Opposing “hate speech” or just hating speech?

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

That quote from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of America’s most powerful voices for freedom, highlights an important statement issued August 11 by a distinguished group of academic scholars, faith leaders, and commentators.

The Philadelphia Statement—so named in recognition of the historic, contentious debates in that city that ultimately produced the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution—is a call for renewed respect for the freedom of thought and expression that those documents bequeathed to our nation.

The statement—signed by, among others, such distinguished Catholics as recently retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Dr. Robert P. George of Princeton Law School—deplores the “Social media mobs, Cancel culture” and “Campus speech policing” that today are stifling such free expression.

“Blacklisting is spreading,” the statement laments. From corporations “enacting ‘hate speech’ policies to protect people from ‘wrong’ and ‘harmful’ content,” to colleges and universities “imposing speech regulations to make students ‘safe’” from ideas they don’t like, policies and regulations are being imposed that “foster conformism (‘groupthink’) and train us to respond to intellectual challenges with one or another form of censorship.”

“A society that lacks comity and allows people to be shamed or intimidated into self-censorship of their ideas and considered judgments will not survive for long,” the authors warn. In contrast, “dissenting and unpopular voices…have often guided our society toward more just positions.” For that very reason—fostering a more just social order—such voices, “be they of the left or the right—must be afforded the opportunity to be heard.”

Dr. George has issued several similar statements in recent years—including one as recently as July 15 of this year— with Cornel West, a philosophy and African-American studies professor at Harvard. In 2017 the two published a statement denouncing “campus illiberalism,” and supporting “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression.” Moreover, while diametrically opposed on many issues—George identified by Inside Higher Ed as “one of the country’s most prominent conservative intellectuals,” West “a self-described ‘radical Democrat’”—they have modeled, in exchanges on various issues, how it is both possible and desirable to engage in spirited but respectful disagreement and debate. 

Of particular import, in my view, is the Philadelphia Statement’s concern about “‘hate’ labeling.” While acknowledging that free speech is not an absolute, citing proscriptions on defamation, intimidation and threats, or incitement to violence, the authors deplore the effort to silence even mainstream groups and ideas by defaming them as “hate groups” or “hate speech.” They point out that imposing “‘hate speech’ exceptions to free speech principles is foreign to our free speech ideals, impossible to define, and often used by those wielding political, economic, or cultural power to silence dissenting voices.” Instead, they call for “openness, to allow ideas and beliefs the chance to be assessed on their own merits,” trusting “that bad ideas will be corrected not through censorship but through better arguments.”

Decades ago, when our pro-life youth group used to give talks in high schools and colleges on Long Island (we were even welcome in some public schools in those days, something not likely to happen today) we were challenged one day by a particularly aggressive high school student. As I was answering her arguments, she grew exasperated and finally blurted out “Oh! Are you Catholic?”

To their credit, the two teachers present immediately rebuked her. I could have let it go at that, dismissing her apparent appeal to anti-Catholic prejudice as not worthy of a response. Better, I thought, to refute what she was implying—and others in the class may have been thinking—that our pro-life convictions were rooted solely in Catholic religious beliefs. So I took the opportunity to answer her, pointing out that nothing we had said reflected a religious argument against abortion. We had detailed the development of the baby in utero, described what abortion does to that living baby, and talked about positive alternatives to the very real crises that can lead women to choose abortion.

Was that girl’s question an example of “hate speech”? Well, it was not for us to judge what was in her heart. Confident in our pro-life arguments, our purpose was to stick to the real issues—the facts about life before birth, the sanctity of human life, and its protection and nurturing—rather than be distracted by real or perceived “hate speech” from one who disagreed with us.

And that seems to be a weakness among today’s cancel culture—particularly among those on college campuses termed “snowflakes” by some for their insistence on being shielded from hearing any perspective different from their own. They seem unable or unwilling to develop or articulate positive arguments to support their own ideas, and so instead they simply resort to labeling any opposing views as “hate speech” and shutting them down.

Are they really against “hate speech,” or do they simply “hate speech” they disagree with?

That is not a formula for advancing true social justice. Rather, as the Philadelphia Statement makes clear, it is a formula for destruction of the social order.

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

6 thoughts on “Opposing “hate speech” or just hating speech?

  1. I think most people of good will and common sense can identify “hate speech” and do not try to excuse and permit the use of hateful, racist language by saying that “there are good people on both sides” of an argument. I agree that as Catholics we should always defend our beliefs forcefully, and that includes calling out people who are saying hateful things, and making sure that we work to stop the spread of hate, both in words and deeds.

    Also, was the pro-life group you mentioned as presenting at a high school a group sponsored by the diocese? If it was, and this was not communicated to the students you presented to, why would you be surprised by her quedtion?


    1. No Bernie, our pro-life youth group was NOT sponsored by the diocese, we were an independent group of young people concerned about abortion and its impact on respect for life. Your question–besides implying that we were being dishonest, hiding from the students a connection to the Church that did not in fact exist–seems to reflect the same stereotype on your part that that young high school student indulged all those years ago: that anyone speaking against abortion must be sponsored by the Church, because opposition to abortion is just a narrowly sectarian Catholic religious belief. Is that what you think? Also, not sure where in my post you read that I was surprised by her question. I was not, precisely because such anti-Catholic stereotyping was then, and still is today, a much used weapon in the pro-abortion arsenal. Thanks for writing.
      — Rick


  2. Walter Ruzek
    I participated in the abortion protests on Long Island led by Rick Hinshaw. Yes, it was a sacrifice as there were always chores and errands on Saturday. I was always struck that there were not thousands there out of a diocese of a million people.
    Too, I thought if people saw the remains of the abortion victims there could be no denial of the terrible wrong of abortion. After all, we’ve seen pictures of concentration camp victims and without those pictures we would find it difficult to understand the depth to which humanity sank in this Holocaust.
    The absolute worst aspect today for me is that practicing Catholics vote for pro-abortion politicians and therefore support abortion. Worse still, many bishops do not speak clearly that this is the most important social issue of our time as it demeans all life and we must not vote to support it. Even the USCCB speaks unclearly on this great evil. They say abortion is “intrinsic evil” but go on to confuse the laity with all kinds of ifs and buts interpreted by liberal Catholics as an out to following the anti-abortion position. And there is an abundance of Catholic religious who openly support abortion without serious consequence.
    Today we see anarchy and the refusal of liberal government to deal with it. It’s new and seems outrageous but when you think of it, aborting a living human being who is just like us, there is nothing more terrible than the 65 million killed legally and possible only with our silence.


  3. John Lando
    August 19, 2020 at 2:18 pm
    Tomorrow, Thursday August 20, 2020 at the DNC extravaganza, a Catholic nun and a Catholic priest will be speaking. This is the party that continues to promote funding of Planned Parenthood and legalized abortion. Will these speakers champion the cause for the unborn? Will they criticize any of the actions and activities of the candidates? Will the leaders of their Religious Orders, the heads of the diocese, the CCCB or the papacy have any public reaction.
    I, for one would be very interested in Church leaders’ response/reactions, if any.


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