A quest for social consensus against hate speech 

News: Supreme Court of India has recently agreed to hear petitions that were asking for legal action to be taken against the organisers of, and speakers at, the ‘Haridwar Dharm Sansad’, held in Uttarakhand.  

What happened in the above-mentioned event? 

Read here. 

Why some petitioners have sought the intervention of apex court in the case? 

Despite the fact that FIRs have been registered in the event, no arrests had been made. 

While in some cases like that of ‘Dharm Sansad’ in Chhattisgarh where there was no confirmation whether the accused had delivered hate speech or not, the State police has made arrests. 

Why there is lack of immediate action on such events?

Due to involvement of factors like political angle and ideological divides, there is lack of uniformity in tackling such incidents. 

However, the main reason is the absence of any legal or social consensus around what constitutes “hate speech”.

How hate speech is detrimental to society? 

Indirect and subconscious damage to hate speech to the psyche of society: Hate speech is not simply restricted to direct calls to violence.  

It also strengthens existing prejudices and entrenches already existing discrimination. 

For example: Anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) in Europe took its most extreme form in frequent pogroms and — ultimately — the Holocaust. However, it also on a daily basis, inculcated in society a “cultural common sense” about the Jewish people. 

This “cultural common sense” was based on stereotypes and social prejudice, and justified ongoing discrimination, social and economic boycotts, and ghettoization. 

This in the end leads to continued subordination of a section of society, which then can be accomplished without direct calls to violence. 

No society can survive for long when incitement to violence is normalised, and enjoys legal backing. 

Hate speech promotes inequality and subordination, and in its extreme form leads to violence. 

What are the challenges in tackling hate speech? 

Absence of sound legal definition of hate speech: Legal provisions that deal with hate speech and Supreme court judgements on the issue – Read here 

Although SC in various judgements has defined hate speech as speech that targets people based on their identity, and calls for violence or discrimination against people because of their identity, however there is need for more clarity on it. 

Problem in Identification of Hate speech due to its ambiguous nature-Due to its very nature, it’s very difficult to identify what constitutes as hate speech and what not. 

People who are involved in delivering hate speech do it under the disguise of self-defence rather than calls to violence or deliver it in an ambiguous manner. Example– A number of visual and verbal cues were used that everyone knew referred to the Jewish community, to the point where it was no longer necessary to take the community by name. 

Indirect hate speech of this kind is known as a “dog-whistle”. 

While it may escape the attention of an external observer, both the speaker and the listener know what — and who — is being referred to. 

What is the way forward? 

Requirement of social consensus to overcome the subjective nature of hate speech 

It is very difficult to succinctly define hate speech, it will inevitably reflect individual judgement. Therefore, there is need for social consensus about what kind of speech is nothing but hate speech.  

Social consensus helps to distinguish cases of hate speech from other forms of confrontational or agitational speech. 

For example: In Europe, Holocaust denial is an offence and is enforced with a degree of success. 

This is because there is a pre-existing social consensus about the moral abhorrence of the Holocaust and the determination not to see it repeated.  

Consistent legal implementation and daily conversations within the society will help to achieve this social consensus. 

SC has a very appropriate opportunity to start this process. 

Source: This post is based on the article “A quest for social consensus against hate speech” published in The Hindu on 13th Jan 2022 

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