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Hate Speech, Dignity and Self-Respect


This paper engages with the recent dignity-based argument against hate speech proposed by Jeremy Waldron. It’s claimed that while Waldron makes progress by conceptualising dignity less as an inherent property and more as a civic status which hate speech undermines, his argument is nonetheless subject to the problem that there are many sources of citizens’ dignitary status besides speech. Moreover, insofar as dignity informs the grounds of individuals’ right to free speech, Waldron’s argument leaves us balancing hate speakers’ dignity against the dignity of those whom they attack. I suggest instead that a central part of the harm of hate speech is that it assaults our self-respect. The reasons to respect oneself are moral reasons which can be shared with others, and individuals have moral reasons to respect themselves for their agency, and their entitlements. Free speech is interpreted not as an individual liberty, but as a collective enterprise which serves the interests of speakers and the receivers of speech. I argue that hate speech undermines the self-respect of its targets in both the agency and entitlement dimensions, and claim, moreover, that this is a direct harm which cannot be compensated for by other sources of self-respect. I further argue that hate speakers have no basis to respect themselves qua their hate speech, as self-respect is based on moral reasons. I conclude that self-respect, unlike dignity, is sufficient to explain the harm of hate speech, even though it may not be necessary to explain its wrongness.

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  1. 1.

    Brown notes that a number of states have laws against the public expression of hate-fuelled attitudes, manifest in derogatory language used to describe certain minority groups (Brown 2015, pp.23–26).

  2. 2.

    For a different approach to dignity and hate speech, see Heyman (2008, esp. Ch. 10).

  3. 3.

    Corey Brettschneider (2012) argues that hate speech should be permitted but that the state should encourage vigorous counter-speech which re-asserts liberal democratic values. The implication of his argument for ‘value democracy’ is that it hate speech’s victims have their civic status secure.

  4. 4.

    Compare the somewhat similar perspective in Rostbøll (2011), albeit one that emphasises deliberative democracy.

  5. 5.

    Onora O’Neill briefly articulates a similar view in her discussion of public reason. ‘Expression is parasitic on communication, and all successful communication requires some sort of recognition or uptake by the other’ (O’Neill 1989, p.31).

  6. 6.

    Specifying the contours of this duty is not easy because we plausibly have some right not to listen to or read others. Yet imagine a person who is comprehensively shunned by everyone in society; everything she says is utterly ignored. It’s also plausible to think that, by violating the minimal consideration requirement, the rest of us are failing to meet a duty we owe her (cf. West 2012, p.231).

  7. 7.

    For helpful comments on this article, I am grateful to Corrado del Bò, Matteo Bonotti, Alex Brown and Caleb Yong, as well as two anonymous reviewers for this Journal.


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Correspondence to Jonathan Seglow.

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Seglow, J. Hate Speech, Dignity and Self-Respect. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 1103–1116 (2016).

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  • Freedom of speech
  • Hate speech
  • Jeremy Waldron
  • Dignity
  • Self-respect