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DEMOCRACY IN SHACKLES: FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND ITS UNSEEN SIDE

Author : Shourya Shubham (Chanakya National Law University, Patna)

“There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech increases violence and hatred. 

Newton Lee

People need a system which empowers and regulates them in order to coexist and function as a society, this system is referred to as a government. Democracy is one of the most preferred forms of government in today’s world because it rests on the basic principle of representation and political equality. This is possible only with each member of the society being able to express himself freely. However, there is another aspect of this right i.e., hate speech which is the most common results of the unbridled use of the freedom that this right bestows.

Introduction

Free speech is not merely of fundamental importance for democratic countries, but it is one of the most basic but significant rights for an individual to form his opinions and thereby realizing himself. The right to freedom of expression is of vital importance as well as it is also crucial for the enjoyment of other rights and freedoms. This right helps us convey our opinions which can play a major role in bringing a change in the society. This is not only limited to providing us the opportunity to speak but to listen to other’s views as well. A free society relies on the free exchange of ideas which is ensured by this fundamental right. Today, there is a common understanding that free speech establishes the elementary pillar of progress for democratic societies. The scope of this right is an important yardstick against which the sophistication and confidence of a democratic nation can be measured.

However, Freedom of expression is not absolute and is subject to certain limitations. Most of the nations impose these restrictions based on the historical and political context. The British, for instance, tend to restrict racially motivated speech due to its colonial past and its concern to maintain peace and harmony in its diverse population. Germans, on the other hand, are naturally more sensitive about Nazi propaganda than other nations. An invisible virus can make thousands sick as can destructive speeches. It is to be balanced against the requirements of the right to equality and non-discrimination, for as too many examples demonstrate, “hate speech can kill.” The power of speech can either be an extraordinarily constructive or if misused, highly destructible force can cause a lot of chaos and destruction.

Hate speech is a very elusive and enigmatic concept to understand. It lambastes and storms a particular group’s or individual’s religious, national, racial or ethnic identity “Human Rights Watch defines hate speech as ‘any form of expression regarded as offensive to racial, ethnic and religious groups and other discrete minorities, and to women.” Yet there is no acknowledged universal definition. The wide definition of hate speech will term it as an attack on the dignity and reputation of an individual or a group. The lack of an approved and fixed definition causes difficulty in determining when exactly an expression constitutes hate speech. Indeed, some speech might be so offensive and derogatory that it may proselytize prejudice or discrimination against minority groups, yet it might not be considered as hate speech.

Those people who oppose hate speech, do not deny the significance of free speech, yet they are well aware of the potential dangers that might emerge out of its unleashed and irresponsible practice. Hence, on the one hand, there is no disavowal that freedom of expression is essential to defeat discrimination, bigotry, and intolerance; on the other hand, free speech cannot always be preferred over other equally important values, such as non-discrimination and equality. The problem lies in the requirement of constant struggle, to determine which value is to be preferred over the other.

The effect of political hate speech

A grave concern is the increasing success of populist parties that are extensively using hate speech for fulfilling their personnel political agendas. Politicians and other public figures have greater responsibility because they are more prone to the possibility for spreading prejudice against certain groups.

 The impact of political speech is also greater and deeper as politicians hold a position of authority. So, hate speech has an impact on potential offenders who may feel encouraged in their intolerance and biases. In some countries, criminal legislation has an additional responsibility if the author of hate speech holds public office.

It is very important, at the political level, to speak out against hate speech by fellow politicians, silence can be interpreted as an approval. It is also essential to foster a climate where diversity is considered a valuable asset. Diversity should also be reflected in the leadership of politicians. Hate speech is not only inspired by some social conditions or circumstances. It has also become a part of the general democratic process. Taking this observation seriously, it would be a disastrous error to treat hate speech in isolation from a wider critique of racism, xenophobia, misogyny or homophobia in society. Hate speech is not a pathological exception to otherwise properly and smoothly running public spheres.

Hate speech, especially during elections, shatters and completely destroys the comforting idea of various Indian identities cohabiting harmoniously. Now ‘a’ day’s candidates are not being chosen according to their skills and merit or the work they have done but it is solely based on religion and caste. This is secular India’s dirty little open secret. Research has shown that politicians using communal rhetoric have higher chances of winning elections. The irony of Indian democracy is that politicians want to govern a nation that they do their best to divide during elections.

Negative implications of hate speech

Hate speeches increase prejudice. Overhearing ethnic insults and exposure to homophobic epithets increases dehumanization. Furthermore, researches have shown that people who frequently encounter examples of hate speech are less inclined to perceive hate speech as offensive and abusive.

Hate speeches cause harm. Hate speech leads to significant harm, which persuades hearers to believe in negative stereotypes and engage in harmful conduct while normalizing discrimination, which involves indirect effects related to power imbalances. The pathway of extremist ideology is hatred and it begins with manipulation of emotion, the next step involves engaging in hate speech with others, and eventually viewing violence as essential before carrying out acts of violence or destruction for the advantage of an extremist group.

Steps to Counter hate speech

Hate speech targets and triggers the most vulnerable sections of society, which are ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants or women, who have limited access to speech. This is getting bitter day by day. We can ensure whether social media regulations are being properly followed or not as the role of media is the most crucial thing in times of social disharmony.

Addressing hate speech with counter-speech (refuting hate speech through thoughtful, true and fact-bound arguments) has been found to influence a specific social media audience in the opposite direction of extreme opinions, especially of undecided individuals. The only way of responding to bigoted words is to think, act and maintain dignity. There is an immediate need for people to realize that how much destruction these hate speeches have done to the society. We need to address our concerns, engaged in respectful dialogue, and holding others accountable by letting them know that their words are not acceptable.

Conclusion

Hate-mongers don’t promote liberty and freedom; rather they promote the idea of oppression of weaker groups, which include homosexuals, national/racial minorities and immigrants over whom they claim superiority. The content of hate speech is thus not liberating; in contrast it’s domineering and alarming as such speech usually targets the weak that don’t have proper access and channels to voice their grievances or seek remedies. Experience shows that these powerless segments of society resort to violence once they feel themselves to be helpless and empty in front of such verbal violence. Thus, the answer doesn’t lie allowing any opinion or idea, no matter how high its intellectual value is, within the “marketplace of ideas” where the powerful can easily “sell” their ideas at the expense of the vulnerable; but it lies in a very comprehensive  analysis of what causes inequality, unfair distribution of economic resources, historical grievances or other circumstances that produce to hate and injustice

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