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Between free speech and hate speech

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Arewa Youth Consultative Forum


That human beings hold divergent opinions is not a problem. The problem is the incivility some human beings display when they and others differ. In the wake of renewed Biafran secessionist agitation and the alleged Arewa youth quit notice, there has been an exchange of uncomplimentary words especially by young people on different sides of the argument. Unprintable insults of whole ethnic groups or regions were freely traded by people who ought to be exchanging ideas about how to make life better for their generation. How disheartening it is to read what Nigerians write in the print and electronic media about members of ethnic communities other than theirs.

In this harsh climate of unrestrained use of inappropriate language, legitimate concerns have been raised about hate speech. Those who are conversant with the rhetorical build up to the genocidal Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70, and to the 1994 Rwandan ethnic cleansing wisely cautioned us to beware of words that convey hatred. But the hint dropped by some officials of the Federal Government about legislation to criminalise hate speech raises another set of equally legitimate concerns: is such a legislation not an antithesis of free speech? Is there not a real and present danger of government using such legislation to intimidate and silence the opposition? If it is so, as some people believe, are we compelled to choose between free speech and hate speech? Does a government whose policies, pronouncements and pattern of appointments alienate and terrorize a section of the country have any moral authority to enforce a law against hate speech? Is it not the case that a policy of inequity of itself amounts to hate speech? The debate has in fact raised two questions that are most preliminary: what is free speech and what is hate speech?

Hatred and freedom cannot be together. In interpersonal relationships, either you hate or you are free. The one who is truly free does not harbour hatred towards any other human person, and the one who harbours hatred is anything but free. An explanation of what freedom is and of what hatred is supports this position.

Freedom is often misconstrued as the latitude to do or say anything. But in fact, freedom does not give us the latitude to do anything but to do what is good. In other words, freedom, true freedom and not its counterfeit, has a purpose. Its purpose is the good. I am not free to do evil, I am only free to do good. Yet, there is more to be said about doing good. The good is to be done the right way, and at the right time.

But, whereas the good is the object of freedom, the object of hatred is evil. An object of hatred is that which is portrayed, and or perceived, and or apprehended as evil. But a human being is not an object, not a thing to be manipulated. As Martin Buber wisely pointed out in his seminal essay, I-Thou, rather than being an object to be manipulated, a human being is a person to be related with. Hate speech occurs when a human being is dehumanized and depersonalised, that is, reduced to an object, by the speaker. Indeed, a human being has to be reduced to an object before he or she can be hated. Hate speech occurs when freedom is misconstrued as freedom to choose or say or do anything. In this particular instance, hate speech is what I say when I malign and demonise a person or a group of persons. Hate speech is when I incite others to attack a person or assassinate his character.

When a speech portrays a person as evil or incites others to perceive the person as evil, if the portrayal or perception of the person as evil is on account of the person’s race, or ethnic affiliation, nationality, creed or gender, then the speech in question is hate speech. One is of course obliged to add a proviso that, whereas one is free to profess and practice a creed, such freedom does not extend to a creed that conveys hatred. Not to add this proviso would leave the door open to profess a creed that others who are different deserve to be maligned and demonised. But no one has the right to malign and demonise others.

Hate speech is a form of terror. It is not only when you begin to throw bombs or fire bullets or wield machetes that you become terrorist. The pen and the mouth are deadlier than bomb. Whoever speaks or disseminates speeches to demonise others gives the dog a bad name so as to hang the dog. In concrete terms, any speech that can lead to the kind of horror witnessed in Nigeria in 1966 and in Rwanda in 1994 is apt to be described as hate speech. Any government policy that discriminates on account of ethnic, political, religious affiliation amounts to hate speech.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But freedom of expression does not confer on us the licence to demonise other people on account of political, ethnic, religious or gender differences. In a pluralist society, such as ours, conflicts are bound to occur. That is why, as citizens and as leaders, we all are obliged to learn to manage our differences. It would seem we in Nigeria have a history of mismanaged conflicts.

Conflicts are mismanaged by irresponsible use of social media. Some of the things some Nigerians post on social media amount to a form of terrorism. They inflame passions. Such is the case when we see online photographs and video clippings that mislead and incite. Some people receive them and go on to share them without considering the likely impact of such items.

We may disagree without demonising each other. We may criticise each other’s views without being malicious, mischievous or hysterical.
Father Akinwale wrote from Dominican University, Ibadan.


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