‘One of the principal problems of democratic co-existence is the proliferation of so-called ‘hate speech’”. So begins a recent Serge Champeau and Daniel Innerarity article in El País (7 February 2021), reproduced here.
There’s certainly plenty of hate speech about and social media have made it a lot easier to dispense it. There’s also no doubt that hate speech does real damage to individuals and - this is Champeau’s and Innerarity’s point - it can have a corrosive effect on the ties that bind democracies together.
But there’s more to be said about hate speech and democracy. The clue is here: ‘This debate is less about classic ideological confrontation and more at the level of the personal’. The suggestion is that where we used to argue about issues that divide left and right, issues around poverty and economic equality, now we dish out and - and take - personal offence instead.
Lots of political capital has gone into combating hate speech because it’s not just personal: it’s directed at individuals by virtue of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Progress has been made, at least as far as law-making goes, in regard to protecting these identities and the people who wear them.
Whether all this has damped down the centrifugal forces threatening democratic cohesion or exacerbated them by shining the bright light of the law on what separates us, is a matter for conjecture. More to the point here is whether this attention to the personal has crowded out the political in the traditional, ideological, sense of the word.
Three observations on this:
1. At the same time as there’s been huge progress in recognising the equality claims of discriminated identities, income inequality has risen across all OECD countries
2. Right-wing parties (though not all of them) have found it easier to ‘modernise’ and accept LGBT equality claims (for example), than claims for economic equality. The UK Conservative Party is a good example.
3. I have no idea if there is a causal link between the increase in equality for discriminated groups in OECD countries and a decrease in economic equality in the same countries.
However (3) turns out, economic inequality is surely as much a threat to democratic co-existence as hate speech. In fact, if there was less of the former we might see less of the latter, a strategy that seems not to have occurred to the French government as it pursues its laicité agenda while leaving the Muslim banlieues to their economically marginalised fate.