Hateful Fictions: Siri Hustvedt on the Weaponization of Free Speech

“Hate speech renders dialogue impossible.”

Hate: intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury. (Merriam Webster)

Hate speech: any kind of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or any other identity factor. (United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, 2019)

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Hate is human. It is hard to imagine a person who has never hated someone at one time or another and in rage or indignation uttered words intended to wound, humiliate, or silence. But ordinary explosions of hateful speech directed at a parent, child, friend, spouse, neighbor, or lover do not qualify as hate speech unless the hatred targets some aspect of the other person’s social identity. The man who howls “bitch” at his wife might feel hatred for a particular woman intimately known to him, but also for her as a woman, which would theoretically turn his verbal assault into hate speech. As R. George Wright comments in a paper on emotion and free speech in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal: “It is not easy to separate apparently personal abuse from the expression of half-conscious group-based grievances and frustrations, often with a genuinely political dimension.” The personal and political mingle. 

Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and religious bigotry are often disguised as revulsion for a person’s character: It’s not because she’s Muslim, it’s because she’s mean. But those who indulge in hate speech also spew venom at complete strangers or attack people they don’t know but who have a public persona. “I am seriously going to RAPE and KILL you TODAY at 8pm near your house. Are you ready to get FUCKED???” was among hundreds of death threats sent to Laura Bates, the woman who started the Everyday Sexism Project, an online site that catalogues reports of sexist abuse. This much is certain: Hate speech renders dialogue impossible. The person who fires off invective and epithets does not wait attentively for his interlocutor’s considered response. 

Hate speech annihilates the fertile zone between people that allows for mutual understanding, what the philosopher Edmund Husserl called Einverständnis. For Husserl this understanding does not happen only in words. It is “the experience of a linking of consciousness and body (Leib) to form a natural, empirical unity.” For him “acts of empathy” were crucial to “reciprocal understanding between animate subjects belonging to one world.” Martin Buber regarded “the between” as a living reality that came about when two human beings were deeply engaged with each other.

In his 2003 paper, “The Roots of Empathy,” the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese posits “a shared manifold” between persons founded on neurobiological mirroring systems by which human beings share actions, sensations, and emotions. Thomas Ogden, a psychoanalyst, cited “the analytic third.” In the space of the therapeutic room another forms: “a third subject unconsciously co-created between analyst and analysand, which seems to take on a life of its own.” Language is only part of this between-being, but when communication is open, words can be an avenue to insight and transformation.

Hate speech renders dialogue impossible. The person who fires off invective and epithets does not wait attentively for his interlocutor’s considered response.

Group hatreds are old, and in hatred there is no mutual understanding. The hated object is often lower on the social hierarchy and more vulnerable than the hater, but not always, as current populist animosity toward “elites” demonstrates. The emotion turns on a perceived immutable difference; pollution anxieties about mixing of us and them, sexual coupling in particular; and an intense desire to punish the other for crimes, real and imagined. Fictions play an important role in hate, stories that allow the hater to project bad feeling onto the hated: You are to blame for my/our inner torments. René Girard’s scapegoat theory is an exploration of how an innocent victim is made to take the blame for the malaise and conflicts of the larger social group. By sacrificing the scapegoat, the community restores solidarity and peace to itself, at least for a time. 

The blood libel in medieval Europe accused Jews of murdering Christian children and using their blood to make matzo as part of a Jewish Passover rite. Jewish dietary law forbids ingestion of animal blood, but the Christian sacrament of communion includes the miraculous transformation of wine and wafer into the blood and body of Christ, which the faithful drink and eat. Centuries earlier, the Christian church father Tertullian (c.155-c.240 AD) lamented that Christians were continually charged with “sacramental baby killing, and the baby eating that goes with it.” The Jew serves as paranoid mirror image. People accused of being witches, mostly women, were also said to indulge in blood drinking and cannibalism.

In 1612 in Lancaster England, Grace Sowerbutts testified that her grandmother pierced the naval of an infant boy and sucked his blood before she boiled and ate him. In 1620, Leonor, one of five black slaves, four of them women, accused of witchcraft in the Spanish colony of New Grenada, testified under duress and with an incentive to minimize her punishment that she was among the witches who “killed the little children, sucking their blood through the naval.” The contemporary fictions of QAnon blame a cabal of pedophilic Satanists including George Soros, a Jew, of ritual adrenochrome extraction from the glands of living children and cannibalism. A woman, Hillary Clinton, and a black man, Barack Obama, also figure in the fantasy, as do Black Lives Matter Activists, Hollywood celebrities, and Democrats. 

The hate fictions I’ve mentioned are historically distant and framed by vastly different sociopolitical realities, but they all waxed during periods of societal upheaval. These narratives were both discouraged and sanctioned by authorities. In 1348 Pope Clement issued two bulls declaring that Jews were not responsible for the plague. The judges presiding at witch trials accepted, as did society at large, the demonic as an active force in human life. QAnon is a belief system of the cultural margin, amplified and partly legitimized by comments from a former president of the United States. The stories share a plot: In secret rituals, evil agents consume innocent children—a monstrous inversion of human reproduction. The fetus nourished inside and then issued from the maternal body as an infant that suckles milk from that same body is drained of life and forced back into an adult as food. 

Fictions play an important role in hate, stories that allow the hater to project bad feeling onto the hated: You are to blame for my/our inner torments.

Jews, a tiny and persecuted minority in Europe; women, regarded as inferior beings; and black slaves, owned as property and beholden to the whims of their masters, were hardly anointed speakers of authority in their worlds. They were silenced, and yet in these stories they take on supernatural abilities of destruction. The world upside down? I fear that what I have done to you, you will do to me. The QAnon plot assigns power to hidden elites with the faces of maligned Others—Jew, female, Black. Blood-adrenochrome sucking demons do not partake of the back and forth of human dialogue; they reside outside the axis of discourse. The Nazis depicted Jews as vampires, but also as bacilli and rats.

Speechless animals are frequently evoked in hate speech. Hutu propaganda in Rwanda referred to the Tutsi enemy as “cockroaches.” Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk said, “Muslims are like African carp. They breed quickly and are very violent and eat their own kind.” The following quote is from Donald Trump: “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in—we’re stopping a lot of them. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. They aren’t people, these are animals…” 

Hate fiction, which often has unconscious sources, born of deep wishes to purify the self of guilt and shame by dumping it on a human or inhuman Other, can be conscious. In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler insisted Jews wanted to destroy Germany, a ghastly foreboding of Nazi genocide. “Accusation in a mirror: Impute to enemies exactly what they and their party are planning to do.” These were words inscribed among the papers of an anonymous Hutu propagandist. The strategy is alive in Trump and his Republican enablers. Accuse the enemy of cheating, rigging elections, lying, fake news, moral turpitude, and diabolical authoritarian plans—exactly what you are yourself doing and planning. 

I have framed this discussion of hate speech through its opposite: a dynamic dialogical reality that generates not only new thoughts but new understanding—what might broadly be called an intersubjective third. Countless papers on hate speech turn purely on legal questions and the prohibition of free speech. In the U.S. “free speech” has become a right-wing weapon, endorsed by the Supreme Court, to argue that with few exceptions, lies, hate speech, and hate fictions must be tolerated except in the most extreme cases when incitement to actual violence can be proven. 

What is free speech? Almost every culture includes people who have been subjugated into silence or who curb their speech, gestures, and behaviors for fear of offending those on the ladder above them. The American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois introduced “double consciousness” to thought about race. He argued that the black man’s position in the U.S. has forced him to live “a double life” of appeasement and hypocrisy or risk severe reprisal. Double consciousness does not facilitate freedom of speech. Even in countries that loudly trumpet women’s rights, a woman’s words do not carry the weight of a man’s. A woman is interrupted when she speaks far more often than a man is, and her words are frequently disregarded or diminished. When she insists on her authority and takes the floor, she is often punished for her audacity. The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, elaborated the idea of symbolic violence to explain how dominant groups maintain power without physical violence. Their superiority is construed as legitimate and natural, and the victim is complicit in reinforcing the hierarchy. Doesn’t symbolic violence curtail a woman’s freedom of speech? 

I have framed this discussion of hate speech through its opposite: a dynamic dialogical reality that generates not only new thoughts but new understanding—what might broadly be called an intersubjective third.

The person who sent Laura Bates the death threat seemed to believe her crime was public speech itself, the assertion that she had the authority to speak. Bates has been overwhelmed by threats and has persevered, but other feminists have retreated from the public sphere. It is in fact impossible to know whether the menacing person online is serious about committing crimes or simply enjoying his power to frighten his victim. What is certain, however, is that in these cases, hate speech often quashes free speech. 

In the second chapter of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill makes a passionate argument for free speech: “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Mill was well aware that morality changes over time and from culture to culture. He opposed tyranny of the majority and recoiled from the mediocrity of dominant views. He was a feminist, alert to class hierarchy, and yet, he was confident that “there is a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct.” Mill’s mostly rational, mature individual is not infallible, but he “is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience.” Mill included a much debated “harm” exception. What is harmful speech? If a person writes in a newspaper article that corn dealers are starving the poor, Mill suggests, he is within his rights. If he shouts those words in front of an angry mob gathered in front of a corn dealer’s house, he is not. I wonder what Mill would have thought of Trump’s speech to the angry crowd on January 6, 2021 when he told them to “fight like hell.” I suspect he would have deemed it an example of harmful speech.

In Dissent, Injustice, and the Meanings of America (2000), Steven Shiffrin lists several harms caused by racist speech. Notably, he includes possible physiological harm. “It is an assault on the dignity of people of color; it humiliates and causes emotional distress, sometimes with physical manifestations…” He does not elaborate, but the physical manifestations of institutional racism and inequality, which include hateful speech, have not only been starkly revealed by the pandemic, a fact which has been covered in the press, but scientific work in the field of epigenetics is also uncovering how racism as an ongoing form of stress affects gene expression that may result in chronic conditions, and which help explain the marked health disparities between Black and white Americans.

A feature article in The American Journal of Human Biology, “Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health” (2008) is exemplary of many papers on the subject. A single incident of cruel speech hurled at a person of color cannot be linked to gene expression. The methods for making the connection in cases of long-term exposure to racist or sexist stereotypes enforced by language are necessarily elaborate. And yet, it is important to consider illness as a potential harm of long-term exposure to expressions of hate. Although the research remains controversial, there is evidence in animal studies that the molecular changes created by stress can be inherited by the next generation. 

What is free speech? Almost every culture includes people who have been subjugated into silence or who curb their speech, gestures, and behaviors for fear of offending those on the ladder above them.

Mill’s argument for free speech is now linked to “the marketplace of ideas.” The phrase was coined by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendel Holmes, who had been reading On Liberty before he wrote his 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams vs. United States, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas…the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” The metaphor evokes capitalism and its close cousin, Social Darwinism. Market competition allows for the survival of the fittest idea, which is truer than other ideas. Mill believed that through robust debate, “wrong opinions gradually give way to fact and argument.”

Despite its continual evocation in arguments about free expression, the marketplace is a poor trope for this process. Ideas are not shiny products lined up on a shelf. And if they were, what guarantee is there that the best soap wins? Ideas are at once external and internal, swirling about in ideological climates and alive inside human beings, who have agency to act and speak on them, but that agency is qualified by societal hierarchies, and history tells us that hate speech, propaganda, and outrageous lies are both contagious and effective, especially during moments of doubt and crisis when scapegoats are convenient. 

In forums with colleagues from various disciplines I have found myself both enlivened and changed by probing discussion. My ideas have been shaken, redirected, refined. Open and fierce disagreement has guided me to a new perspective or honed my resistance. Reasoning has been vital to these exchanges, but my evolution as a thinker is not due to the superior logic of my interlocutors alone. As Husserl understood, feeling plays an essential role in creating an atmosphere of openness. These colloquies have rested on a bed of mutual trust and respect for all involved, on our equality as fellow seekers, and empathy for the fits and starts that are necessary to the search. None of us owns the truth. We try to follow what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “discourse ethics.” Coercion is not allowed. Pluralism is tolerated. Different communities may come up with different ideas, but the participants follow shared rules to arrive at them. This is the bedrock of the democratic process, which is open to dialogue and differences. Mutual understanding does not mean lock-step agreement. 

All liberal democracies, even the U.S., have limits on speech. The very same year he inaugurated the marketplace idea, Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.” Exactly what this had to do with the case in question, Schenck vs. United States, in which the court unanimously upheld the conviction of a man under the Espionage Act who had distributed flyers against the draft, is for me, anyway, indecipherable. The difficult question about free speech is where to draw limits and how to interpret free expression in relation to other community values. After the Nuremberg trials, Julius Streicher, publisher of the viciously anti-Semitic Der Stürmer was hanged for “incitement to genocide.” He was executed for words alone. In 2003, a U.N. international court convicted three Rwandan media executives of incitement. None of them had wielded machetes. Lawyers for the defendants loudly decried the ruling as a violation of free speech.

Hate speech is inflexible and deaf. It wants only silence or an inarticulate death cry from the other. The enemy is a static entity marked by some inalterable demonic or bestial feature that bars the possibility of a dialogic third. Hate speech does not acknowledge the enemy’s legitimate right to speak at all. Democratic republics pledge to tolerate a mix of views, including the wild, incoherent, and mad. In the United States, lies, intimidation, and threats have also been legally protected. The irony is that hate speech and hate fiction are vital tools of authoritarian movements that rise to power and then crush all counter-speech by violence. I do not share Mill’s optimism about wrong opinions “giving way to fact and argument.” 

Hate speech is inflexible and deaf. It wants only silence or an inarticulate death cry from the other.

We must think carefully about incitement, harm, and what freedom of speech means and for whom. That requires reciprocal understanding forged through dialogue. The increasingly virulent rightwing in the U.S. regularly declares the first amendment to the Constitution sacred, but ironically this does not inhibit its purported champions from advocating the suppression of some speech. The current Republican bugbear is critical race theory, which has been part of legal scholarship and debates at least since 1980, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the prosecution of his murderer, Republicans are now busy passing laws to make teaching critical race theory illegal. The illogic of such a position is breathtaking, but then neither reason nor logic are driving these acts.

However cynical and politically expedient the reactionary use of critical race theory may be, the public discussion in popular media of what it is and why it may be important to understand is often reduced to vague statements about “systemic racism” and its significance in “the culture wars.” The papers on critical race theory exist to be read. They are not abstruse and some of them are available on the internet. There are no doubt reasons why many journalists fail to engage with this material—selling their wares is no doubt preeminent among them. Conflict and outrage are lucrative.

The fact that the U.S. government includes structures such as the Senate, the electoral college, and gerrymandering that prevent majority rule and impede democracy is not irrelevant to problems of speech. It guarantees that some people speak more loudly than others at the ballot box. Acknowledging that there are people who have never had an equal opportunity to speak freely in the United States is also essential to our reading of the first amendment, which has been increasingly used to protect corporate power and big money interests. At a moment when democracy around the world is foundering and large numbers of American citizens openly profess anti-democratic views, when a violent attack on the Capitol is being defended or downplayed as an innocuous event (Representative Andrew S. Clyde’s assertion that the images of the insurrectionists resembled a “normal tourist visit”), something more than a debased discussion littered with clichés becomes urgent.  

