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Why ”hate speech is violence” is a logical fallacy

I usually blog in Swedish, but let’s make an English contribution for one’s sake.

George Lakoff, professor of psychology, has written the article Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech.

The argument is quite simple, and it’s that bad words create bad things in the brain, exactly the same way as physical violence does. So, bad words must be the same as violence. And from this, the normative claim ”(at least some) hate speech should not be allowed” is generally concluded.

Here’s some of Lakoffs argument:

Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects.

Here is the reason:

All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse. Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time.

That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech.

Hate speech can also change the brains of those with mild prejudice, moving it towards hate and threatening action. When hate is physically in your brain, then you think hate and feel hate, you are moved to act to carry out what you physically, in your neural system, think and feel.

That is why hate speech in not “mere” speech. And since it imposes on the freedom of others, it is not an instance of freedom.

Several others have made the same point, for example When Is Speech Violence? by Lisa Feldman Barrett, also professor of psychology:

The answer might seem obvious: Physical violence is physically damaging; verbal statements aren’t. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.


If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.

I have stated the argument here in more formal terms that permits logical scrutiny:

  1. Violence creates physical stress.
  2. Hate speech creates physical stress.
  3. Therefore, hate speech is violence.

This seems like a reasonable and airtight argument, so what’s wrong with it?

Well, there are several problems with it. I could say that the distinction between what a person says and what a person does cannot be conflated into the same category on the mere basis that both affect the brain. I could point out that classical conditioning might create the same effect on the brain, or that we should make a Humean is-ought distinction in question of disallowing hate speech on scientific grounds. Others have written responses along these lines.

However, I don’t need any fancy counter-argument. In fact, since the argument is based on invalid deductive logic I only have to point out the major flaw, which is completely devastating for the argument. The good thing with invalid arguments is that we can just discard them immediately and carry on with our lives.

The argument is a fallacy of undistributed middle. If we restate the above argument with symbols, we get something like this:

  1. A are Q.
  2. B are Q.
  3. Therefore, A are B.

But this conclusion does not follow from the premises. In fact, the middle term (Q) is undistributed among the other terms (A and B). That means that the argument only specifies that Q is connected to both A and B, but it actually says nothing about whether A and B are connected. This can easily be demonstrated with a reductio ad absurdum argument:

  1. Cats have four legs.
  2. My dog has four legs.
  3. Therefore, my dog is a cat.

This argument is based on the same invalid deduction, and one does not need any degree in formal logic to see that this is not a very compelling argument. In fact, this is precisely the same argument scheme that the hate speech is violence argument uses. But it’s just bad reasoning.

One would think that two professors in psychology would not make a basic deductive fallacy. But when politics is involved, humans tend to be motivated reasoners.

By the way, the ”my dog is a cat” is from Yes Minister! Thanks to Jake Errey who corrected me on the right categorical syllogism fallacy, and was kind enough to create a Twitter account to inform me. 

Publicerad 2017-10-18