How did it come to be determined that certain (hate) speech is unacceptable?

What is the decisive point?

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    Decisive point for whom? There are many people who still tell you flat out that what is unacceptable is silencing people on the pretext of "hate speech."
    – Mary
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 0:46
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    @Mary For those creating and enforcing the rules/laws. Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 0:57
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    Creating and enforcing them where?
    – Mary
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 1:09
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    @ Mary Everywhere. Academia, Journalism. even on this very site. See harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate and amazon.com/Intellectual-Freedom-Palgrave-Classical-Liberalism/
    – gonzo
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 1:19
  • Here is a somewhat related OP that might interest you.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/72876/…
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 16:35

1 Answer 1


The short answer is J.S. Mill's "harm" principle"

In an attempt to use Mill’s own argument against him, critics often cite the frequently misunderstood harm principle. This principle, which states that liberty should be restricted only to the extent that it prevents one person from causing harm to another (e.g. the right to raise my fist stops just short of your face) does not unambiguously apply to speech, and nowhere in On Liberty does Mill articulate which kinds of speech would fall under this category, if any.

The idea that speech can cause or lead to harm is the basis of constraints on freedom of expression in many democratic societies. Hate speech laws, which exist in over thirty countries, are based on the notion that speech could incite violence in potentia. In the United States, legal concepts like fighting words and clear and present danger both recognize this and give it even greater urgancy.

Problem is that the concept/term "harm" has essentially been redefined out of existence:

The concept of harm can be reconstituted to include hurt feelings. We’ve witnessed how institutions will bend––to the point of abandoning first principles––to placate the hurt. And we’ve seen how both these frailties can be harnessed en masse to vindictive ends. What we have then, in effect, is a soft mob, a group that can always appeal to vague feelings of unease to tighten the circle around what is considered acceptable speech.

For instance:

In an internal letter to Vox’s editors––which was then posted on Twitter––Emily VanDerWerff wrote that the inclusion of Matthew Yglesias’ name on the Harper’s letter [https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/], alongside J. K. Rowling and other “anti-trans” voices, made her feel “less safe” at work––a feeling that Zack Beauchamp describes as “a sort of ‘harm’” of the type that could very well qualify under Mill’s principle.

This tacitly opens up a new frontier, wherein speech itself is considered a kind of violence. In his book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about how speech is now deemed harmful because it can violate people’s sensibilities, or invalidate their experiences, thus necessitating trigger warnings and safe spaces. In turn, social justice advocates make the argument that they are not attempting to narrow the discourse, but open it to those who have been excluded. But the inclusion of new voices ought to reinforce the principle of tolerance, not weaken it, since the collision with error is valuable precisely because of the plurality of opinion. Instead, this new openness becomes the pretext for certain conversations remaining closed, as new participants make it clear that there are things that will not be discussed.

Both Mill and de Tocqueville agreed that the tyranny of opinion and of feeling (our current emotivist ethos) were potentially even more dangerous than that of a censorious state because they enslave the soul, whereas a brutal sovereign can only command obedience. As De Tocqueville noted about those who utter unpopular opinions:

It isn’t that he has to fear an auto-da-fe, ́but he is exposed to all types of distasteful things and to everyday persecutions … Everything is denied him … those who censure him speak openly, and those who think as he does, without having his courage, keep quiet and distance themselves. He gives in; finally, under the daily effort, he yields and returns to silence, as though he felt remorse for having told the truth.

Sound familiar? Peruse this: https://areomagazine.com/2020/09/03/the-soft-mob-intolerance-and-the-new-definition-of-harm/, from which I derived the above quotes.

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    Problem is that the concept/term "harm" has essentially been redefined out of existence... right! it'd mostly require to clarify "whose definition of harm?" Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 22:54
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    And the De Tocqueville quote... Touche Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 22:56
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    @TiagoMartinsPeres李大仁 The German equivalent to the Supreme Court did forbid sex workers some forms of peep shows because they did deprive themselves of their dignity. The court argued that human dignity cannot be forfeited, not even one's own. There is the instrument of the view of an ssumed unaffected third person which is closest to an 'objective' perspective in law. Harm is usually examined from that perspective and so the person who feels harmed is not an absolute measure.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 14:04
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    @ Philip Klöcking That is would a reasonable person consider the conduct unreasonable, or the words to entice a fight or create a threat of harm., But these purportedly "objective" traditional legal standards do not apply in the murky and subjective "lived experience" [identitarian epistemology/identity politics] context of, for instance, "hate" speech." For instance, academics are increasingly censured for presenting certain verboten POV's claimed to be "toxic climate for some of the students", see one of the first episodes of this here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindsay_Shepherd .
    – gonzo
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 17:37
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    Calling a black person the N-word may not actually harm the black person. But does it cause harm to create a society where anyone may call a black person the N-word? Whenever this is widespread, it doesn't just hurt the feelings of the victims, but it also helps to normalize the next level of aggression (whichever one that is). Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 17:59

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