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Pro und contra: Do We have a Right to Hate?

Veröffentlicht am 16. März 2017

Pro: Monica R. Miller

Not any more (or less) than we have the ‘right’ to love. And, that’s just it. As long as the word ‘right’ continues to adjudicate the condition and possibility for the condition of ‘hate’ then the answer to such a “complex” question is forcefully resolved in a simple response: yes. From without which, talk of love would need no warrant, and would lack a descriptive and affective face. As to whether (or not) it is, or isn’t socially acceptable to hate, or human to hate, or normal to hate is a different kind of question. Finding ourselves in what many have referred to as a global crisis of confounding human discord and division, with rising tides of populist rhetoric of social divisions of many sorts, social hate of difference, and its attendant authoritarian, fascist, and totalitarian proclivities, such a topic as the proliferation of hate, its reality as a social problem, and its paradoxical legislative precariousness, is now more pressing than ever before. Who shall police the enduring crisis of hate – the state, church, family? If hate is an affective (e.g. emotional) state of being, then what we might ask, of the state legislating such ‘matters of the heart?’ While many of us might indeed applaud recent governmental efforts on ridding spaces such as ‘the internet of things’ of hate speech, we ultimately likewise face governmental overreach on freedom of speech, as well as the attempt to criminalize social beliefs and perspectives such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and the like.

Without a doubt, hate when incited, and acted upon is dangerous, and has capacity to kill. Tragically, we have far too many examples of the wide-ranging faces of hate which have destroyed lives, robbed individuals and groups of the right to liberty and freedom, and snuffed out far too many lives in our recent history. In the United States, the “freedom of speech” is held up as a paramount inalienable, sacred, and absolute value in democratic society. Just as much as it can work towards the affirmative and necessary work of prosecuting and holding accountable acts of violence, incitement, intolerance, and discrimination, it likewise runs the risk of undermining basic freedoms of constitutional rights to the freedom of ideas, thought, belief, and creed. At its very foundation, the purpose, as it were, of the First Amendment is to prevent government encroachment on, or control over, legislating the business of speech. While the emotion, or feeling of hatred is no doubt a matter of the heart, speech unduly becomes the primary mode of its expression, further assumed to be expressive in, and found among, the realm of action. We are vulnerable to speech as much as we are susceptible to its injurious effects, yet such a reality must be balanced with, and held to the necessity of what philosophers such as Judith Butler have referred to as discursive agency and the dangers of implicit censorship. In the opening pages of the formidable text Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Butler raises a pressing and significant question:

When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make? We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory. We claim that language acts, and acts against us, and the claim we make is a further instance of language, one which seeks to arrest the force of the prior instance. Thus, we exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force, caught up in a bind that no act of censorship can undo.

Here, Butler animates the “catch-22” of our overreliance on language as linguistic beings, our constitutive reliance on it to be, as it were, as formed in and through its interpellative power. When asked in an interview if it is possible to characterize some speech as “hate speech” and whether it is “legally” possible to construct a legal definition of such that would be reliable, Kenan Malik responds in a way that questions the analytical efficacy of such a term, he writes:

I am not sure that ‘hate speech’ is a particularly useful concept. Much is said and written, of course, that is designed to promote hatred. But it makes little sense to lump it all together in a single category, especially when hatred is such a contested concept.

In a sense, hate speech restriction has become a means not of addressing specific issues about intimidation or incitement, but of enforcing general social regulation. This is why if you look at hate speech laws across the world, there is no consistency about what constitutes hate speech. Britain bans abusive, insulting, and threatening speech. Denmark and Canada ban speech that is insulting and degrading. India and Israel ban speech that hurts religious feelings and incites racial and religious hatred. In Holland, it is a criminal offense deliberately to insult a particular group. Australia prohibits speech that offends, insults, humiliates, or intimidates individuals or groups. Germany bans speech that violates the dignity of, or maliciously degrades or defames, a group. And so on. In each case, the law defines hate speech in a different way.[1]

