Hate speech, hurtful speech, Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow

Following a brief period of goodwill over Christmas and New Year celebrations – where the goodwill was likely just people being distracted rather than benevolence – South Africa’s court of social media has resumed operations.

It’s difficult to know when calling people out becomes persecution or “witch hunt”, and I’ve no doubt that some of you think that it’s permissible, or even obligatory, to condemn racist tweets or Facebook posts in the strongest terms.

Some of you might also think that any attempt to contextualise the offensive statements somehow excuses them. It’s true that providing context can be a means of evading blame, or excusing someone else from rightful blame.

But it can also be a way of preserving distinctions worth making, such as the distinction between the explicit racism of Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post and the far more debatable offense Chris Hart is accused of committing.

The first, and obvious, point is that Sparrow’s post stands alone. She calls black people “monkeys”, makes it explicit that she thinks black people can’t help but make a mess of (presumably, “her”) beaches, and confirms our worst impressions by saying “it’s just the facts” when called out for doing so.

By contrast, the tweet that causes Hart to feel the wrath of Twitter was one of a sequence of over 40 tweets. I didn’t even know this myself until sometime this morning, and even without that knowledge thought that the two instances were obviously different.

Different, first because we know something (a large amount, in fact) about Chris Hart’s attitudes already (that he’s never appeared to be an overt racist), and second because his tweet is compatible with being unsympathetic, rather than bigoted (as Sparrow is).

Hart said “More than 25 years after Apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities….”.

You can respond by saying it’s not a white man’s place to speak of the victims of apartheid in skeptical terms at all, and regular readers would know that I’d think that a poor response.

You could say that he’s trivialising the past and current oppression of apartheid by speaking of “entitlement”, and that he’s asking for unwarranted sympathy by casting himself (by implication) as a “victim”, which might also indicate a lack of sympathy for real victims.

All of this could be true, and if so, we have an an instance of “soft” or “subliminal” racism, which I wouldn’t condone. That sort of racism is nevertheless distinguishable from Penny Sparrow’s overt bigotry, and should surely be addressed in a different fashion.

This is especially the case if (even if Hart is guilty of subliminal racism) he might be making a point worth debating, which is that a culture of entitlement might exist even within a context of deep structural oppression.

Again, you might say it’s not his place to talk about that – but this wasn’t the typical response, or even a common response. He was called out for being a racist, has since been suspended from his job, and this is without any obvious attempt to consider his tweet within the context of the sequence of tweets.

As Jon Ronson recently reminded us, Twitter is not the place for trying to debate something. Chris Hart knows this now, if he didn’t before.

Another thing you’ll struggle to be able to debate on Twitter is the difference between hateful speech, hurtful speech and “hate speech”. The latter is a legal category, and even Sparrow’s Facebook remark wouldn’t count as hate speech as per the Constitution.

It would likely count as hate speech according to the Equality Act, in that the bar there is that the speech needs to be hurtful, rather than also an incitement to cause harm. But even if something doesn’t count as hate speech in a legal sense, of course it can still be hateful (and hurtful).

For speech to be hurtful is not in itself good reason to proscribe it, in that we can find anything hurtful, for both good and bad reasons. Whether hateful speech should be outlawed – rather than simply shouted down, or responded to with competing argument – is a separate matter.

And, it’s even possible to debate whether hate speech should be treated as a distinct matter for the law at all. I can see the merits of doing so in a country like ours, for pragmatic reasons, but would love to live in a world that doesn’t need such laws, either because we aren’t so cruel to each other, or because we’ve learned to laugh at the bigots.

But we are cruel, and it’s unreasonable to expect the victims of bigotry to laugh at their persecutors. Even so, not all persecutors are equally vicious, and we’re also able to make mistakes in who we identify as one, at all.

None of this makes any persecution okay, or excuses any of it. But if we care about ending it, it might be that different situations call for different strategies – and that the necessary distinctions are difficult to make if we resolve everything by shouting at each other in the town square of Twitter.

Here’s the podcast of an interview with John Maytham on CapeTalk & Radio702 on this topic.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.