May 8, 2009

There's an ambiguity in the rhetoric used by people who fight bigotry that people like Bill O'Reilly -- people who couldn't care less about fighting bigotry, and indeed do their best to undermine such efforts -- love to exploit. It involves the word "hate."

We use "hate" generically as a stand-in for "bigotry", in part because the word better conveys the sewer of hatefulness that is part and parcel of bigoted attitudes and behavior, and it wraps up the concepts of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and ethnic bigotry all into a neat bundle.

So what properly should be called "bias-motivated crimes" we call, more handily, "hate crimes". Deeply racist and/or bigoted organizations like the skinheads and neo-Nazis, we call "hate groups." What is more precisely labeled "violently bigoted speech" we call "hate speech."

However, "hate" is a much broader term that encompasses a great deal more than just violent bigotry. So what happens then is that people like Bill O'Reilly -- right-wingers who do their best to undermine the work of fighting such bigotry -- exploit the resulting ambiguity.

We've seen this regularly over the years as part of the debate over hate crimes. (One of right-wingers' favorite dumbass retorts: "I never heard of a love crime.") Andrew Sullivan once even devoted an entire, maundering 7,500-word piece in the New York Times Magazine devoted to the argument that we cannot hope to regulate hate.

And then there's Bill O'Reilly, who regularly calls the DailyKos, MoveOn and other liberal organizations that merely criticize him "hate groups" -- which, as I've pointed out, not only is a gross overestimation of what the liberal groups say and do, it even more grotesquely minimizes what real hate groups say and do.

So last night on The O'Reilly Factor, he was up to the same thing: Comparing the cases of the six Americans forbidden from entry in the U.K. because of their propensity for hate speech -- including Michael Savage. O'Reilly says that's fine -- but wonders why not the people who attacked Carrie Prejean, too?

Let me stipulate: Some of the ugliness uttered by Prejean's critics was appalling, disgusting, and every bit beyond the pale as the horrified right-wingers shrieking about it since have made it out to be. (It's worth noting, however, that none of the people uttering this crap were identifiable liberals in any serious sense.) Some of it was very hateful indeed. (OTOH, while I thought Janeane Garofalo's teabagging remarks were unwise, there was nothing particularly hateful about them. Harsh criticism is not hate.)

In any event, that's not hate speech. Here's the dictionary definition:

Bigoted speech attacking or disparaging a social or ethnic group or a member of such a group.

That's why the British government is barring Savage and his far-right buddies: They routinely engage in the demonization of entire blocs of people, typically brown-skinned minorities, and ultimately argue for their suppression or elimination from society.

That's not what the hatefulness around Prejean was about. It was focused strictly on her and the words she spoke publicly. It wasn't about demonizing white people or Christians, it was about what a schmuck they thought Prejean was.

What O'Reilly's doing, of course, is intentionally muddying the waters -- twisting the meaning of the term "hate speech" to be used as a weapon against its opponents. There's a word for that, too: Newspeak.

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