Perhaps a more equitable and hence, democratic way around the contingent, and slippery slope of legislating hate, as foremost expressed, and hence, prosecutable in speech, before action, is to widen the rights to speech as to better enable democratically capacious contexts for debate, dialogue, and hence exchange across spaces of social difference. After all, a democratic society is one premised upon the plurality of divergent voices, beliefs, perspectives and worldviews and the human right to be afforded the safety to do so, without harm and injury. While there are certainly a wide variety of appeals to be made on the basis of the ‘place’ of hate in impinging on the natural rights of others, and the role of socially agreed-upon ethics in making freedom possible – such calls and demands for proper behavior, reasonable thinking, and equitable conduct in the world must, on the individual level, be figured as options, not as requirements that can somehow be legislated among, and within, the realm of the personal. Theological, moral and ethical appeals are only worthy as decisive options, possibilities, and prospects; thus, we cannot tout constitutional freedom as the very foundation of democracy and at the same time enact moral preferences for certain normative ways of feeling and thinking over others. To do so would be to slip into the murky and shadowy realm of the tyrannical where the dangers of titillating hegemonic homogeneity of ideation so loom and lurk.

Catastrophically yet undeniably, the paradox of double-ness has always, after all, been a formidable feature of democracies wherein the very sources that assist appeals to human injustices, hatred, and evil are often the very places, in varying historical moments, which enabled the kind of hate we now so love to prosecute. Be it the bible, or the constitution, such sacred sources have upheld and adjudicated as much justice, liberty and good as they have been the primary spaces of teaching and legislating the kinds of hate that hate has now come to produce.

While we often get “excitable” about the injurious, provoking, motivating, and harmful capacity of speech that we often overlook its more obscured inner-workings from least expected spaces in society. In other words, although we need to stay conscious of the dangers of hate and its various manifestations of power to harm, kill, destroy, we also need to stay tuned in to its equally dangerous, oft-unnoticed, and less discussed implicit dimensions that ideologically interpellate just the same. A reality brilliantly animated in the words of the great thinker, writer and activist Malcolm X:

If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.[2]

So long as we continue to discuss, define, and debate the legitimacy of hate as a right then we’ll always, likewise, have to contend with the hate that (such) rights produced.


Monica R. Miller, PhD is Associate Professor of Religion & Africana Studies and Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Lehigh University, and fellow at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover.

Contra: Christoper Driscoll


Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. – Reinhold Niebuhr[i]

The same holds true of the law, and laws made from, and making, democracy in its varied iterations. Laws must be written and enforced that protect the citizens of a nation from those who would hate particular groups on the basis of belief, biology, geography, or culture. Anti-hate legislation is a powerful step in not only curbing hate-motivated violence, but in organizing the values that hold up any democratic apparatus.

Hatred is not an object in one’s heart, a disposition or ontological viewpoint. It is a verb, a “choice” according to Jean Paul Sartre.[ii] To be a “hater” is to be found “hating.” To be “hateful” is to be prone toward “hating.” Too often, we imagine hate to be a feeling. Even in framing this choice, Sartre, too, overemphasizes hatred as rooted in “passion”[iii] when in fact, expressions of hatred often – as was the case with the routinized Shoah – require a disjuncture between feeling and thinking or feeling and acting. We often fear emotional response will grow violent. However, where hatred is concerned, acute emotional catharsis may be a valve ensuring a community or individual does not succumb to hatred. Nevertheless, Sartre’s suggestion that “hate is a faith,”[iv] a particular kind of bad faith, does well to emphasize the action-basis of hatred but does little to emphasize the ordinariness of bad faith towards any given life. Bad faith is not something limited to the anti-Semite, but is a failure of action all of us (as humans) run risk of perpetuating.

In fact, hatred may be “human.” Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression offers some biologistic foundation for understanding intraspecific aggression as “natural.” More than a biologistically-determined inevitability, “with humanity in its present cultural and technological situation, we have good reason to consider intra-specific aggression the greatest of all dangers.”[v] Lorenz’s work is Darwinian and far too biologistic for the standards of today, but his basic point about the danger of aggression is far more important than is his offered origin for aggression. Cast as a warning, he suggests: “To use a human analogy: if, in a certain area, a larger number of doctors, builders, and mechanics want to exist, the representatives of these professions will do well to settle as far away from each other as possible.”[vi]

Hatred is an extreme form of what I call an exaggeration of one’s radical contingency. By exaggerated radical contingency, I mean “lies about human worth and ability, told or enacted, that reinforce various insider/outsider arrangements…efforts at identity-based distinctions rooted in the attempt to place distance between one’s self or community and the reality of death,” and the subsequent responsibilities incumbent upon human social actors when confronting our radically dependent (on others) social life.[vii]

We must enact laws that ensure we take seriously this human penchant for hatred, and transmute that possibility into its impossibility. Laws come to be helpful for protecting ourselves against ourselves. Laws do not offer a panacea against hatred, but in a most basic sense, are simply our obligation upon taking seriously our obligation towards self and others in the face of the uglier visions of human life.

