Why Do Americans Reject Human Rights When The Whole World Embraces Them?


A few days ago, I published an article explaining how the US needs to get tough on hate speech through the law in accordance with international human rights standards, as the US remains the only country in the world – and certainly the only Western country – that has no legal definition of what constitutes hate speech. The article was based on my experiences as a human rights activist who has worked for many different human rights organizations around the world. Immediately after it was published, I received a torrent of hateful and abusive messages. While I am not the least bit surprised that bigots would be so highly threatened by my proposals, I would like to clear some things up.

First up, yes, I do strongly believe in freedom of speech, and I’ve worked with many human rights organizations to protest against genuine restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, such as government crackdowns on LGBT activists in Russia.  Freedom of speech is the core of all democratic societies, and it’s a freedom that must be upheld in the strongest terms possible. But the people responding to my column with anger do not seem to understand what freedom of speech is. They seem to make no distinction between free speech and hate speech, and they seem to believe that freedom of speech includes the freedom to say anything.

Anyone with any kind of basic, entry-level knowledge of human rights will tell you that the human right to freedom of speech always has to be balanced against other human rights, such as the human rights to dignity, respect, honor, and non-discrimination. A human rights-based approach to freedom of speech (such as the one found here) emphasizes that speech has to be restricted when it comes into conflict with other human rights.  Human rights activists – including the United Nations and human rights groups all over the world – not only believe that hate speech should be outlawed, but that so should cultural appropriation and other forms of speech which violate basic human rights (in the case of cultural appropriation, the right of cultures to retain ownership of their culture and to ensure that their culture is not misused).

Everything in my article was based on laws that already exist in other liberal democracies.  The need to outlaw hate speech is perhaps the most uncontroversial thing in the worldwide human rights movement, as no human rights group or human rights activist would ever question it. I sent my article to countless human rights activists and all of them agreed with it 100%.  It’s rather telling that human rights activists agreed with my article, but Americans fiercely opposed it.  What does this say about America’s treatment of human rights?

All human rights groups understand that all governments have an obligation to punish hate speech, and that outlawing hate speech does not interfere with freedom of speech in any way (if anything, it is necessary to outlaw hate speech in order to protect freedom of speech).  Amnesty International, for example, has emphasized many, MANY times throughout its long history that hate speech MUST always be outlawed. Here, you can find an explanation from Amnesty International about what freedom of speech REALLY is. Freedom of speech is NOT the right to say whatever you want about whatever you want whenever you want.  Freedom of speech – like all freedoms – comes with responsibility. Words have consequences, and your freedom ends when it starts to intefere with the freedoms of others – such as their freedom to live without hatred and oppression.

All of the policies that I proposed in my article are already policies in the rest of the world, particularly in liberal democracies. For example, the policy regarding setting up state surveillance and re-education centers has indeed been proposed by human rights activists in Europe and can be read here (PDF). The fact that these proposals are considered to be so extreme and so outrageous to an American audience is a perfect indication of how America is a country without any kind of human rights-based culture whatsoever.

I sent my article to many people in Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and various other places all over the world. The reaction that I got was universally positive.  Only American audiences had such a hostile reaction to my column, and I honestly believe that it’s because the concept of human rights is just so utterly alien to most people in the US. Americans do not understand that freedom of speech and hate speech are two completely different things, and that speech has to be restricted in many cases in order to protect human rights.

Many have compared my proposals to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  These people do not seem to understand that human rights policies exist to prevent something like what’s described in Orwell’s dystopian world from happening, as they prevent people from advocating totalitarianism and other human rights violations. When certain people in Australia’s government proposed watering down the federal laws against offending or insulting ethnic minorities, many people quoted from Nineteen Eighty-Four to defend the hate speech laws: “If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.” George Orwell was strongly opposed to bigotry, and he would never have supported racism or other forms of discrimination in any way, so using his name to defend hate speech is highly ironic – perhaps even Orwellian.

