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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012

Why We Can't Outlaw Hatred

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Let's take a break from politics, mass murder and all those other divisive topics in the news. How about turning to something totally noncontroversial like music?

Oh, wait. A Moscow court just sentenced an all-woman punk rock band to two years in prison for performing a protest song aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The reaction of the media, usually quick to condemn outrages against free speech, was strangely muted because, in free-speech-related irony, many news outlets refused to mention the name of the band, Pussy Riot.

Besides, there's a long tradition in this country of adults being appalled by the shocking music embraced by rebellious young people and trying to censor and suppress it.

In a case closer to home, publicity surrounding vile music linked to the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek may have increased interest in trying to outlaw offensive artistic expression.

It turns out Wade Page, the Sikh temple shooter who killed six and wounded four others before shooting himself, was a white supremacist deeply into a nationwide white power, heavy metal music scene.

You mean loud rock 'n' roll that sounds like a clatter of discordant noise can have secret, race-hatred lyrics that encourage mass murder? Well, we should at least be able to get rid of that.

Besides, politicians would much rather take on music than offend the powerful “all-guns-good” lobby by stopping anyone from freely acquiring high-capacity weapons intentionally designed to murder large numbers of human beings within minutes.

Actually, protecting speech, even vile speech, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a lot more important to preserving our democracy than all those twisted arguments about the importance of arming ourselves under the Second Amendment.

Biased Enforcement

Let's be clear. Page's underground “hatecore” music scene, pumping up the adrenaline of malevolent skinhead crowds by shouting vitriolic, racist lyrics along with those golden oldies, “Sieg Heil” and “Heil Hitler,” is about as reprehensible as speech gets.

So why not go to the root of the problem and make it against the law in this country to incite people to hatred and ignorance?

Well, at least one of our major political parties would be put out of business. Some people might object to that.

But the basic problem with trying to outlaw hatred is the same one we've run into writing “hate crime” enhancers into our murder and assault laws.

Violence against another human being already is hateful. Murder is the ultimate hate crime.

It would be just as tragic and hateful for Wade Page to murder six white parishioners in their church as it was for him to murder six Sikhs at their temple.

Obviously, increasing the severity of the punishment by designating some instances of deranged multiple-murder/suicide as hate crimes is meaningless as a deterrent.

Because of this country's long history of racial violence, I understand why African Americans and other people of color welcome hate crime legislation. They want special recognition and punishment for the role of racism in violence.

They might be a lot less supportive if they realized enforcement of hate crime laws is just as racially biased as the enforcement of our other laws. African Americans are disproportionately prosecuted for hate crimes against whites.

That's the root problem with laws against hate speech or music. Laws are written and enforced by politicians, the last people we want controlling what we can say.

We've seen the shambles politicians make of the right of artistic expression when they try to write their vast ignorance of art and theater into law.

Outlawing political opinions creates further complications. There are certainly views on the extreme right today about President Barack Obama that Wade Page's band Definite Hate could perform really loud while thrashing about onstage.

A lot of people would be glad to lose such ugly speech, but it's totally unrealistic to think the Tea Party's platform would be the first thing to go. There's a much greater chance this column would end up being against the law.

The extremists who control today's Republican Party already have a head start in passing laws taking away basic rights.

That includes taking the right to vote from millions of Americans and taking away the rights of women to control their own bodies and ignore the sexual commands of the aging, white, male, Catholic hierarchy.

So if we can't pass laws denying freedom of speech to the haters among us, are we totally helpless in a democracy to do anything to combat violent hatred?

Absolutely not.

Democracy's antidote to hate speech is more speech. We may not be able to outlaw hatred, but every decent person can work to end it by speaking up and never allowing hatred to become acceptable in our politics or in our lives.