People who share a common language, such as the English language, generally assume they know what commonly-used words mean.
We need this feeling of certainty. Human culture is largely based on shared understanding of the meaning of words.
But even simple words are not always as clear as they may seem.
Word usage changes over time. Additionally, those people with more power than others to define terms in mass usage may have an agenda.
Take ‘Hate’. In popular dictionaries I’ve consulted, ‘hate’ is a noun or a verb. It is not listed as an adjective.
This is the definition offered by answers.com:
hate v., hat·ed, hat·ing, hates.
To feel hostility or animosity toward.
To feel dislike or distaste for: hates washing dishes.
To feel hatred.
Intense animosity or dislike; hatred.
An object of detestation or hatred: My pet hate is tardiness.
‘Hate speech’ is therefore an intrinsically meaningless compound term.
‘Hate speech’ makes no more sense than ‘love speech’, ‘hope speech’, ‘despair speech’ or ‘dream speech’. One can guess at what each of these compound terms might mean, by considering their respective components and what they might mean in combination. But that’s all. Unambiguous definitions aren’t possible – as they are, for instance, in cases such as ‘loud speech’, ‘insightful speech’ or ‘angry speech’.
Notwithstanding such semantic problems, the term ‘hate speech’ has been used with increasing frequency and gusto since the 1980s in English. I understand there are parallels in many other languages.
Answers.com provides the following definition for this relatively new term:
hate speech: n.
Bigoted speech attacking or disparaging a social or ethnic group or a member of such a group.
Wikipedia goes into rather more depth (although it provides no references in support of its definition):
Hate speech is a term for speech intended to degrade a person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, hair color, etc.), mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as a liability.
The word ‘speech’ hasn’t been changed from its usual meaning, so these definitions pack a lot of meaning into one small word (hate).
Conclusion: before even considering the travesty that legislators, lawyers and judges have made of the concept of ‘hate speech’, it’s useful to consider the term on first principles.
Impossible to define as the sum of its constituent parts, it can and must be defined de novo. Dictionary-makers have thus far been rather unconstrained in their freedom to define it exactly as they please.
Dictionary-makers are surely free to engage in this activity. But the rest of us are also entitled to refuse their terms, if we find them useless – or worse than useless.
In this blog, I use the term ‘hate speech’ only inside inverted commas – unless ‘hate speech’ appears inside a direct quotation of another author.
I won’t be party to spreading the use of this meaningless but dangerous term that inter alia has been used to imprison decent men and women whose only ‘crime’ has been expressing political and historical opinions their powerful enemies chose to hate.
Note 1: Those who coined and now use the term ‘hate speech’ could have chosen a different course. They might have combined a real adjective such as ‘wicked’, ‘vile’ or ‘outrageous’ with the word ‘speech’. Instead of ‘hate speech’, they could have chosen to villify and attack perpetrators of ‘wicked speech’, ‘vile speech’ or ‘outrageous speech’.
Why did they not adopt these more obvious linguistic options?
Is it because criminalization of more meaningful terms such as those would be easier to recogize as inherently problematic and potentially unjust?
Note 2: A thoughtful person, who helped me appreciate the inherent absurdity of the term ‘hate speech’ before I first wrote this item, provided further insight in subsequent correspondence.
He points out (how did I miss it?) more appropriate terms that might have been chosen in lieu of ‘hate speech’. These are the expressions ‘hateful speech’ and ‘hated speech’. In both cases, a genuine adjective is combined with the noun.
So why don’t we hear of ‘hateful speech’ and ‘hated speech’? Why were these more obvious terms overlooked?
Is it because the ambiguity of ‘hate’ as a faux adjective is useful to those who employ the term ‘hate speech’?
‘Hate speech’ can be construed as speech that’s motivated by hatred – and speech that is hated by others. It can be either – or both. The ambiguity helps sustain the insinuation that speech which is ‘hated’ must necessarily have been motivated by hatred.