Kevin W. Saunders


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

Cover Interview of March 28, 2011

A close-up

Given the conceptual similarity between obscene depictions and hate speech, it would seem likely that some guidance could be drawn from the analysis of obscenity that would help us more clearly understand hate speech.

The legal definition of obscenity, at least in the United States, requires that the material appeal to the prurient interest.  The prurient interest goes beyond the normal interest in sex to the level of the shameful or morbid.  I argued, in my first book, that the distinction is between sex as a part of human relationships and sex divorced from humanity.  Where there is this dehumanized emphasis, material can be considered obscene.

Degradation below the level of humanity, then, would seem key in the legal definition of obscenity.  That part of the definition can be adapted with ease to hate speech, by requiring an intent to appeal to a degraded or dehumanized view of its target.

It can help to distinguish between the self-labeling and other-labeling uses of the same word.  A word may not be objectionable, when used by a member of the group to which it refers.  This is because it is unlikely to be used with any dehumanizing intent.  When used by someone who is not a member of the group, the assumption of lack of intent is lacking.

But, requiring that we actually find such intent puts us on notice that we must consider the possibility that the intent is in fact lacking.  This would help us distinguish between racist utterances and nonracist, although likely unwise, uses of the same word.

The other aspects of the test for obscenity, an offensiveness under community standards and the lack of serious value, could also carry over to utterances of what could potentially be seen as hate speech.  While the conclusions on all these issues are likely to be very fact specific, they provide a framework for analyzing expression to determine whether it is nonoffensive or racist, sexist, or homophobic.