A different definition of violence

How do you rein in hateful speech online without overbalancing into censorship? That is Germany’s challenge.


There is a profound question at the heart of this week’s cover story by correspondent Kristen Chick and staff writer Sara Miller Llana: What kinds of violence are we willing to accept as a society?

Interestingly, Kristen and Sara’s story is not about guns or gangs or domestic abuse. It is about speech. It is about a German law that, most everyone agrees, addresses a real need yet no one really likes. After all, how do you rein in hateful speech online without overbalancing into censorship? That is Germany’s challenge.

But Germany’s challenge echoes worldwide. This issue is rippling through universities in the United States today. Many students see free speech as less sacrosanct than an individual’s right not to feel attacked or belittled. To older generations, this development is alarming. “Liberal snowflakes” are seen as careening recklessly down the slippery slope of thought police, censorship, and left-wing proto-fascism. Just look at Kristen and Sara’s story. Perhaps the greatest concern about Germany’s law is that it is creating cover for authoritarian regimes to restrict free speech in similar ways. That threat is not to be taken lightly. Free speech is essential to open societies built on individual liberties.

Yet there is a different view, too. What is often lost in the discussion about free speech on college campuses or in a more-restrictive country like Germany is the deeper shift in thought behind such moves. In his book “Enlightenment Now,” Harvard University cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker goes to extraordinary lengths to document the world’s progress against all forms of violence during the past two centuries. To emphasize his point, he notes that many societies are taking action against forms of violence that weren’t even seen as violence decades ago.

“When I grew up, bullying was considered a natural part of boyhood,” he writes. “It would have strained belief to think that someday the president of the United States would deliver a speech about its evils, as President Obama did in 2011. As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.”

The youth of today are clearly attempting to define hateful speech as violence. And Germany has ample evidence to prove the danger of unchecked hate speech. Self-government
is a core human right, but personal liberty has always demanded compromise. No one would argue for the right to murder someone else, though it infringes on personal liberty. The question is always: What does a society agree are the necessary limitations on personal liberty to best protect everyone’s liberties?

That standard evolves as societies evolve. Germany’s law and the conversations on college campuses are evidence of that evolution. Current efforts may well need significant recalibration. But there is also every reason to believe that they are about the elevating desire to make hate and violence unacceptable in whatever guise they take.

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