Free speech v Hate speech
Homophobic hate music. Where to draw the line?
Together with crude misogyny, homophobic lyrics have long blighted some strands of rap and reggae music. Artists such as Eminem and Buju Banton have been in the firing line for incendiary anti-gay hate music; ranging from raps with insults like ‘faggot’ to overtly glorifying and encouraging the murder of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Homophobic hate speech is wrong, regardless of whether it is expressed by a bully in the street or by a singer in a music track. Yet no artist has, as far as I know, ever been arrested for anti-gay hate songs. People get prosecuted for racist insults but not for homophobic ones – at least not if they are big-name reggae and rap stars. Double standards?
As much as I deplore any form of hateful music, it is not as bad as discrimination, harassment, threats or violence – all of which are qualitatively worse and are rightly criminalised.
Homophobic music should be discouraged and condemned. However, I don’t think it should be against the law unless it incites violence or is expressed in a particularly aggressive, inflammatory or sustained manner, in which case it would constitute criminal threats or harassment.
If a person is subjected to prolonged, extreme anti-gay hatred it is harmful and should be illegal. But this kind of on-going hate amounts to harassment and can be dealt with using anti-harassment laws, without the need for separate legislation against hate speech.
The law takes different view. Together with racial and anti-Semitic hate, the incitement of homophobic hatred is now a crime in the UK that incurs additional penalties. Bad move. I think prosecuting hate is mostly a step too far.
Although stirring hatred is deplorable and undesirable, it is not, in my view, a sufficient threshold to activate prosecution. One of the main problems with anti-hate laws is defining what constitutes hate. Unlike incitement to violence, hate is much more subjective. The line between hate speech and merely unpalatable viewpoints is hard to draw with certainty, clarity and consistency. This is also true when it comes to homophobic music tracks. When does a bigoted rap spill over into criminal hatred?
Mere hateful music, although objectionable and meriting protest, mostly shouldn’t be unlawful. Who decides what is hateful? How is hate defined? At what point does a lyric critical of homosexuality become hate speech? How critical does it have to be? The state should have no such power. It’s open to abuse, as happened to anti-war protesters who insulted British soldiers for their role in Iraq.
Christian street preachers have also been victims of over-zealous prosecutions. Their crime? They said homosexuality is immoral and gay people will go to hell. I opposed their views but also opposed their prosecution. What they were saying was wrong and hurtful but not hateful. They did not express their views in the bullying and menacing tone of some reggae and rap artists.
Free speech is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. It should only be restricted in extreme, compelling circumstances. Criminalising views that are intolerant and objectionable is the slippery slope to censorship and to the closing down of open debate. It is also counter-productive. It risks making martyrs of people with bigoted opinions and deflects from the real solution to hate speech: information and debate to counter hateful ideas. Homophobic hate music should be debunked and protested, not criminalised.
Peaceful protests against hate speech have sometimes been criminalised, as if they were a form of hate speech. In 1994, I was arrested for saying the homophobia and sexism of the Islamist extremists Hizb ut Tahrir is akin to the bigotry of the Nazis. Separately, a youth was arrested in 2008 for calling Scientology a dangerous cult. In both instances, it was deemed that our protests were insulting and had caused offence.
I don’t believe that being spared offence is a human right. Lots of things that people say are deemed offensive by others. I’m offended by misogynistic clerics but I don’t think they should be prosecuted for holding a viewpoint that I find detestable. Putting up with a degree of offence is the price we pay for a free and open society.
When it comes to homophobia and other hate speech, I draw the line at incitement to violence. This is against the law – and rightly so. No one should be expected to live with violent threats. It makes the victims intimidated and afraid to speak out; thereby subverting and preventing free speech.
In 2004, together with the LGBT rights group OutRage!, the Black Gay Men’s Advisory Group and J-Flag, the Jamaican LGBT rights movement, I launched the Stop Murder Music (SMM) campaign. We sought to cancel the concerts of eight Jamaican reggae dancehall singers whose lyrics and public pronouncements incited the murder of LGBT people. They justified and encouraged the shooting, burning, hanging and drowning of ‘batty men.’ According to J-Flag, the release of these tracks coincided with a spike in homophobic violence. We did not oppose them because they were homophobic, but because they said LGBT people should be killed.
Attempts to have the singers prosecuted for incitement to murder were batted away by the police in Jamaica and the UK. In contrast, racist remarks – even ones that involve no violent threats – invariably result in a prosecution. Why is racist hate speech treated differently from homophobic hate speech?
So how do we best combat homophobic music lyrics? Hate speech laws address a problem after it has happened. It is much better to prevent homophobic ideas, before they get expressed. Suppressing hate speech by use of the criminal law is, at best, a short-term fix. A better solution is education against hateful ideas.
To protect young people against the influence of homophobic lyrics and hate speech, education against all prejudice – including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia – should be a compulsory subject in every school; starting from primary level onwards, with no opt-outs for independent, church or free schools and no right of parents to withdraw their children. These lessons in equality and diversity should promote understanding and acceptance of difference. They ought to be subject to annual examination, with the results going on each pupil’s record. I’d like to see them declared when applying for higher education and jobs. By making them part of the national curriculum and an examination subject, it would ensure that pupils and teachers took these lessons seriously. This would, over time, debunk and diminish bigoted ideas; creating greater tolerance, respect and community cohesion, with no need for hate speech legislation.
People aren’t born homophobic. They become homophobic. Education can prevent hate. Prevention is better than punishment.
•An edited version of this article was published under the title: Change your tune?, Index on Censorship magazine, Vol 43 No 1, March 2014
• For further information about the Peter Tatchell Foundation’s human rights campaigns: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org
If you have a view on this subject please add your comments.