In Defence of Harm, Offence and Hate: Part II

In Part I of this brief, it was explained that the proposal by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies ("SAJBD") to amend section 16 of the Constitution is conceptually confused and should be rejected. In Part II, it is explained why we must not only reject the proposed amendment, but also reassert our freedoms to harm, offend and hate certain people.

Part II: In defence of harm, offence and hate

The inevitability of harm

All politics is either harmful or an incitement to cause harm.

To live in a political community is to live in a world in which the reasonable, but still divergent, interests of individuals and groups come into conflict. Laws and policies can never satisfy every value, wish, desire, interest, goal and project of every individual or group. As such, all political decisions and actions could be characterised as harmful to some person or group. This harm will always be to persons, their property, or both. This is inescapable. This is why all politics is either harmful or an incitement to cause harm. This is why all political activism, policy proposals and efforts to make law entails advocacy to cause harm.

Given this reality, to exclude from the protection of the freedom of expression any incitement to cause harm is akin to prohibiting political expression. Because politics cannot exist without this expression, the SAJBD proposal amounts to a call to prohibit politics. And, since a political community cannot exist without politics, the SAJBD is in effect proposing that we abolish our political community. Whilst not all harm is bad, the consequences of the SAJBD proposal would be catastrophic.

Obviously, this is not the intention of the SAJBD. Rather, they just want to live in a world in which we are not always offending others. Wouldn’t that be nice? No, it would not be nice. Not only is it a utopian ideal, it would be morally disastrous. As is explained below, to offend is human—it is necessary.

Humanity and offence

Any defence of not just the right to offend, but of the necessity of offence, must begin with an explanation of what is meant by ‘offence’ in this brief.

It is tempting to look just at the Constitution and distinguish offence from violence and specified forms of harm, and to leave it there. Whilst offence must be distinguished from propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, and hate-speech, it would be a mistake not to dig deeper. What characterises offence is not its form or its consequences. Rather, it is its source, inevitability and subject-matter.

No two people reading this brief will share precisely the same beliefs, ideas, principles, values, traditions, customs, culture, tastes, goals or projects. They will also disagree about the order in which these should be fulfilled or achieved, or the means appropriate in doing so. Depending on how central these are to a person’s conception of the good, disagreement might inspire anything ranging from amusement to passionate hate of what other people believe, think, value, practice, enjoy or pursue. Why is this so?

It is because we are human. Our self-conscious capacity to reflect on the world, on others and on ourselves means that things do not just happen to us, but have meaning for us. The past and the future are relevant not just as obstacles overcome, or to be overcome, in a brute effort to survive. They matter as events that define who we are as persons, in the present. Past, present and future, together with our reflective experience of the world, others and ourselves, means that mere objects and happenings matter to us, and carry meaning for us. These objects, people and events are what make life worth living.

In his Confessions, Augustine expressed his own understanding of human nature with the phrase ‘quaestio mihi factus sum’, that is, ‘I am become a question for myself’. It is in asking this question that we arrive at meaning of any kind. It is by asking this question that we can determine, even if just for a moment, what truly matters. Like all really important questions, each of us have our own answers to this question. Disagreement proliferates. Our varied answers shape our beliefs, ideas, traditions, customs, culture, tastes, values, goals and projects. Since these things matter to us, because they carry meaning for us, it is inevitable that we feel uncomfortable when we encounter people who believe, value, think or live differently to us. Why?

One reason is that these people remind us of the contingency of that which makes us who we are; they remind us of the insecure nature of our own answer to the question of what makes life worth living. When we confront people who are different to us, we can suddenly be thrown back onto the Augustinian question, thereby challenging our very sense of self.

When this feature of our humanity is coupled with another such feature, that is, the fact that we are political or social beings—Aristotle’s zoon politikon; Aquinas’ homo est naturaliter politicus, id est, socialis; our umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu—the nature of offence starts to become clearer. Offence is the experience of being confronted by a person who is different to you in a way that you think is important. It arises from the inevitable disagreement that flows from our interaction with other people. Offence, in other words, is the result of the ordinary and necessary expression of human difference.

