What is Hate Speech?

And how has Hate Speech turned into a special term making an entire European movement to combat it?

According to an online poll conducted by the Council of Europe in 2012, 78% of the respondents encounter daily hate speech online. What does this worldwide phenomenon really mean?

The fact is that there is no universally accepted definition of “hate speech”. In accordance with Recommendation № R (97)20 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States of the Council of Europe on hate speech, this term should cover

“all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.”

The Recommendation does not bind the states to follow its guidelines, but rather supports them to establish appropriate legislation regarding the prohibition of hate speech in society, because in recent decades, hate speech has become an increasingly serious problem that inevitably leads to human rights violations, including physical violence.

Hate speech consists of words, gestures, and attitudes that are used to humiliate and oppress the others or to provoke violence against one or more people based on their belonging to a particular social or ethnic group. We are speaking here about something more than not liking someone, and making fun of them, or shouting ugly words in a moment of anger and dissatisfaction. In most cases, hate speech comes from people who are part of the majority. Their message is usually addressed directly to the “others”, to the “different” who are part of the minority.

Thus, hate speech finds expression in various forms in everyday life:

1) Firstly, these actions are not protected by international human rights law or laws of democratic societies. They are mostly falling within the scope of criminal law – xenophobia and anti-Semitism, creating an atmosphere of intolerance towards refugees, migrants, minorities, etc.

2) Then comes a series of different types of expression, which may or may not be protected depending on their importance for a certain country (for example, freedom of self-determination). There authorities judge according to the current situation and public reaction what to be defined as a hate;

3) Lastly, it is the turn of the speech that is supposed to be protected regardless of its morally contradictory nature (for example, negative stereotypes about minorities).

Furthermore, in order to determine that an action falls under the category of “hate speech”, it is very important to take into account not only the requirements set out in the Council of Europe’s Recommendation (i.e. the actual affiliation of the victim to a minority group, etc.), but also the intention of the person responsible for the words spoken. People often say things, either live or online, without really thinking in such a way. It often happens that we hurt someone without intention, and then we regret and probably even want to take our words back.

In the next two examples, both allegations are intolerant and unpleasant, but one of them is made in order to affect the other party. To distinguish between the two expressions, it is important to take into account the presumed reaction of the recipient of this statement:

To erase gays from the world map

Written as a joke to a friend in an email = Bad joke

Written on a Facebook wall for a person known to be a gay

= Unacceptable and abusive

The worst expressions of hate speech are themselves a form of discrimination and violation of human rights and freedoms. Hate speech alienates, marginalizes and undermines personal dignity – most often of those who are already affected in one way or another. And while the target of hate speech in cyberbullying is more often personalized, in another situation these same words may go further and violate the right to privacy and may even lead to inhumane, degrading threats against whole groups of people who are not part of the original situation. That is why it is important to know the various manifestations of hate speech in order to counteract and signal them when they appears in cyberspace or in the environment in which we live.