlawing “hate speech” will become not merely one among many items on its policy wish-list, but the lynchpin upon which its political success and moral promise depends.
Many still underestimate how possible it is for “hate speech” to be banned in America, and how enormous is the movement already pushing to accomplish it. We all have already see the growing list of cavalier assaults on speech: from Kamala Harris’ Senate resolution proposing to outlaw the phrase “Wuhan Virus”; to New York City’s attempt to fine anyone using the phrase “illegal alien” $250,000; to Big Tech’s one-way speech banning ratchet; to the ever-expanding closedmindedness of our campuses. These are not merely isolated instances of outlandish far-left ploys — they are the direct and necessary outgrowths of identity politics.
The phrase identity politics is a misnomer, implying that it is the politics of all identities. To the contrary, it a winner-takes-all politics of the victimized or marginalized — who demand liberation, celebration, and equal self-respect — against the so-called oppressor group, which in the American context is defined especially as whites. The oppressor identity must be condemned, punished — and silenced.
As I recently explained in a detailed report, for its most influential advocates, “hate speech” is speech which harms the so-called marginalized. Indeed, the very purpose of “hate speech” regulation is one-sided: The marginalized are permitted to speak freely, while the oppressor group must be silenced. On this logic, Malcolm X’s expression “white devil” is as tolerable as it is to say today that the “greatest terrorist threat in this country is white men.” As leading criminalization advocate Mari Matsuda writes, society must tolerate speech “that comes from an experience of oppression.”
In fact, such speech should not merely be tolerated, but encouraged when directed against the oppressor group. If, as identitarians posit, the liberation of marginalized groups comes to depend on disrupting or undermining the power and identity of the oppressor, then “hate speech” toward it is courageous, heroic, and necessary. An “angry, hateful poem by a person from a historically subjugated group” should be interpreted as “a victim’s struggle for self-identity in response to racism,” writes Matsuda.
Not surprisingly, in Europe and Canada, where “hate speech” is already criminalized, the public square is filled with speech which freely maligns Christianity, heterosexuality, and the legacy populations of those nations. Their “hate speech” laws do not stop such speech because they are not supposed to. America is already half-way there.
What speech then is prohibited to the oppressor group? First, and needless to say, it is racial epithets — but this is not at all what’s at stake for criminalization advocates, it is merely the public argument used. More important is silencing all criticisms of marginalized groups, which they (or their white liberal advocates) judge as harmful to their self-respect.
Perhaps most astonishingly, this logic even extends even to facts that may call into question the self-respect of the marginalized. As leading criminalization advocates Richard Delgado and Gene Stefancic write, speaking of the statistically documented disparities in educational preparedness of affirmative action recipients is deplorable “hate speech.” Labeling as “hate speech” factual, provable claims would extend to any number of issues that conflict with the self-respect of the marginalized. One already sees this conflict underway between medical doctors and transgender activists.
On this logic, so too would broader factual disputes be judged impermissible. As Delgado and Stefancic write, because “even a determined judiciary will not be able to enforce equality and racial justice” by banning “hate speech,” ridding society of the underlying sentiments contained in it requires that the oppressor group’s culture and opinion of itself be reshaped so that positive depictions of marginalized groups predominate in the minds of oppressor group and in society.
Identitarians, in other words, must replace the oppressor’s cultural images and narratives with new mythologies about the marginalized — while also removing these from scrutiny or criticism. It would thus become impermissible to dispute the truthfulness of the narratives of the marginalized: for instance, that all of history is patriarchal oppression designed to subjugate women, or that gender is a social construct to be freely chosen, or that the United States is founded fundamentally on white supremacy, as the New York Times’ 1619 Project claims.
Banning hate speech requires nothing short of a revolution which marks the end not only of the freedom of the mind, but also what remains of political self-rule in America: all essential political question which may harm the self-respect of the marginalized must be removed from the legitimate spheres of political deliberation.
For example, any serious political deliberations of immigration — legal or not — harms the self-respect of marginalized immigrants. The only legitimate discussion therefore becomes how to increase it. Defenses of the traditional family harms the self-respect of both feminists and the LGBTQ. Discussion of crime rates harm the self-respect of groups who commit crimes at higher rates.
As the sphere of permissible political speech narrows to the point of irrelevance, even seemingly neutral topics like welfare also become off limits. As some academics write: “race-neutral [political] campaign themes” like welfare policy “carry demonstrably racially loaded undertones.” Almost nothing is left in the sphere of political deliberation — even tax policy likely harms some marginalized group.
Most Americans do not yet understand how far along this powerful movement has progressed, nor the stakes involved. Today, only 53% of college students — a bare majority — still support the freedom of speech. Judicial and regulatory precedents are already on the books. While these will be exploited in the coming years by activists and the administrative state, so too will Big Tech companies, whose platforms have become an essential venue for political deliberation, continue to implement bans following this logic.
The conflict between identity politics and republican self-government will become more obvious and pronounced in the coming years. The freedom of speech, unlike most policy disputes, is a civilization level issue: only it can guard republican self-government, and only it can cool the fanatical hatreds and false theories underneath identity politics. But Americans should not count on the courts to save them. A new political class with courage and an understanding of the stake is needed.
Arthur Milikh is associate director of The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow.