Degradation: What the History of Obscenity Tells Us about Hate Speech

June 16, 2011

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me": at least, that is what we tell children. And every child knows that it is a lie. Words have an uncanny ability to inflict the most severe wounds. Racist taunts, sexist jeers and homophobic insults can be profoundly damaging for victims. The physical consequences (raised blood pressure, rapid pulse rate and headaches, for example) can be as disabling as the psychological after-effects.

These effects can be particularly damning for ethnic-minority children, who may internalise the degrading sentiments. The problem is that legally there is often little that can be done to stop hate speech. Kevin Saunders seeks to change this.

He addresses his book primarily to a US audience and legal system. After all, the US is exceptionally tolerant of hate speech. The First Amendment, which prohibits any infringement on the freedom of speech, is routinely used by US courts to transform hate speech into a political right. Websites devoted to nastiness find themselves driven out of many European countries but acquire a safe berth in the Land of the Free.

By looking at obscenity law, Saunders suggests that there may be a way to increase legal sanctions against hate speech. In historical terms, he points out, prohibitions on pornography and obscenity have not really been about sex but about claims that some people are less than human. In certain eras, obscenity focused on people's sexual side: obscene speech was speech that claimed that some humans were closer to animals. Today, sex is not regarded as particularly demeaning. Instead, it is hate speech that degrades people. Similar to obscenity in the 19th century, hate speech today focuses solely on superficial characteristics, ignoring "the humanity of the speech's target". Saunders seeks to make a case for "including hate speech within the legal concept of obscenity".

It is an intriguing argument. Saunders believes that defining hate speech in terms of obscenity will help us identify exactly why certain words are morally reprehensible. He draws a useful distinction between using a word and talking about a word. For instance, discussing the way Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain use the word "nigger" is very different from hurling that epithet at another person. He believes that making this distinction will help Americans to discuss racial issues more easily.

Saunders' argument has less relevance for the UK and the rest of Europe than it does for the US. Readers may wish that his prose was less dense and repetitive, but the meticulousness with which he dissects legal cases is admirable. In fact, this is a book primarily for judges and lawyers. It is a pity, because the questions Saunders addresses are important, and when he turns to the practical applications of his proposal the debates are intriguing and have wide-ranging implications. Is it always wrong to use the word "spic"? What about the women attempting to reclaim the word "slut"?

His main argument can be expressed simply. In pornography, he claims, people are degraded to an animal level; in hate speech, their full humanity is similarly undermined. Obscenity law, Saunders wisely reminds us, is the "law of offense". If this book helps to provide an analytical framework for evaluating exactly what is wrong with hate speech, it will have more than fulfilled its ambition.

Degradation: What the History of Obscenity Tells Us about Hate Speech

By Kevin W. Saunders.New York University Press.256pp, £29.99.ISBN 9780814741443.Published 9 February 2011.

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