“Hate Speech”

I want to briefly comment on a comment made in the last post, from reader boynamedsue:

I think it’s an interesting cultural difference between the UK and US. The concept of “hate speech” as a generalised category has not really entered into our public consciousness, though you’ll hear it from some very middle class people who work in the media and allied political trades. Partially, I think, because it’s so hard to define.

There has obviously been a sea change in the use of culturally ‘offensive’ language in the United States. Ever since the Clarence Thomas affair of the early 90’s (or perhaps before it), we have been more conscious of language that makes others uncomfortable. Has this trend extended to the other side of the Atlantic?

In terms of overtly racist language, I’d hazard to guess things don’t differ that much. That’s not to say there aren’t segments of the populations in each country that still say horribly racist things, but rather that such sentiments aren’t part of polite conversation anymore.

Something I’m less clear on, however, is language that falls under the vague umbrella of ‘sexual harassment.’ I recall around 2004, when the original British version of the The Office had become popular in America, that an English coworker explained that the show worked well because ‘the sexual harassment concept never entered the British consciousness.’  I’ve never worked in Britain, so I can’t say if this is true or not.

Regardless, ‘Sexually harassing’ language arguably differs from racist language (for example), in that it can’t be boiled down to single, offensive words.  This type of offense is rather a matter of what linguists refer to as pragmatics, the context in which language is used.  Sexual harassment is about insinuations, hidden motivations, and ill-intentions. So it’s hard to ascertain people’s attitudes toward it.

As usual, I welcome answers to the question at hand: Is America more ‘sensitive’ about offensive language than the UK?  Or vice versa?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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5 Responses to “Hate Speech”

  1. dw says:

    When I moved from England to Northern California in the late 1990s I noticed a great deal more sensitivity towards sexual orientation. I remember on a few occasions being pulled up after making risque jokes about male sexuality that would have been quite normal banter in England, but were completely unacceptable in my new environment. I didn’t notice an equivalent difference in attitudes towards sexism, which was unacceptable in both places.

    Of course, the western world in general was, quite rightly, becoming much more sensitive towards sexual minorities at that time. But I’m still pretty confident that there was a significant difference, although whether it was an England-USA difference or more specific to Northern California I’m not sure.

    • boynamedsue says:

      I think that this does demonstrate something, though it is not directly about speech. In the UK the assailants would not be pursued for a separate category of “hate crime”, as this legislation only extends to racial and religious minorities. However, sentencing guidelines do recommend longer sentences if an attack is perceived as homophobic. It would be interesting to see whether an attack like this would come under that umbrella, as the attackers’ lawyers would certainly try to argue that the confrontation was resultant from the victim’s political statements rather than her sexual orientation (which in any case, may be heterosexual).

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    I guess the issue is whether intentionally aiming at certain oppressed groups should simply be assault, or is there something more pernicious when the crime is aimed at a particular ethnic, sexual, etc group?

  3. boynamedsue says:

    The sexual harrasment question is interesting. In the UK it’s rather normal for co-workers of both genders to call each other love or sweetheart, and a certain level of sexual banter is often present. However, if someone is pressuring another in a way with sexual overtones, summary dismissal is a real possibility.

    I think the much lower rate of recourse to the law in Britain governs this, it’s not really easy to make retroactive private cases for sexual discrimination unless there is very strong evidence. Whereas in the US, some lawyers can get you a $200k settlement for being complemented on your top.