This is why the idea of “hate speech” is unworkable

Yes, there can be “hate speech” that unreservedly expresses hatred for a person or a group, and while I deplore that, I also don’t think it should be illegal. That’s because the concept truly is a slippery slope, for expressing criticism of religions, countries, movements, and so on can always be construed as “hatred”. (“Hate speech” is also protected by the First Amendment, probably for that very reason.)

Here’s an example. This picture, posted on Facebook in 2015, shows Miriam Ciss, the daughter of Julius Ciss, executive director of Jews for Judaism in Canada. Facebook flagged it as offensive and removed it. The flagging, removal, and reinstatement, which may have been recent, have just been made public.

Here’s what Julius Ciss wrote  about the incident, which he allowed to be made public two days ago:

Last week I posted the following regarding how Facebook had tagged the attached photo as “insensitive”:

“It seems that someone complained to Facebook about this previously posted photo of my daughter at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. When I posted it, I stated:

“My daughter, Miriam Ciss, was in Auschwitz Concentration Camp today. My mother Helena and Aunt Dolly survived Auschwitz Birkenau. This is just one of the amazing photos she took. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover.

“What I didn’t say was that aside from my parents and aunt, the Nazis murdered both my father’s and mother’s entire families.

“Well, today I received the following notice from Facebook: ‘Your photo wasn’t removed because it doesn’t violate our community standards, but it has been marked as insensitive because it could offend or upset people.’

“What do you think?”

This above posting went viral and in seven days, from April 9 – 15, 2015:

Reached 1,886,456 people,
Was Liked by 69,751 individuals,
Commented on 26,211 times,
Shared by 19,816 persons.

I guess enough friends complained because Facebook has now issued the following apology, just in time for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Rememberance Day):

“It has come to our attention that a piece of your content was mistakenly flagged by one of our reps. This was a mistake and we’ve reversed the action taken. We apologize for our error.” – Eleanor, Community Operations, Facebook

I thank Facebook for acknowledging this mistake.

There’s more, including a touching excerpt from Miriam’s diary about her visit, but I’ll leave you to read it.  Besides that, the point is that if this is considered “hate speech”—at least a photo sufficiently “offensive” to warrant some functionary removing it from Facebook—then there’s hardly anything that can be exempt. After all, this doesn’t even say anything about Palestine; it’s just a remembrance of the Holocaust along with the flag of the land established for Holocaust survivors. It’s can be “offensive” only to anti-Semites.

h/t: Malgorzata


  1. Alex
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Well… I’m sure it was offensive for holocaust deniers and/or fans of Jewish conspiracy theories.

    • zoolady
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      …or it could just be anti-semites, looking for ammunition to spring out and take pot-shots at a little girl making a statement.

  2. Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I can see non-anti-semites having a problem with that image, because people have a problem with *everything* expressionwise.

    And that’s the real problem with “hate speech” – is that there is no clear boundary.

    • Simon
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      The problem with hate speech legislation is not that the boundaries are unclear, it’s existence is the problem. If I hate something or someone, or even an entire race then I don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to say so.

  3. Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    That is a striking photograph, contrasting the brilliant blue of the Israeli flag against the monochrome Auschwitz background.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Recalls the girl in red in Schindler’s List.

    • sshort
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      It is a good foto. And brave and moving. The opposite of hate speech, it is one of resistance and empowerment.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      It’s absolutely been photoshopped. Everything is grey except the flag, including the girl’s face and the roofs in the background.

      I thought at first she might have been standing in front of a huge monochrome photo, but then her face and hair would be coloured.


      • Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

        Photoshop has artistic uses.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 13, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

          Undoubtedly, but the text (‘just one of the amazing photos she took’) implies that it’s an unmanipulated photo. Which it self-evidently isn’t. The original photo has been monochromed and the blue painted in (I’d guess).

          I’d say it had certainly been produced to convey some sort of ‘message’. It wasn’t just a holiday snap.


  4. glen1davidson
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    but it has been marked as insensitive because it could offend or upset people

    That’s why censorship is such a slippery slope, it’s so easy to offend or upset some people. It’s also easy to pretend to be offended or upset.

    And it’s often the truth that makes an idea offensive, after all.

    Glen Davidson

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Kindly intended criticism is not hate!!

    When my grandfather’s driving abilities deteriorated to the point where he could not drive, we staged an intervention to get him to stop driving. This was not hate, but compassion.

    Consider All those right wingers in the 70s with bumper stickers saying “America: Love it or Leave It”. Do they really know the meaning of love?

    Criticizing Scientology is not hate speech, but compassion for the people trapped inside it.

    If you are going to have laws against hate speech, you had better have a detailed, precise, and narrow definition of hate speech, such as advocating genocide, but if you leave it up to the vagaries of individual judges and public opinion, you are in very deep trouble indeed.
    I see little prospect of anyone coming up with an adequate definition.

