Hate Speech

Learning Objectives

Identify the importance of avoiding hate speech.

Hate speech of any kind is never acceptable in public communications. Hate speech is defined by the U.N. as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.” [1]

Although we can all imagine examples of what we would consider hate speech, the term is notoriously difficult to define. Nonetheless, such definitions are extremely important—especially in a world where globally public speech is available to anyone with an internet connection. For social media platforms, for instance, the problem of differentiating hate speech from other forms of expression is a constant, high-stakes ethical and political dilemma. After all, these companies have pledged to quickly remove instances of hate speech from their platforms—but what should they remove? Here’s how three major social media companies define hate speech:

  • Facebook: “We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.”
  • Twitter: “You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”
  • YouTube: “Hate speech is not allowed on YouTube. We remove content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on any of the following attributes: Age, Caste, Disability, Ethnicity, Gender Identity and Expression, Nationality, Race, Immigration Status, Religion, Sex/Gender, Sexual Orientation, Victims of a major violent event and their kin, Veteran Status.”

In short, definitions of hate speech vary, but all share a particular focus on attacks against protected characteristics, which is a legal term in U.S. law. Protected characteristics are attributes protected by U.S. Federal Anti-Discrimination Law, including race, religion, national origin, age (40 and over), sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, pregnancy, familial status, disability status, and veteran status.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to imagine a list of racial epithets, ethnic slurs, sexist or homophobic language, and denigrating descriptions of people’s bodies and abilities; we don’t need to include a list of hateful terms here.

One important distinction to note is the difference—in definition, at least—between hate speech and expressions of hostility toward groups that are not protected classes by law, such as members of certain professions or affiliation groups. Blanket pejorative statements like “all politicians are liars” or “Democrats/Republicans are fools” are probably unfair and unethical in a public speaking situation, but negativity is not the same as hate speech. The previous example of social media illustrates why this is an important concept: one might see all kinds of vitriolic screeds on social media against protesters or police, conservatives or liberals, meat-eaters or vegans, “anti-vaxxers” or “treehuggers,” or “flat-earthers.” Even if the language is malicious and cruel, it probably does not meet the definition of hate speech, and may be allowed on the platform. Where is the line? It’s a very tough call. In general, blanket statements condemning an entire group of people—even an affiliation by choice, such as “activists,” “gamers,” or “preppers”—should be avoided in public speaking. Hate speech, however, is never acceptable, and can carry severe consequences. Remember, free speech is not speech without consequences.

To watch

In this short video, Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, shows the high stakes of hate speech with the stark argument that words can kill.

You can view the transcript for “Stopping Hate Speech” here (opens in new window).

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