Yes, today is Candlemas — Imbolc — the beginning of spring in the old calendar. It hardly seems like it, waking to a freezing wind and the likelihood of snow, but nonetheless the Wheel of the Year has turned, and warmer weather is not far off.
The traditional flower of Candlemas is the white and green snowdrop, but the winter has been so unusually cold here that there is not a snowdrop blossom in sight.
There is much to be appalled by in the world as spring begins. One has only to turn to the news. But this morning came the particularly disturbing report that protestors at the University of California at Berkeley managed, through violent action, to prevent a presentation by a right-wing speaker with whom they disagreed.
According to the news, the protests began peacefully with people carrying signs reading “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.” Well, they are wrong. Aside from the issue of whether the intended speaker at the University was promulgating “hate speech” or not, there is still the fact that whether a speech contains supposed “hate” or not makes no difference. Free speech is free speech, and when one limits what can be said, it is no longer free. But violence is not free speech. Violence is intimidation and the death of free speech.
Free speech follows the dictum of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (wrongfully attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Refusing people the right to say that of which we do not approve also denies free speech, no matter how hateful we may find their words to be.
I particularly dislike the modern term “hate speech.” It can be used to stigmatize and silence the views of most anyone who disagrees with one’s own opinions. There is, of course, real hate in speech that has as its intent the physical or mental harm of a person or a group of people, and there are justifiably laws to prevent the incitement of such violence. But to merely express one’s views about a political system or a religious system, or any kind of system or body of people, even if those views are strongly negative and found quite offensive by some, is not necessarily “hate speech,” and the term is all too frequently loosely and inaccurately used. Accusing someone of “hate speech” can be a very effective form of intimidation and an attempt to deny someone the right of free speech. The best antidote to genuine “hate speech” is not denial of the right of the speaker to express opinions, but rather obvious and public non-violent disapproval based on factual evidence countering the position of the one doing the supposed “hating.” In my view, using the term “hate speech” has become a convenient and irrational way of stereotyping views with which we do not agree, without offering a rational challenge. We may detest those views, but in countering them, one should use reason and facts, not simply a dismissive catchphrase.
We must always remember that with free speech, one does not have the right not to be offended. But one does have the right to speak in active opposition to views one finds through reason and evidence to be wrong or harmful — and in many cases, not only the right, but also the responsibility.
We unfortunately find ourselves living in interesting times.