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Civility and Hate Speech

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

California Humanities Council
312 Sutter St. Suite 601
Los Angeles, CA 94108
United States

September 17, 2009

In the most profound political science observation of the 20th century, Albert Einstein suggested that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking.

Human nature may be one of the few constants in history, but 9/11 has taught that human conduct must change, not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb, but because of the implosive nature of small acts.

Violence and social division are rooted in hate. Since such thought begins in the hearts and minds of individuals, it is in each of our hearts and minds that hate must be checked.

In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats suggested that the center could not hold when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” In such a setting, Yeats notes, the blood of anarchy is “loosed” on the world.

Yeats clearly had in mind the horrors of World War I and the nationalist responses to calls of leaders, some of which were historically justified. Today the nation-state is much stronger in many parts of the world but even more amorphous in others. Precipitators of mass violence are more likely to be outsiders than government officials.

As we have tragically learned with 9/11, anarchy has for the first time been internationalized as a tactic of demagogues, and the more advanced a society, the more vulnerable it is to terrorist acts. While no army can stand up in direct combat to the Armed Forces of the United States, almost any terrorist can do something irrationally destructive almost anywhere, if given a chance.

Apocalypse may not be a field of study, but it would seem that the chaos of modernity has produced a crisis of perspective as well as values. Citizens of various philosophical persuasions are reflecting increased disrespect for fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance.

In this context, what are hate words? Are there consequences to their usage?

We have all followed the outburst of a congressman from South Carolina during the president’s recent address to Congress. Less noted, and I would suggest more significant, than the much publicized congressional utterance is the fact that significant political figures and many citizens have over the course of the last year charged our current president with advancing policies that were either “communist” or “fascist” or both and suggested that members of his party in congress should be investigated for “un-American” activities. Several in public life have even publicly toyed with history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession.”

These words are politically charged. In a legal sense they are, of course, protected by free speech, but the question is whether they nonetheless border on being considered part of a vocabulary of hate?

In our society we rightly identify hate words with racial, ethnic, and gender slurs. What are we therefore to make of the usage or what more aptly might be described as misusage of words like “communism” and “fascism”? In 1938, we now understand, it would have been the height of irresponsibility not to shout from the rafters the dangers implicit in the demagoguery of Hitler and his S.S. But if we fought a war to defeat Nazi Germany and manned the barricades to hold communism at bay, isn’t it logical to assume that if a citizen were to believe that a government official is a fascist or communist, that official’s personal safety, as well as our social cohesion, could be in jeopardy?

That is why it is so important for Americans to think through the meaning of words and the meaning of history, our own as well as others’.

To be precise, communism means totalitarian socialism involving a dictatorship of the proletariat. Fascism implies totalitarianism of the right. One may realistically have different views than the administration on health care, but the notion that our current president, a former constitutional law professor, wants to create gulags or concentration camps to eliminate ethnic or religious groups in America is preposterous.

As for secession, we fought the most traumatic war in our history to preserve the union and end slavery. American history is about an unequivocal philosophical affirmation of individual rights, but slow, indeed unpardonably tardy advancement of protections for all. The arc of the moral universe is long, as Martin Luther King so eloquently observed, but it bends toward justice. We cannot go back.

Likewise, citizens must be careful not to play the “race” or “class-division” defense when what is at issue is philosophical or faith-based differences. A liberal, for instance, who may disagree with a conservative demeans the political dialogue if an opposing position is simply dismissed as “racist” or bigoted or “anti-intellectual.”

We know that for many there is agonizing instability in the American family. What is key is that we hang together and not allow our values to be misrepresented or manipulated. Little is more dangerous than playing on the fears of citizens. Stirring anger too easily inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, it can exacerbate intolerance and may even impel violence.

Much of the problem may flow from the fast-changing nature of our society, which has so many destabilizing elements. But part falls at the feet of politicians who use ill-chosen rhetoric to divide the country, rather than appeal to what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.”

America can and must do better. The temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high.

In this context I would like to propose, as part of a new “Bridging Cultures” initiative, that the NEH, in partnership with the various state humanities councils, consider centering attention on the question of “civility and hate speech” and work in communities to rally America to a renewed sense of common decency.

The temper and the integrity of the political dialogue are simply more consequential than the outcome of any issue.