Hate speech is a form of vandalism. It defaces the environment, and like a broken window, if left untended, signals to other hoodlums that the coast is clear to do more damage.
But unlike the proverbial broken window, which urban police departments and criminologists urge us to repair to maintain the aura of social order, nobody seems to be in much of a hurry to nip hate speech in the bud. That's because since the ill-fated attempt by several universities to regulate hate speech in the 1980s and '90s, any discussion of reining in racist taunts inevitably degrades into charges of political correctness and ends abruptly with the invocation of the 1st Amendment.
America's future depends on how well we learn to manage our diversity. Yet when it comes to hate speech, we pretty much adhere to the advice we give elementary school students to defend themselves against bullies: Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you. Or, as a 1st Amendment lawyer might say in a haughtier tone, because regulating speech could erode our freedom to criticize the government, hateful rhetoric is the cost of democracy.
But the cost of democracy isn't exactly being borne equally by all Americans. Despite, or perhaps because of, the social and political gains by minorities, nonwhites seem to be facing a barrage of invective these days that, if left unchecked, could damage our democracy in the long run. Even conservative cultural critics like Charles Murray are acknowledging the emergence of a disenchanted white lower class, and the Republican Party in particular is leveraging this group's disillusionment to its advantage. Some of this resentment is expressed in racial terms and goes well beyond politics.
Last week, a blatantly racist anti-Obama bumper sticker went viral on social media. Not long before that, a federal judge in Montana admitted having emailed a joke about the president that compared interracial sex to bestiality. During an NCAA tournament game a few days ago, members of the Southern Mississippi pep band hounded a Latino point guard for Kansas State with chants of "Where's your green card?" And Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain wrote recently about a heckler who told the U.S.-born mayor of Los Angeles to "go back to Mexico."
A decade ago, I would have made a sharp distinction between discrimination and prejudice. I understood and agreed that while the law could prohibit discrimination — that is, the denial of opportunity based on race, ethnicity, religion, etc. — it couldn't do much to keep people from feeling and expressing prejudice toward others. But nowadays, with racist rhetoric rising, I've decided we aren't taking the social effects of this type of vandalism seriously enough.
I'm not worried about anyone's hurt feelings. What I am concerned about is the extra burden nonwhites (and other minorities) are expected to bear when entering the public square, and the way tolerated hate speech may keep them on the sidelines and weaken our democracy.
Political scientists proved a long time ago that negative campaigning depresses political participation. Sociologists have argued that the decline in all kinds of civic engagement is a consequence of individual citizens becoming alienated from the larger community. Surely there's nothing like a public square awash in racial invective to foster such alienation. Although concerted attacks on a minority could mobilize its members in the short run, it stands to reason that a steady barrage of hate will force them out of civic action in the long run.
In his forthcoming book, "The Harm in Hate Speech," New York University political philosopher Jeremy Waldron calls racist rhetoric a "slow-acting poison, accumulating here and there, word by word, so that eventually it becomes harder and less natural for even the good-hearted members of the society" to engage all the members of the community. He argues that hate speech is calculated to undermine the "good standing" that everyone in a diverse democracy must have for it to function smoothly.
It's that good standing, by which he means dignity, that enables citizens to engage "on a straightforward basis with others .... in public, on the streets, in the shops, in business, and to be treated — along with everyone else — as proper objects of society's protection and concern."
I'm not ready to say that the United States should take steps to follow Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Denmark and Germany in adopting laws to regulate hate speech. But we also can't afford to continue pretending that this rhetorical vandalism isn't the kind of broken window that represents a serious threat to an orderly society.