The Breakdown of Civic Virtues and the Problem of Hate Speech: Is There Wisdom in Freedom of Speech?

  • Howard C. NusbaumEmail author


When certain groups in society are disparaged and derogated verbally, aggression and violence against the groups can follow. When public figures and political leaders engage in this kind of discourse, there is implicit social licensing of aggressive and violent behavior against these groups. Moreover, the creation of false equivalence of acts and statements and disputing or disregarding facts in discourse and discussion degrades all aspects of civil deliberation and intercourse. The civic virtues of civility, compassion, and fairness are critical to the stability of a peaceful and just society. However, these virtues are eroded by the use of hate speech, group derogation, and verbal aggression. Words matter, and the way language is used has an impact on thought and behavior, whether it is speech from the bully pulpit to the wording of law and policy to the discussion of enforcement of law and policy and to interpretation of the legal foundations of civil society. Many countries have enacted laws that restrict or prohibit calls for violence against groups and hate speech (e.g., France, Germany). Other countries protect such speech (e.g., United States). In the United States, there has been a growing dispute about protected speech and the dispute has recently been used to justify explicitly discriminatory behavior. Wisdom is typically viewed as a manifestation of individual human choice, thought, or action. But it is possible to view law and policy as wiser as well. Is the legal restriction of hate speech wiser than its protection? Or is there wisdom in allowing freedom of expression?



Preparation of this chapter was supported by the John Templeton Foundation and the University of Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Center for Practical WisdomThe University of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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