Does anyone really believe in free speech? Or is the principle of free speech just a political weapon used by those out of power to advance their cause and when they come into power, they gladly put it aside to silence their enemies? In the same vein, does anybody really believe that hate speech is wrong? Or is hate speech only wrong against those those groups who are in favor with the powers that be and it is perfectly fine against groups who are out of favor? In other words, is being against hate speech truly a moral principle or just a political tool?
Recently in a college class, students were told that offensive talk about certain groups would not be allowed in the class as that might make these groups feel unwelcome in the college community. Later however, members of the class begin saying things there were offensive about another group of people that the professor had not mentioned as being in one of the protected groups. When a student from the unprotected group complained that he was offended by the speech, the professor suggested that he needed to find another class. In other words, he and the group he belonged too were not welcome to participate in the life of university. It seems the teacher’s rules were meant to protect only certain groups of people, groups that the teacher favored. Groups the teacher did not favor must hold their tongue or be excommunicated from the university community.
I have not mentioned the names of the particular groups involved because I don’t want this post to be about politics or power. I am trying to deal with this issue abstractly as a matter of principle. My point is this: If we really believe in the principle of free speech we will fight for the right of everyone to speak, not just those we agree with. If we believe that hate speech is wrong, we will oppose offensive speech against all people groups, not just the ones that we have some sort of affinity for. If we don’t, it proves we are moral hypocrites who are only concerned about ourselves.
Principles of morality often protect those who are not in power. This is well and good. There is a law that is above all people that applies to all people equally. This restrains those in power from abusing their power for they realize they are accountable to a higher standard. Practically this empowers those in minority groups to speak truth to power with hopes it may change unjust circumstances when the conscience of those in power is pricked. It was the power behind the ancient hebrew prophets when they laid complaints at the feet of the king. This is a major reason why the civil rights movement in America worked.
But this only works if such a higher standard exists and applies to everyone equally. If those who were once discriminated against begin discriminating once they get into power, they destroy the social power of morality. It proves that for them, morality was only a cynical, political tool to oust their enemies. When society at large begins to realize this, they will not longer listen to moral reasoning from anyone. This strips everyone from the protecting power of moral principle. In a short sighted ploy to maintain their own power, they do harm to everyone, including themselves.
This is important for our own personal spiritual development as well. When we believe there is one morality over all people including ourselves, It restrains our lust to judge people, to abuse power, to treat other people with disdain. It causes us to be introspective about whether we have violated the higher principles.