Letter: Context necessary to determine hate speech

In the article “Graffiti causes hardly a ripple” (10/9), Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway was quoted as saying that last year’s graffiti incidents represent “pure hate speech,” whereas this week’s “white guilt” graffiti does not. There is a problem here. When one labels something as “hate speech” one is claiming to know something about the intentions of the speaker, or else one is claiming that a word or symbol itself is inherently hateful. But the connections between words, symbols and intentions can be complicated.

For example, when Dave Chappelle uses the “n” word in a comedy sketch, most don’t think of it as hate speech. But coming from an avowed white supremacist, the word takes on a different meaning. The “hatefulness” of the word arises from context.

Likewise, it is the context of the Holocaust that gives the swastika its hateful meaning. The symbol had a long, innocuous history as a religious and decorative symbol before its adoption by the Nazis.

Without knowing who spray-painted the words “white guilt” and why that person did it, how can Professor Holloway or anyone else make a judgment about whether it constitutes hate speech?

But as for the whole thing being example of “stupidity,” on that point I can happily agree with the professor.

Nathan Harden ’09


  • Anonymous

    Well, you're right that it's about context. So let's look at them. In the phrase "Nigger School," it is the word "Nigger" not "School" that is meant to be derogatory. The implication is that something is wrong with the school for admitting Black students. In the case of "White Guilt," it's the word "Guilt," not "White," that is pejorative. It's not the race that's being attacked, but rather what are seen as traitorous or misguided motives and actions. While it is deplorable and I disagree with it, the graffiti is attacking a person's choices (social justice causes) and not things they were born into (their race). A hate crime is specifically designated as cases of the latter. Hate has a sort of specific definition in these cases.

    That said, f*** those guys that wrote it.