Hate Speech Research Narrative
I had heard once about a funeral held for the “N” word, that the Black community wanted to put it to rest, so to speak, because of the negative connotations of the word. Why, after all, would anyone want to use a word with such horrible connotations as part of a song or when talking to friends about one another? So they had this funeral. I thought this subject might be interesting to research into, to see what this funeral actually was and what kind of impact it had—at least as a starting point for my research.
Indeed, I found a video of the funeral on YouTube. The video NAACP “N” Word Funeral contains brief images of a sparse coffin with black flowers atop it, a parade complete with music and speakers, and a few people sharing in the homily to the word “nigger” to whom they bade good riddance, to thunderous applause (NAACP). I watched the video and saved it to my “research” folder on YouTube, then went to Google to see what had been written about the “funeral.” I typed in “effects of NAACP funeral for “n” word” (without the quotes) and got 2,390,000 hits—plenty to start with. The first few hits were nothing more than articles reporting the funeral, which weren’t really helpful for more than their details on the service. Then I went to a link that was to theblackfactor.blogspot.com, which describes itself as “a useful research for anyone who is working while black” (1). I read one article from there. Too opinionated so not very useful. Back to Google.
From the previous search, I found a website called “The Weave” where there was an article called “Huckleberry Finn and the “N” Word.” Author Steve Peraza argues that efforts to censor a word don’t have the intended effect. Peraza uses the example about the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn and the censorship that followed that word around when making publication decisions because of the book being banned. This blogger argues that racism is the problem and words are just symptoms, so eradicating them (or trying to anyway) is pointless unless you can get rid of the racism too (1). While I’m not sure this blog is the most credible source, I thought the idea was worth thinking about: words only reflect minds and ideologies and feelings, and THOSE are the things that need changing.
Not being content with just the one word, I thought I’d look into other campaigns to eradicate other hate words. I also need some academic sources, so I headed to the library databases to see what I could find there. After trying, in Wilson, several search terms specific to the NAACP funeral with no luck, I went more generally to the term “hate speech” and got a lot more hits. I found an article that speaks to the general issue of hate speech and free speech titled “Dignity and Speech: The Regulation of Hate Speech in a Democracy” by Alexander Tsesis from the Wake Forest Law Review, 2009 where Tsesis proves that the law favors the protection of individual protection over freedom of speech. Tsesis gives an overview of the problems associated with free speech in a democracy then goes into detail about the conflict between the First Amendment allowing free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment that requires all persons be treated with equal respect and dignity. Tsesis then gives an overview of the law and how it must favor the protection of equality over the desires of persons to express themselves to the detriment of others, including cases of libel, slander, and hate speech as examples.
While this article doesn’t speak directly to the issue of the effects of campaigns against hate speech, it does make it clear that we as individuals within a democracy have both the right and the obligation to work toward speech that does no harm. In other words, these campaigns are lawful. The idea from the issue with Huckleberry Finn and censorship has a different meaning; eliminating hate speech from the public sphere and encouraging people to treat others with respect is not the same thing as censorship. I think this distinction will be important when I make my argument later.
I was researching in Wilson Select and along the right margin were related articles in the same journal. One of them seemed possibly helpful as it relates to gender/gay hate speech specifically, which takes this in a more robust direction. The article “’Tell Your Faggot Friend He Owes Me $500 for My Broken Hand’: Thoughts on a Substantive Equality Theory of Free Speech” by Shannon Gilreath examines two cases concerning hate speech against gays in schools and their outcomes to show that the law is not the place to turn because it inevitably can only go so far in controlling speech in a free country. The first case Gilreath tells about was about a student whose t-shirt contained inflammatory anti-gay language, and the courts found in favor of the victim (the gay boy who sued). The second case was similar but went in the other direction and found in favor of the student who said he was free to voice his opinion. Gilreath, after lengthy discussion of these cases and their impact on anti-gay speech, concludes by discussing her struggle with ideologies of freedom and responsibility, of passivity and action, and of rights and equality.
This article seems to have a more realistic approach to the effects of the law, which will provide interesting discussion when I get into talking about how to deal with issues of language and the impact of these anti-hate-speech campaigns.
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