From about 1870 – 1970 in the United States, nearly 5000 lynchings occurred throughout the country. In that time, activists fought for enactment of anti-lynching legislation at the federal level. In that time, no laws were passed outlawing the practice of lynching. The rationale was that extra-legal murder was already illegal, and so specific anti-lynching legislation would amount to a legislative redundancy.

In January of 1939, The Crisis magazine ran the article “Can the States Stop Lynching.” This article emphasized that federal anti-lynching legislation – Then known as the “Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill” was rejected (over and over again) on the grounds of State’s rights. Yet, in 1938, seven (known) lynchings occurred across four states – Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. Yet, “in no single instance was any action taken by the state looking toward the arrest and conviction of the lynchers.”[viii] In fact, representatives from the states where these lynchings took place repeatedly rejected any assertion that a federal law was necessary, and vigorously filibustered efforts to enact, in Congress, anti-lynching legislation. By 1968, 581 lynchings had occurred in Mississippi, 531 in Georgia, 391 in Louisiana, and 282 in Florida.[ix] My point is simple. The states that fought most earnestly against anti-lynching legislation were the states where the highest numbers of lynchings occurred.

To this date, no federal anti-lynching legislation ever passed both houses of Congress in the United States of America. The closest to such passage was a formal apology, offered in 2005, for Congress having never passed such legislation.[x]

I wonder how many lives might have been saved had legislation been passed.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offers wisdom for underscoring the value of anti-hate legislation. In his The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, he writes that “there are no living communities which do not have some notions of justice, beyond their historic laws, by which they seek to gauge the justice of their legislative enactments” before reminding that if such “natural laws” are not safeguarded and held sacred, then the “final criterion of justice and order” risk being “sacrificed.”[xi] Such a perspective can be argued from the standpoint of those who fought against anti-lynching legislation, in that their suggestion was that a higher law guided the federal law; not “state’s rights” as much as God’s law. Yet, in fact, preservation of the values and foundations guiding “legislative enactments” must also be preserved by way of legislative action.

Proponents of anti-lynching legislation were under no assumption that such legislation would change the acute instances of violence resulting from anti-black racism. That was surely a hope, but the legislation – as is the case with all such anti-hate legislation – seeks to shape the undergirding values creating the climate in which law and democracy are both necessary and possible.[xii] In short, the value of anti-hatred legislation is not the protection against violence, but the prohibition of hatred. Such prohibitions take human ugliness seriously enough to protect us from it by way of legislating our motivations, and directing our passions in service to all.

[i] Reinhold Niebuhr. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, Foreword. Available online,,%20Reinhold%20-%20The%20Children%20of%20Light%20and%20the%20Children%20o.pdf Accessed February 28, 2017.
[ii] Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michael Walzer. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken, 1995, 12.
[iii] Sartre, 1995, 12.
[iv] Sartre, 1995, 13.
[v] Konrad Lorenz. On Aggression. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966, 29-30.
[vi] Lorenz, 1966, 31.
[vii] Christopher M. Driscoll. White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. Routledge, 2015, 10.
[viii] “Can the States Stop Lynching?” The Crisis, January 1939, 9.
[ix] “10 American States With the Most Lynchings of Black People From 1882-1968.” Accessed February 28, 2017.
[x] “Senate Apologizes for Not Passing Anti-Lynching Laws.” Accessed February 28, 2017.
[xi] Niebuhr, 1944, Chapter Four.
[xii] Niebuhr, Foreword.

Christopher Driscoll, PhD is visiting assistant professor of religion and Africana studies at Lehigh University, and fellow at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover.

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