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