  6. Eli
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    It is more nuanced than that. This photo of an Israeli flag in front of the Auschwitz gate is not offensive. However, imagine an Israeli flag waving above the same gate. While it can be interpreted as a triumph of the Jewish people over the Nazis (as the photo in question was intended to be interpreted), it can also be viewed as saying that “Israelis are the new Nazis” as pro-Palestinians are wont to say. And the latter is definitely offensive.

    In a way the interpretation depends on the identity of the person parading the flag. If an anti-Zionist juxtaposes the Israeli flag with the Nazi death camp, it is offensive bordering on anti-Semitic. If a Jew does the same, it symbolizes the survival of the Jewish people. If a Jewish anti-Zionist does it…

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Very true, but anyway you slice it, it should constitute protected speech.

      • Eli
        Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Oh, I agree it is protected speech under the First Amendment. On the other hand, Facebook as a private company may have other ideas and is certainly within its rights to remove it.

        • Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          Facebook as a private company … is certainly within its rights to remove it.

          We need to be more critical of that assumption. Yes, Facebook is a private company, but Facebook and Twitter have such dominant, near-monopoly positions, that they could be required to adopt “public” standards.

          It’s well accepted that near-monopoly private companies need regulating or breaking up.

          • Craw
            Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Public carrier.
            I think we should break up all such huge companies under vigorous antitrust.

            • BobTerrace
              Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

              I don’t agree. Breaking up Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, etc. would not result in more competition or better products. The breakup of the phone company was due to it being a true monopoly that supplied a vital service. This is not true of these companies – their services are NOT vital.

              If you break these up, you would have to break up all pharmaceutical companies who don’t really compete with each other and have a stranglehold on protected drugs. That would stifle drug research.

              Looking into careful regulation might be a better way to go about this, but of course, the current administration and the Republicans would never do this.

              • Craw
                Posted April 12, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                Google regulatory capture.

                Speaking of google, they have more market share than Standard Oil ever did.

              • BobTerrace
                Posted April 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                But Google’s services are not vital, they don’t even charge for most of their services. It was tough to get to work without gasoline from Standard Oil.

              • Posted April 12, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                FB’s real business is advertising. It gets 98% of its revenue from that source. Does anyone seriously think FB has a monopoly in selling advertising?

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted April 12, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

              Main Justice is too busy huntin’ witches. 🙂

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

            This is a very good reason to use email for communications, NOT Farcebook messages.

            Email is not subject to censorship and no email provider is going to be held legally liable for passing on an offensive email. Facebook and Twitter may be, which is an incentive for them to practise censorship.


            • Posted April 13, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              On the other hand, email (baring proper set up, usually in advance) is sent in the clear, so can be read trivially as it goes along its way.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    When Zuckerberg was testifying the subject of hate speech came up and all the effort they are doing on that. I did not hear anyone say, why don’t you leave it alone. Who are you to determine hate speech and when it should cause you to do something. This is one of the reasons I have no use for face book. He has no clue on this subject and he spoke of it as if everyone knows what it is.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely. That’s why I will never use Farcebook for messages, I use email (see my comment just above). Email providers aren’t subject to he same pressures to censor their ‘content’ as Farcebook is.


  8. Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  9. Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I don‘t see what could be possibly offensive about it. But it features charged symbols that might trick the intuition that something should be offensive about it, even when nothing is.

    However, I disagree about hate speech laws. Too broadly interpreted laws don’t invalide them in principle. For example, if Facebook deletes ordinary criticism as “defamation”, the problem is their take on defamation, not illegal defamation in principle.

    Even though there is always some grey area, I believe some warranted restraint on expressions is justifiable, circumscribed and as crisp as possible, to prevent chilling effects, and observed by judges.

    Calls for violence against people or individuals (what I consider typical hate speech) cannot be allowed. People in free democracies can expect to go about their lives without constantly worrying about a fatwa hanging over their heads. This also includes threats against politicians or groups, that gallows, guillotine or gas chambers are waiting for them. There is no good reason to protect such vile expressions.

    To prevent overreach, such hate speech must be understood fairly literally. The law cannot capture dog whistle and ever evolving codes. It can only set a general baseline, and fairly straightforward expressions. Bigots may be bigots, and may need to get creative, but at least straight forward threats are ruled out.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just what FB calls hate speech. They willy nilly remove whatever they want as soon as people complain. I’m part of an atheist breast cancer support group on FB, which is a small, closed group. Women have posted pictures of their operations there & they have been removed by FB when others have complained that they are offensive.

    • Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      In a similar line:

      “Grayson James Walker was born on February 15, 2012… with anencephaly… Action News 5 shared the Walker’s story about their son’s eight hours of life shortly after he died.

