This article is written primarily targeting white people, though the principles in question are universal.
CW: racial slurs, and their discussion.
There has never been, and never will be, a democracy that does not have freedom of speech. Obviously this doesn’t mean there cannot be any regulation on speech—social shaming for screaming at everyone in a restaurant or legal consequences for yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater are compatible with free speech. But as a rule a greater diversity of speech builds a healthier discourse and exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, this argument is most often articulated as a defense for saying something offensive. As an example, consider Bill Maher; he has built his public persona around making and defending offensive jokes in the name of free speech and democracy. The problem here is that Maher’s approach to free speech actually hampers free discourse.
Maher and other defenders of hate speech miss, or ignore, the fact that words and phrases can restrict who feels comfortable speaking. Take the N-word. This is a word that was developed, and used, to dehumanize blacks for the purposes of segregation and slavery. It has been used continually since then for the same effect, though less publicly since the end of the Jim Crow era. It carries this history with it and its use by non-blacks (e.g. all racial groups that have not been the subject of that word’s violent usage) is at best an ignorance of a history of repression that continues today. Is it any surprise then that its usage makes many black people uncomfortable and unwelcome in discussions?
Consider the following statements: “whites and n****** are already equal” and “whites and blacks are already equal.” These statements send radically different messages no matter what the speaker means, and the former will have a chilling effect on the discourse making black people (among others) uncomfortable and less willing to participate in the conversation. All of this is to hammer in the fact that use of the N-word and other slurs limit the free exchange of ideas and regulating their usage through social sanctions strengthens public discourse.
Slurs are not the only way to make a group of people feel unwelcome in a conversation. Returning to Bill Maher, insensitive and hurtful jokes or comments can have the same effect as racial slurs. They are a way of telling a group that they are not respected, not fully welcome, and second class participants in the conversation. When using clearly offensive language the speaker is communicating to those he offends that to be part of the conversation they must speak on the speaker’s terms. They must acquiesce or leave the conversation.
Some acquiescing to the rules of a conversation is always necessary. The question is what those rules are. Do they maximize voices and opinions, or do they simply make the powerful comfortable? Do they restrict speech to avoid inconvenient truths, or do they aim to welcome as many people as possible into a free exchange of ideas?
To keep democracy strong people must talk to each other, and that means setting some ground rules for conversation. Those rules cannot be neutral and there will always be losers. In a diverse democracy those rules must either regulate hate speech or comfort the comfortable and tell everyone to suck it up and stop being so easily offended (unless the offender called someone a racist–in which case they need to shut up). The fact is that hate speech undermines democracy.