Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Charlie Hebdo, Hate Speech and Christopher Hitchens

Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate.


Hitchens Toronto

In the wake of the Paris massacres, I surely miss the voice of that fierce defender of free speech, Christopher Hitchens. I think that one can, however, get some idea of what Hitchens would have said by listening to the remarks he made in a debate in 2006 at Hart House, University of Toronto, on 15 November 2006. The topic:  "Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate."

Of course it does.  And Hitchens makes a powerful case for the proposition. Selections from the transcript of his remarks are below:

My own opinion is enough for me. And I claim the right to defend it against any consensus, any majority anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass. …

Bear in mind ladies and gentleman that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, you, in potencia, you are making a rod for your own back….Who is going to decide, to whom to you award the right to decide which speech is harmful, or who is the harmful speaker, or to determine in advance what the harmful consequences are going to be that we know enough in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job; to whom are you going to award the task of being the censor? … 

To whom would you delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job of deciding for you, relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you have to hear? Do you know anyone – hands up – to whom you would give this job? …

I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organized religion, absolutely convinced of it. (Applause). I am glad that you applaud because it's a very great problem for those who oppose this motion isn't it? How are they going to ban religion: how are they going to ban the expression of religious loathing and hatred and bigotry?

I speak as someone who is a fairly regular target of this and not just in rhetorical form. I have been the target of many death threats. I know within a short distance of where I am currently living in Washington, I can name two or three people whose names you probably know who can't go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they've made of one monotheism in particular. This is in the capital city of the United States.

So I know what I am talking about. And I also have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say that they know where my children go to school and they certainly know what my home number is and where I live. And what they are going to do to them and to wife and to me. And who I have to take seriously because they have done it to people that I know; are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech laws if I say what I think about their religion – which I am now going to do.

My colleague Jacob Sullum has a superb column today, "Charlie Hebdo in the Dock," explaining how hate speech laws backfire, often inciting people to violence.

As further background, see also my 2012 column,"No one has the right to a world in which he is never despised," where I explain why attacking free speech is an even greater blasphemy than a slur on the divine.

Listening to Hitchens' full remarks is well worth your time.

See also a pretty good transcript of Hitchens' remarks here (scroll down).

Hat tip Matt Ridley.