      Heather Walker then posted pictures of Grayson without his hat on.

      “Not long after, Facebook deleted them because of the content,” she said. “They allow people to post almost nude pictures of themselves, profanity, and so many other things, but I’m not allowed to share a picture of God’s beautiful creation.””

      Whatever one thinks about the mother’s opinions, why on Earth did Facebook ban the photos?

  11. BobTerrace
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I agree that all speech, including hate speech is protected speech, guaranteed by the 1st amendment. No one has the right to not be offended.

    The exception to this is hate speech that causes direct, immediate harm to someone.

    On the other hand, I do feel that there are hate crimes. I define those as regular crimes that are committed primarily due to hatred towards a sub-section of humanity such as race, ethnicity, gender, geography of origin, etc. I approve of adding penalties and charges in addition to the underlying crime.

  12. Craw
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I bet a lot will find this offensive.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I find it offensive that Geraghty is ignorant of the adjective “mustachioed.”

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    the idea of “hate speech” is unworkable

    The idea may be unworkable in US, but – as I noted many times, and expect to note many times in the future – many nations work the idea by making it law. Thus avoiding slippery slope problems as much as any workable law does.

    If the laws are useful is another question.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Whether such laws have a “chilling effect” on otherwise protected speech, might be yet another.

  14. Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    FB has the right to maintain community standards on its site just as PCC does on his. That is not the issue, to me. The issue is the fact that FB does this in an idiotic and inconsistent way. It relies on reports of offensive behavior, a process that invites manipulation, which is what I expect happened here. The solution is for FB to hire moderators with at least half a brain.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      The problem is twofold.

      First, the current climate of excessive sensitivity (‘offence culture’) which causes people to complain about the slightest little thing, and the corresponding demand that somebody (e.g. Facebook) Do Something About It, whether it’s Facebook’s fault or not

      Second, the number of users on Facebook – just how many staff are Farcebook supposed to employ to police their users? And how much time does each staff member have to assess any complaint?

      The squawks about over-quick reaction (as in this case) are as nothing compared with the squawks that “Facebook did nothing about it” in other cases. Given that different people have vastly different and conflicting ideas about what is ‘offensive’, Facebook just can’t win.


      • Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

        I agree, cr. PCC maintains community standards on this site in a fair way, but I imagine it is hard to scale up. There are two low cost solutions for a big company, the do nothing solution of Reddit or FB’s solution of flagging everything any snowflake or ideologue objects to. I could suggest alternatives that might work at reasonable cost, but why should I do Zuckerberg’s work for him? He’s the billionaire, I’m not.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 13, 2018 at 8:37 am | Permalink

          I’m not sure there’s any solution (at reasonable cost or otherwise) that’s going to work to everybody’s satisfaction. Any such actions are going to depend ultimately on somebody’s ‘judgement’ and hence be subject to the biases or prejudices of whoever’s doing the censoring, and – just by statistical probability – at least a few of those decisions will be daft.


  15. John Black
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    There are a LOT of people for whom just seeing an Israeli flag is upsetting. They see Israel as a colonizer and conquerer of a beleaguered and downtrodden people. And I don’t mean just Palestinians see them this way, but many on the American Left who take this view as well.

    I can’t fathom how the ethnic group known as “The Jews” can be seen as bullies and overlords given the centuries of brutal pogroms and cleansings they’ve endured, but somehow people are able to ignore all that and see them as a privileged class oppressing the less fortunate.


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Depends how far you go back, doesn’t it? How would you describe the Old Testament which makes the Children of Israel out to be a group of vicious genocidal killers worse than the Huns or Vandals ever were… (though I think a lot of that was boasting and exaggeration).

      Applies to most races, of course – just because they were oppressed at some point doesn’t mean they can’t be oppressors themselves when circumstances change.

      But ‘the Jews’ is not a coherent group you can generalise about, any more than ‘the Christians’ is.


  16. Genghis
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    The problem that Facebook has is that when someone complains about a post it is usually left to a single individual to decide whether the post is offensive or not and this results in arbitrary decisions.

  17. eric
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    First, what a great picture. Kudos to the young photographer.

    it has been marked as insensitive because it could offend or upset people.’

    Thinking about the holocaust should upset people. That’s why it’s so important to talk and think about it.

    I wonder what the far left would say about the proposition: “we should never mention that the US ever engaged in slavery, because it could offend or upset people.”

  18. Jonathan Dore
    Posted April 13, 2018 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    As I’ve said in other threads about the issue of moderating content in other languages, the problem is that organizations like FB hire young, idealistic, naive people with little life experience to do a serious and difficult job. If they ever get serious about devoting a fraction of their revenue billions to genuinely thoughtful monitoring and adjudication of complaints, they will get over their prejudices and hire people who aren’t temperamentally censorious and who can demonstrate some sophistication of thought.

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