The source of offence is our humanity. Its inevitability is due to our social natures. And, its subject-matter is everything that gives life meaning. In this way, to offend is human. As such, a world without offence could only be achieved by ridding that world of humanity. As I said, realising this ideal would be morally disastrous.

The limited duty to hate

We can have a duty to hate certain people—at least for a while, and provided it is in the right way and with the right aim. We can also have a duty to express this hatred publically. Some people deserve to be hated and sometimes they deserve to be hated by many people. Let me try to explain why.

It is difficult for some to accept that what makes them the distinctly unique person that they are is not something ‘deep down inside’. There is no ‘real you’ that is sometimes reflected in what you say or do, but sometimes not. The person you are is simply what you say and what you do. Nothing about who you are, as opposed to what you are (mammal, white, female, rich, etc), is given or pre-determined. Your actions define you, giving you your identity. Since an action is essentially related to the beliefs, ideas, principles, values, tastes, projects and goals underlying it—however these may be formed—all words and deeds can only be understood by considering the motivating reasons. In other words, who you are is determined both by what you do and why you do it.

What does this have to do with the fact that we sometimes have a duty to hate people?

We can have this duty because of what some people do and their reasons for doing it—that is, because of who they are as persons. Hatred is an emotional reaction to a negative judgment of some person’s actions. So, we should hate terrorists, murderers, abusive husbands, and parents who molest their children. They cause untold death and suffering.

Perhaps we should also hate white people who resolutely refuse to acknowledge the continuing effects of apartheid (but, perhaps, not black people who similarly refuse); people who cause animals unnecessary pain by killing them according to customary or traditional rituals; men who declare that discrimination against women is non-existent (but, perhaps, not women who make the same claim); or the faithful who proudly identify as members of religious groups that have committed and continue to commit atrocities? I am not sure. But, there is certainly room for discussion about whether dislike, derision or hate in such cases—where the hate is
based on the race, gender, ethnicity or religion—is required or permissible. 

Sometimes we should express this hatred publically, either because of the nature of the wrong, or because the person has wronged others. If so, justice might require us to expose them publically. In doing so, our passions must match our principles. When they do not, our actions are defective. They reflect badly on who we are as persons. As such, we sometimes have an ethical or moral duty to advocate, in vituperative terms, that it is right for them to be hated.

In short, we can sometimes be ethically or morally required to advocate hatred. But, such hatred will always be directed at people’s actions, rather than merely at some immutable characteristic they possess. When the expression of hatred is of this latter kind—that is, when the hatred is directed only at what a person is, not also or only at who they are—and when it constitutes incitement to cause harm, it is not protected by the Constitution. This is morally right. The duty to hate, therefore, is always a limited duty.

(Let me be clear on three issues. First, legitimate hatred is never hate-speech. Whereas the former is consistent with the recognition of a person’s humanity, the latter is not. This is why it is not protected as free expression. Second, it is a separate, open question as to how we should treat people we hate—tolerance, persuasion, education, criticism, fines, ostracism, prison, etc. Third (and related to the first two points), hatred of a person never justifies a failure to treat them as a bearer of human dignity. We must always respect their humanity—but not necessarily how they choose to express it in their actions—even if they do not respect ours. In common terms, we must always strive to be the better person.)


The SAJBD proposal to amend the Constitution is based on a fear of difference. It reveals a fear of that which flows from such difference—passionate conflict, perpetual disagreement and bitter disappointment.

This fear is to some extent reasonable. Conflict, disagreement and disappointment can often be unsettling, painful and difficult to bear. It is understandable that we might try to avoid it. But, to do so entirely—to try to legislate against it—would be catastrophic. Not only does it inspire and guide reason, it is necessary for us to be moral agents at all.

To harm, offend and hate is human. Like all that is characteristic of humanity, in moderation each is a genuine good. Our laws must track this moral fact.