Kevin W. Saunders


On his book Degradation: What the History of Obscenity Tells Us about Hate Speech

Cover Interview of March 27, 2011

In a nutshell

This book attempts to place hate speech into a context of long lineage.

While hate speech has almost undoubtedly been around for as long as people have been able to recognize differences between their groups and others, the recognition that there is an impropriety in the speech is of far more recent vintage.

But there is another variety of expression that has long been regulated: obscenity.  I do not argue that hate speech is obscene—but that the concerns that lead a society to place certain sexual material in that category are similar to the concerns raised by hate speech.

While obscenity has focused on sex, the concern has been less about sex and more about degradation.

Cultures that have allowed rather explicit pornography do not view sex as degrading.  It is in cultures that do see sex as degrading that pornography comes to be considered obscene—and subject to restriction.

While there are certainly subject matter distinctions between classical obscenity and hate speech, they may be seen as similar—in that both may be viewed as degrading.

If there are to be restrictions on hate speech, as exist in many countries and in some situations even in the United States, the relationship between obscenity and hate speech may provide a basis for identifying racist, sexist or homophobic speech.  The path of the law in defining obscenity may provide guidance in identifying expressions of hate.