Hate speech is not “freedom” in any way, shape, or form, and those who attempt to describe it as such are doing a great deal of harm to the cause of freedom.  When Australia’s government was proposing watering down federal protections against racist hate speech, people all over the country stressed that this would take important freedoms away from vulnerable minorities. In the March on Tokyo for Freedom, thousands of people demonstrated in demand of strong laws against hate speech in Japan.  Anyone who knows what freedom truly is understands that hate speech is most assuredly not “freedom”. Is murdering someone “freedom” too? Do people have the right to murder others?  Of course not, because the “freedom to murder” would interfere with other people’s freedom to be alive. In the same way, this so-called “freedom to be a bigot” interferes with the important right to be free from bigotry.

Those who oppose human rights legislation fail to consider the serious harm that can be caused by hate speech. This is John Stuart Mill’s classical liberal “harm principle”, which establishes that conduct can be outlawed when it causes a great deal of harm to others.  In Europe, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the world, even the most hardcore libertarians and free speech absolutists strongly support legal protections against hate speech. Only in the US does anyone consider hate speech legislation to be a restriction on “freedom of speech”, completely failing to understand what freedom of speech actually is.

As I mentioned in my original article, international human rights law makes it very clear that hate speech is NOT free speech. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – arguably the most important and respected legally-binding international human rights law in existence – establishes in Article 19:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

It then establishes in Article 20:

1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.

2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Likewise, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination mandates that all ideas based on racial superiority or hatred be outlawed, and that membership in or financing of racist groups be criminalized as well.

Once a treaty is promulgated, it has domestic legal effect; there is no need to enact special domestic legislation. Thus, in light of its content, the ICCPR is, in principle, self-executing, and can be applied directly. This means that hate speech (including propaganda for war) ARE already illegal in the US, since the US has ratified the ICCPR (along with the ICERD). However, since the US is a country with no regard for basic human rights, it therefore ratifies international human rights treaties without actually enforcing them. This is a blatant mockery of not only human rights, but also of international law, which, as has been emphasized by the United Nations, has absolute authority.

The need to outlaw hate speech is one of the most basic and essential human rights necessities, and all human rights groups strongly support it. Right now, hundreds of human rights groups are leading the charge to enact strong domestic hate speech legislation in Japan, while human rights groups in Europe are working to ban far-right parties that pose a threat to freedom and democracy.

Freedom of speech is not the only obligation in a democracy. Democracies also have the obligation to uphold human dignity, social cohesion, and the rights of vulnerable minorities.  Hate speech laws are already on the books in every single liberal democracy except for the United States. This not only damages our international image and reputation, but it also allows hatred to flow out of the United States like an ocean.  It’s very confusing to human rights activists and anti-fascists in other countries when they see American hate websites and American hate propaganda. They wonder why the government allows this stuff to freely exist, and they also wonder how the US can possibly call itself a free and liberated country when it refuses to take a stand against hatred and bigotry.

The civil libertarian Mark Dreyfus – one of the most prominent free speech defenders in Australia – has said, in response to government proposals to water down protections against speech that offends or insults ethnic minorities: “They still don’t get it. They still have an undergraduate understanding of political philosophy and of human rights. The Abbott Government still doesn’t understand, as any human rights lawyer could explain, that the human right to free speech has always been subject to the human right to be free from racial discrimination.” Why are even ultra-libertarians and free speech zealots in Australia able to understand this, but very few people in America seem to be able to? Why is this such a difficult concept to understand?

The American Civil Rights Act is the only anti-discrimination law in the world that does not outlaw hate speech. In all other countries, it’s simply assumed that any anti-discrimination law – even the most basic and bare-bones one – would outlaw any discriminatory expressions.  Indeed, international human rights law establishes very clearly that any expression of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred is illegal racial discrimination. This is not a controversial or disputed thing. It is considered a basic obligation for any free and democratic country to outlaw hate speech. The US is the only country in the world that rejects this.

Hate speech not only causes massive emotional wounds to its victims, but it also causes physical violence as well. We’ve all heard about the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Srebrenica massacre, the Oslo massacre, and other horrific crimes against humanity which were directly caused by hate speech. The need to crack down on hate speech is not only based on the need to protect human dignity, but also on the need to ensure social cohesion and the safety of all citizens – particularly the vulnerable ethnic minorities that hate speech is targeted it. Hate speech spirals into physical violence very quickly, as anyone who has ever been a victim of a physical hate crime can attest to.

