What's to hate about hate speech?

(Photo: Unsplash/Matt Botsford)

After the Second World War, Soviet Russia was determined to have the concept of 'hate speech' enshrined in international legislation. They wanted there to be legal sanctions against 'hatred and incitement to hatred'. In Maoist China, hate speech was a crime.

In many Islamic states, criticising Islam and Muhammad is a crime that can carry the death penalty.

Why are repressive regimes and authoritarian governments so keen on the concept of hate speech? Because it is a means to control people – not just what they do but also what they say and think.

George Orwell in his famous 1984 novel was prophetic in his understanding of where society was heading. What he didn't see was that it would be so-called 'liberal' societies that would end up using the concept of hate speech as a form of control.

In his appendix to 1984 he explained how Newspeak worked: "The Purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings."

The attack on language in our post-modern culture has now reached these Orwellian proportions. Most rational people accept that there are limits to free speech – the famous example of a man shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre – illustrates that. Most of us would accept that incitement to violence is and should be a crime. But what has happened in our society is that the term violence has now been redefined to mean criticism of someone's identity. Or to be more precise, criticism of someone who has a 'protected' identity. As Orwell put it in his other prophetic novel, Animal Farm, "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

A classic example of how this works is seen in the case of Israel Folau, who this week was sacked by Rugby Australia.

"Rugby must be inclusive of all," said Rugby Australia's CEO, Raylene Castle, adding "that Rugby Australia fully supports the rights of players to their own beliefs ... People need to feel safe in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion or sexuality".

It is the classic example of Orwellian Newspeak. We are inclusive but we are going to exclude anyone who does not share our (or our sponsors') views. We want people to 'feel safe' regardless of their religion, unless their religion goes against something that we believe. Folau is considered to be guilty of the violence of hate speech and therefore his contract is terminated. Meanwhile players who have actually been violent and abusive continue with their contracts. Go figure.

In another example of how 'hate speech' is being used to control - the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims has suggested that a new definition of Islamophobia should be adopted: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness."

The trouble with this definition is that it is so broad and woolly that it can be used to silence any criticism of Islam whatsoever. In the name of preventing 'hate speech' we are in danger of seeing a new blasphemy law introduced. It's not surprising that Richard Dawkins, the National Secular Society and various Christian groups have united in an unholy alliance to challenge this extreme measure.

But the Church is not immune from this attempt to control people through the weapon of hate speech. There is currently a move to have 'spiritual abuse' defined as the Christian equivalent. Starting from the correct premise that there is such a thing as  spiritual abuse (domineering leaders, cult-like control etc.) this will quickly morph into 'you can't teach that as I find it offensive, abusive, harmful because it attacks my identity'. Just as a new blasphemy law is being introduced so we are faced with the danger of a new Inquisition – where self-appointed spiritual guardians (backed up by the state) will start determining what the church can, or cannot say.

We are on a very dangerous path. Not only government, but the giant internet corporations are moving towards a society where they alone determine what is or is not hate speech. My own personal experience is indicative of that. The BBC once banned me for using the phrase "Britain's Christian traditions". Twitter banned me for an unspecified reason.

And the Scottish police got upset because I reported them for hate speech... 

Their criteria for hate speech is clear: "A hate incident is any incident that is not a criminal offence, but something which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hate or prejudice."

I perceived that their ill-advised poster campaign was motivated by hate and prejudice. They dismissed my claim by stating that was not their intention. But their laws say nothing about the intention of the alleged perpetrator, but the perception of the victim. It seems that some animals are more equal than others.

What can the church do?

We do not argue that hate speech does not exist. We do not argue that words do not matter. We know that the tongue is a "restless evil. Full of deadly poison" (James 3:8).

We do argue against the use of the concept of hate speech to control and manipulate. We are aware that the standard of Jesus is much tougher than that of any government or corporation.

"Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34).

What needs dealt with is the evil within our hearts – something that the government can never change or control. Only the truth of Jesus Christ can change people's hearts and turn hate to love.

Orwell also noted that "the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it". He was right. They hated Christ because he spoke the truth – and they will hate Christians who really follow Christ and do the same.

One final Orwell quote for you to ponder: "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."

Christians are the new revolutionaries in our post-truth 'hate-speech' society. Speak the truth in love – and watch how it is called 'hate' – but know that ultimately truth and love will triumph over lies and hate. Vive La Revolution!

David Robertson is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He blogs at www.theweeflea.com