One of the founders of critical race theory, Richard Delgado, published an article in the Harvard Civil Liberties Law Review in 1994, “First Amendment Formalism is Giving Way to First Amendment Legal Realism.” He wrote, “Until now the following argument has been determinative: the First Amendment condemns that, therefore it is wrong. We are raising the possibility that the correct argument may be: the First Amendment condemns that, therefore the First Amendment (or the way we have come to understand it) is wrong. Although it is often said that free speech is the best protector of equality, perhaps equality is a precondition for effective speech, at least in the grand dialogic sense” (my italics). I too am arguing that the grand dialogic sense of free speech rests on equality among speakers. 

Hate speech is inflexible and deaf. It wants only silence or an inarticulate death cry from the other.

Crucial to critical race theory is the idea that history cannot be deleted from discussions about free speech, that stripping away context from “rights” is an error. This is what Delgado means by “formalism.” Legal formalism asserts that the law is separate from other social and political institutions and can be applied scientifically to a citizen without heed to her particular reality or position in society. It is often called “mechanical.” Abstract legal rules are applied as if they exist in a vacuum and, as in Euclidian geometry, theorems and axioms can be applied to arrive at the “right” answer. Legal formalism is tied to originalism and is now dominant in the current conservative Supreme Court. Legal realism, on the other hand, addresses social interests, policies, and real human experience. According to Republicans on the rampage, Delgado’s thoughtful language about “First Amendment realism” is paramount to teaching children to “hate”—yet another example of accusation in a mirror. 

No, the issues about speech and harm are not simple. Included in Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment (1993), is an essay by Kimberle Crenshaw, who has become something of a public celebrity for coining the term “intersectionality.” In her essay “Beyond Racism and Misogyny,” about the obscenity trial of the rap group 2 Live Crew, she weighs the brutal misogyny against Black women evident in their lyrics; the robust defense of the group by Henry Louis Gates who argued the rappers were engaging in a form of post-modern carnivalesque, availing themselves of stereotypes to debunk them; and an attack on the group by the conservative commentator George Will, who purportedly came out in defense of Black women. Crenshaw writes, “If the rhetoric of anti-sexism provided an occasion for racism, so, too, the rhetoric of anti-racism provided an opportunity for defending the misogyny of black male rappers.” Free speech and its potential harms are complex. 

For those of us who continue to believe in democracy and freedom of speech, the conversation must continue. What the best remedies are remain obscure to me, but I am convinced that invoking “the marketplace of ideas” and its attendant platitude, “the cure for bad speech is more speech,” which I have heard uttered ad nauseum by media pundits, who have clearly failed to think through the problem with any seriousness, is no solution. The subtleties of the issue should not remain the property of legal scholars either. 

The truth is we are drowning in hate speech and hate fictions that are fueling old and deep divisions in the United States that caused a civil war. The language of hatred has come and still comes from people who occupy seats of government power in this country, a fact that legitimizes racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic vitriol. Words matter. They shape perception. They can make people ill. They can incite people to violence and to war. 

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This is an expanded version of an essay that was published in a collection under the auspices of Swedish PEN. When the International PEN conference, where I had been scheduled to speak in November of 2020, was canceled by the pandemic, the sponsors gathered work on the chosen subject for the gathering, hate speech, in a book: Du blir vad du sager: Om hatspråk, yttreandefrihet och vikten av ett demokratisk samtal (Stockholm: Norstedts Forlag, 2021).

Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt is a novelist and scholar who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She has a PhD in English literature from Columbia University and is a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is the author of a book of poetry, seven novels, four collections of essays, and a work of nonfiction. Hustvedt’s scholarly work is interdisciplinary. It draws insights from literature, visual art, philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, neuroscience, and epigenetics. She has lectured at international conferences on neuroethics, neurophysiology, philosophy, art and memory, and published papers in science and other academic journals. In 2012 she was awarded the Gabarron International Prize for Thought and Humanities. Her novel The Blazing World was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Book Prize for fiction in 2014. In 2019, she won The European Essay Prize for her essay on the mind-body problem, The Delusions of Certainty, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and The Princess of Asturias Award.





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