Milkshakes stop people from doing what they want to do. Hate speech effectively does the same. Dr Neal Curtis explains how.

Since the terrorist attack in Christchurch the debate about the relative damage of hate speech and value of free speech has become understandably heated. 

Those worried about the effects of hate speech are rightly concerned it fuelled the attack and will ignite another, while defenders of free speech, also quite rightly, argue the attack could be used to undermine essential democratic rights. Meanwhile, the coalition Government has asked the Ministry of Justice to work with the Human Rights Commission to review the balance of the country’s laws in this area.

Over in the UK this debate is also raging, but it has found a new focus in the recent trend of throwing milkshakes over far-right politicians. The trend started in Warrington when Danyal Mahmud threw a milkshake over Tommy Robinson, the euphemistically self-titled “anti-Islam activist” and founder of the English Defence League, who was verbally intimidating him in the street. He received the same treatment the next day in Bury. 

Next in line for a milkshake was Carl Benjamin, a UKIP candidate who is also known as the far-right YouTuber, Sargon of Akkad, while on Monday it was Nigel Farage who received the same welcome in Newcastle.

The context for this is the upcoming European elections for which Farage has just created a rather non-transparent political entity called the Brexit Party, which is currently riding high in the polls no doubt supported by all those aggrieved by the failure to carry out the result of the EU referendum that the Leave campaign narrowly won in June 2016.

The wider context, however, is that this is taking place at a time when far-right politics is being mainstreamed, most notably by the Trump administration in the US, but it is rife throughout the UK and mainland Europe, too. Not to be outdone, New Zealand media has also given prime time platforms to Katie Hopkins, Jordan Peterson, and Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux all of whom express deeply racist and hateful views. 

There was a time when the value of fascism was no longer a debate, but rather disturbingly it seems to be an open question today. In light of all this, the discussion about legislating against hate speech is both necessary and urgent.

For anyone interested in the debate I suggest you read Nadine Strossen’s excellent book Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Strossen’s review and analysis of the various issues is complex and forensic, but there are two major problems with hate speech laws. 

The first is that such laws are often used against those protesting hate. Laws operating in a social context in which certain groups have more power than others will find LGBTQ activists prosecuted by fundamentalist Christians for saying “hateful” things about their faith, or, as happened in France, activists seeking to support Palestinians are charged under similar laws for protesting against Israel. There is then the additional problem that Strossen calls “overreach”. What limits are to be placed on these laws?

The second significant issue is how to define the harm that hate speech does. I have to say that I believe there is significant harm done to both the person and society by hate speech, but it is especially difficult to define such harm when most of the people advocating for free speech are white, middle-aged men who will never experience the misogyny and racism directed at a Muslim woman, for example. However, this is also why Strossen’s account needs to be read. As a Jewish woman who lost family in the holocaust she knows all too well where hate speech leads, but I think the use of milkshakes does give us some sense of the harm that hate speech does. This is not to be flippant. It is absolutely serious.

Free speech activists are condemning these incidents as a direct attack on the democratic process because they are attempts to shut people and their opinions down. However, aside from making a person’s suit damp and potentially messing up their hair there is no obvious physical harm. So, if there is no physical harm, what harm is being caused? What I’d like to suggest is that the milkshakes give a visibility to what is otherwise intangible harm, much in the way a spray of mist might reveal a hidden beam of light.

Milkshakes stop people from doing what they want to do. Hate speech effectively does the same, producing a climate of fear and intimidation in which people do not speak as freely as they might otherwise like to. And what is the experience of the person who has milkshake thrown at them? They no doubt feel affronted, quite probably embarrassed, and potentially socially shamed, especially because these incidents take place in a public space where people might laugh or add their own taunts. The point is that the stain of the milkshake gives us a chance to see the invisible stigma created by hate speech. So, if we can see the harm in a milkshake, why can’t we see the harm in hate speech?

The incidents have also created one of the best political slogans: “Lactate the intolerant” is the call. But seriously, hate speech means that women, people from racial minorities, or with disabilities, or from LGBTQ communities are being “milkshaked” all of the time. The balance therefore requires us to tread carefully with regard to legal changes, but to absolutely and unconditionally stop pretending hate speech does not cause real harm.

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