Hate speech, mean speech, hurtful speech and hateful speech.

There can be some pretty big overlaps.

How many hurtful things have been said to you over the years? And how do you determine which category of speech they fall into?

Many years ago I was driving down Central Expressway with my three young children in the car. The exit ramp had an unusual merge. I cruised into the middle lane, following the painted white lines when I became aware of a woman in the next car yelling something out her window.

I asked my son in the passenger seat to lower his window and see what she was saying. It was a more innocent time and I imagined she needed directions.

His open window yielded the sound of shouting, but I couldn’t make out her words.

“What is she saying?” I asked my son.

“I’d rather not repeat it” he responded.

“Why not? Just tell me.”

“Well,” he replied while steadily not looking my way, “she called you a fat bitch.”

I guess I must not have performed the merge in an acceptable fashion.

I laughed it off in front of my kids, but almost two decades later being the recipient to this name calling still burns.

It was mean speech and obviously hurtful speech, and I think unnecessarily hateful speech, but not hate speech.

Still, I have never called someone a fat bitch. It feels pretty mean.

Two more stories:

When I was a girl my family would have big traditional dinners on holidays. My mother would prepare massive meals of kosher foods. Our dining room table was set with beautiful cloths, china and silver flatware.

My older relatives from the generation before my parents would arrive at the house dressed in their mink stoles and pearls. They were all immigrants. I guess today they would be called Russian-American, but they always happily defined themselves as simply American.

They all spoke English, but with varying levels of proficiency. Often there were sprinklings of Yiddush words mixed in with their language. “Yiddush words,” one of my great aunts told me, “held more meaning than English words.”

I was sitting through one of these endless meals when my grandmother began telling a story about a luncheon she had attended. Her speech consisted of a confusing mix of English and Yiddush and I kept hearing the word, “Shvartze”.

“What is that?” I leaned into my mother to ask.

She pressed her lips tightly together. “Black people,” she said.

So in retrospect, what was this speech?

It is true my immigrant semi-educated grandmother lived an isolated life within her homogeneous Jewish community. I don’t think her use of this term for an entire group of people was meant to be mean, simply descriptive. She saw African American people as “other”.  Was this hate speech? I’m not sure. Hateful? It depends on her intention. Harmful? It rests  on the effect of her speech.

Forty five years later I am still bothered by her language.

Maybe she didn’t think she was saying anything hurtful, but in retrospect she was certainly saying something harmful.

Finally, when I was a girl in third grade I had a teacher and a speech therapist insist I stand in front of my class and demonstrate what a lisp sounded like. They didn’t call me names like lisping-girl or non-speaking girl, but in that moment they were publically identifying me as a total person by one trait.

“This girl lisps” they said. They made me exhibit my deficiency with the tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

It was mean and hurtful. At the time I thought it was even hateful, and over time I have come to believe it was harmful.

But was it hate speech?

I was certainly being defined by a single attribute and singled out for it. It felt like hate speech to me, but it probably didn’t seem like it to anyone else.

There is a fine line and a lot of overlap between different kinds of negative speech.

But they are all negative. They are all harmful. They are all hateful.

Calling names, singling people out or defining them by any one single characteristic will never move forward productive conversation in any meaningful way.

It doesn’t have to be hate speech to lead to additional hate.

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