We can see from the recent massacre at hate speech magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s headquarters in France what can happen as a result of hate speech – in this case, the magazine had a long history of inciting racial and religious hatred and violence, particularly against Muslims. The same thing happened – on an even larger scale – when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons inciting racist hatred and violence against Muslims. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and countless human rights groups have repeatedly stressed that countries like France and Denmark need to pass and enforce much stricter legislation against all forms of hate speech and discrimination, but those countries refused to listen and, as a result, they experienced the consequences of allowing hate speech and discrimination to flourish. Words and images do have consequences, and those consequences can often be fatal for many innocent people.  Just ask the people of Rwanda, who experienced a brutal and horrific genocide as a direct result of racist hate speech.

Immediately after the recent terrorist attack happened in France, the hashtag #KillAllMuslims started trending on Twitter. In civilized countries, this violates numerous laws against incitement to racist hatred, violence, murder, and genocide. Human rights activists all over the world expressed their strong outrage and sought to have governments force Twitter to ban the hashtag along with seeking to have anyone using the hashtag jailed. But it’s incredibly difficult to protect human rights on the Internet when the United States controls most of the Internet. Twitter is a US website, so human rights groups were unable to have the US government force Twitter to remove the hashtag since it falls under America’s ridiculously twisted and backwards notion of “free speech”. The United States is literally allowing people to openly and publicly incite genocide against minorities in the name of “free speech”. How can the US possibly call itself a civilized country when it allows this?

In the words of British politician Gareth Thomas, one of the many human rights supporters who campaigned to ban homophobic reggae music from the UK: “Yes, we believe in free speech, but nobody in a democracy should be able to incite violence against minorities.” In a free and civilized country with democracy and human rights, people do NOT have the right to restrict the rights of others.  Ultimately, America has to ask itself what kind of country it wants to be. Does it want to be a country that sincerely respects basic human rights, civil liberties, democratic freedoms, human dignity, and equality for all, or does it want to be a country where minorities have no rights, where bigots have the unfettered ability to harm others, and where hatred is allowed to dominate the public discussion? To me, the answer is obviously the former. But, to the many Americans reading my column and reaction with bitterness and anger, the answer sadly seems to be the latter.

Bigotry is not acceptable to me or to any person with a conscience, but it unfortunately seems to be perfectly acceptable to a good majority of the American public. This is something that desperately needs to change if America is ever going to be a model of freedom and democracy, as it falsely claims to be. The US needs to abandon its stubborn insistence on protecting bigotry and it needs to take a human rights-based approach to freedom of speech, along with all other freedoms. The failure to ban hate speech is not the only area where the US falls far behind other countries in terms of basic human rights. The US still has yet to ban gun ownership, still has yet to enact universal healthcare, still has yet to enact free higher education, still has yet to enact the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and still has yet to set up any kind of federal Human Rights Commission, among many other things. It is very clear to me that the US has absolutely no respect for even the most basic of human rights.  But it doesn’t have to remain that way. At the end of the day, it’s up to the American people to change things – and things can change.

In other countries – such as Japan – people have persistently lobbied, campaigned, protested, and petitioned for the creation and expansion of hate speech laws. People power can get hate speech legislation passed in the US as well. But, first, the US needs to change its culture into one that actually respects basic human rights. We can already see the early beginnings of hate speech legislation in the US, in the form of hate crime laws (which, as of right now, only cover physical violence motivated by hatred), anti-discrimination laws (which, as of right now, only ban discrimination in service and employment), and campus speech codes. I get the feeling that things are indeed starting to change, and the US is indeed starting to become a country with a bit more respect for human rights. These things always take time, but I do believe that, one day, the US will indeed pass a Human Rights Act and/or a new anti-discrimination law to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech which violate basic human rights. Those of us on the right side of history, meanwhile, will be writing columns like mine, while racist bigots continue to write angry comments speaking out against human rights.  They can scream all they want, but things are indeed changing for the better and they will not be able to stop it.  Human rights WILL come to the US eventually and no amount of angry comments from angry bigots will ever be able to stop that.

featured image – Kevin Zollman