Isis propaganda can lead to an Islamic extremist committing an act of terror. White supremacists saying that Muslims are trying to enforce Sharia Law in Western countries can inspire people to commit acts of terror against Muslims.
Dog whistles are used by people from all sides in a political debate to mobilise their side and everyone has their own racist demons to fight. Even the most well intentioned of us have prejudices to reflect on which we sometimes vocalise. Now, following the Christchurch terror attack, we're being asked to consider how much we should be allowed to vocalise.
I talked about the destructive nature of words in a column a couple of weeks back. Seems like not everyone took what I had to say on board.
I was sent some delightful messages from people who use Pepe the Frog avatars online and have "MAGA" and a country's flag in their bios. Most of those messages call my sexuality into question because they disagree with me. I'm not sure why my status as a gay, straight, bi-sexual, trans, cis and hetero man makes any difference to whether we'd agree, but I feel sorry for someone who is fragile enough to think these were insults. But also sorry for the people who are genuinely members of those communities whose existences are used as insults.
These have escalated since the Christchurch terror attacks. And of course we were very quick to forget our sorrow towards our Muslim community. The call to prayer being broadcast on RNZ was enough to ruffle some racists, but then a Titahi Bay Anzac Day service had planned to honour the fallen from Christchurch with a Muslim prayer as part of the service. Violent threats, vile online comments and even former servicemen all piled in to say what a terrible idea it was causing the organiser of the Anzac service to can the idea.
I mean it's not like the people of Turkey have been welcoming New Zealanders and Australians to visit Gallipoli every year to celebrate a day when we were literally trying to invade their country. So why should we do any kind of gesture of solidarity with our Muslim community?
It's not just hate speech laws we need to think about, but the subtle forms of racism that we don't think about. In my opening paragraph I used the phrase "Western countries". When we talk about "Western countries" or "Western culture" it's a phrase for racists that means "white countries" and "white culture". White culture is a catch-cry of Nazi trash who are trying to defend some mythical idealised racist society that is monocultural.
When we do consider hate speech laws, the hardest part is working out which group of people get to decide what is free speech and what is not. If it's the Government of the day then that means the next time there's a change of government, it too would get the right to say what can and cannot be said. And I'm not sure we want to be opening that can of worms. My ideas might be acceptable today, but that could change tomorrow.
There are obvious curtailments on freedom of speech that we know about - people often cite the "yelling fire in a movie cinema" example, but the visit last year by Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux to peddle their low-rent racism and bigotry throws up a more complicated set of free speech questions. Are they allowed to make their speeches? Is it hate speech if we're not directly saying "attack that group of people" but we are saying "that group of people is horrible and taking over our culture"? What if someone leaves that speech to attack a member of a minority group? Were they incited to do it by listening to those people and therefore that's hate speech?
Free speech "purists" say that we should let these racists be racist loudly and publicly, and then laugh or ridicule their ideas. Those people who say that are often white and male. Not always, but often. And they have the privilege to laugh and ridicule those ideas because they are usually ideas that don't threaten their existence. However if you're from an often oppressed group - Māori, Muslim, Rainbow, Jewish, or even female - those words that we're told to laugh at and ridicule aren't funny. They're words that make your life uncomfortable and unpleasant to live through. They're words that frighten and degrade you. They are words of hate.
This ties in with the fact we don't often hear free speech purists argue that we should abolish defamation laws, or that we allow Isis propaganda to be broadcast. It's weird how they often like their free speech to be speech that is critical of minorities they're not part of. It's also weird that we stifle a Muslim prayer at an Anzac ceremony which is a form of speech and nobody from the free speech purists side spoke out.
Yes, we do need to express ideas and debate them and air them. But we also need to protect people and make sure that we can all partake in a life that is worth living. Finding the balance to this is the hard part. Finding the people who should set these rules is the damn near impossible part. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We need to bring in the people who are often on the receiving end of the horrible words to help us make the decisions, as much as we bring in the ruling classes. To do otherwise is to curtail their right to be heard, and we sure don't want to do that, do we? Is it "hate speech" or do we just hate speech?
David Cormack has worked for the Labour and Green Parties and interned for Bill English while studying.