THERE CAN BE NO QUESTION THAT DEROGATORY PUBLIC expression targeting historically disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities is flourishing, especially as—at least in Europe and the United States—the moral and political agenda organized around human rights is under concerted attack by the radical right. Popular concern with hate speech is also very much alive throughout the Western world (Brown and Sinclair 2020). To use my current country of residence as an example, according to a recent survey by More in Common (Hawkins et al. 2018), 82 percent of US respondents across the political spectrum said hate speech was a problem in America today. Another survey conducted by the Cato Institute (Ekins 2017) reported that 79 percent of respondents said hate speech was a problem, but 82 percent said it was hard to ban hate speech because people cannot agree on what speech is hateful or offensive.
In light of widespread verbal aggression and the popular concern surrounding it, it may seem strange, or indeed preposterous, to suggest that hate speech does not exist. “Hate speech,” interpreted as verbal aggression, certainly exists; however, other compelling interpretations of the term also circulate in public discourse. This, I argue, is a practical problem for antiracist advocacy. Unfortunately for anyone who wishes to alert others about acts of racist verbal aggression, the term “hate speech” is used by different types of speakers for various political purposes. One such purpose is to persuade others that, because hate speech does not clearly identify a finite set of morally objectionable speech acts, those who call out others for hate speech are making a thinly veiled attempt to sanction speech and speakers they do not agree with. The subversion of the antiracist meaning of hate speech in such a way is possible and, for some, desirable because “hate speech” is not just a term with a simple, direct referent but also a term for talk (Carbaugh 2017). It is a metadiscursive term used in particular contexts by particular categories of speakers for the purpose of labeling and evaluating speech and, in the process of its use, indicating those speakers’ identification with (and against) other sociopolitical categories of speakers. Contested terms for talk such as hate speech are ripe for promoting moral and political agendas and undermining those of others.
The ethnographic approach to public discourse I showcase in this chapter reveals that, in a political landscape fraught with contestation and partisanship, discursively sustaining the status of hate speech as an observable entity with a “natural,” autonomous existence through acts of accusation becomes impossible. The term’s fractured meaning becomes an expression of, and a resource for, the fracturing of the political community into competing groups that regard one another as enemies. Contesting the original, antiracist meaning of “hate speech” as derogatory expression targeting historically disadvantaged minorities becomes a form of ritualized opposition (Hervik 2019), a form of expression that substitutes reasoned, fact-based argument with the signaling of one’s belonging to a political tribe. I argue that, in light of these observations, antiracist political actors should reinvent their political vocabulary by seeking out new metadiscursive terms for the purpose of holding speakers of racist expression accountable. My arguments complement Udupa and Pohjonen’s (2019) claims about the utility of “hate speech” as a metadiscursive term; whereas they argued that hate speech was too blunt an analytic concept, I argue that it is too blunt a rhetorical instrument.
As debates surrounding hate speech and campus speech codes were raging in the United States in the early 1990s, the literary critic Stanley Fish published a controversial essay titled, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too” in the Boston Review, an expanded version of which was later included as a chapter in his book bearing the same title (Fish 1994). In the essay, Fish reflected on the ontology of free speech in the context of legal battles surrounding the question of what forms of expression are protected by the First Amendment. There was no such thing as free speech, Fish argued, because speech had no “natural” content that rendered it free. Rather, speech should be thought of as action and thus subject to evaluation based on its consequences. The category of free speech contains forms of expression deemed valuable by those who wield the necessary political power to restrict free speech. Acknowledging this was a “good thing,” he concluded, because it awakened the political left to its moral responsibility (making clear evaluative distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable speech) and its political responsibility (doing everything in its power to be in control of the boundaries of free speech).
In my own ethnographic investigation of hate speech in Hungary during the first decade of this century, I reached many of the same conclusions as Fish about hate speech. Just as speech cannot be “naturally” free, it cannot be “naturally” hateful either. Debates surrounding hate speech and free speech are both value-laden metadiscourses vying to inform speech governance. The promotion of a definition of hate speech over others is most accurately seen as a political attempt to assign value to preferred forms of expression. Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between hate speech and free speech metadiscourse. Free speech tends to be used to assign positive value to public expression, despite its sometimes objectionable content. In the context of Hungarian public discourse, gyűlöletbeszéd (hate speech) was most frequently deployed as an element of normative challenges, that is, accusations or allegations. Such accusations were typically made by public speakers who were neither the targets of hate speech nor its speakers. The accused never avowed that they were speakers of hate—although on a few occasions they labeled their own speech as hate speech for comedic or ironic effect—and third-party judges never backed down from their accusations. This communication pattern reinforced sociopolitical divisions within the Hungarian political landscape and affirmed parallel moral systems informing opposing interpretations of hate speech. In the end, hate speech became so heavily contested and debates surrounding it so predictable that, apart from a few isolated exceptions, political actors have abandoned the use of the term.
Hungarian Hate Speech Metadiscourse: The Road to Failure
The findings and arguments I present in this chapter are based on ethnographic fieldwork I carried out in Budapest, Hungary, between 2004 and 2007, toward the end of a period during which hate speech was a hot-button political issue in national politics. The central goal of that project was not to catalogue acts or critique existing definitions of hate speech but rather to develop a comprehensive account of the various uses of the term in public discourse, the competing systems of meanings that informed those uses and understandings, and how contestation weakened antiracist uses of the term (Boromisza-Habashi 2013). During the time period studied, hardly a day went by without one public figure accusing another of hate speech. The political fervor surrounding hate speech is gone today. Occasional accusations of hate speech against the nationalist government’s virulently racist and xenophobic rhetoric seldom prompt official responses.
My decision to use an ethnographic approach stemmed from the surprising and disorienting observation—what Agar (1994) would call a “rich point”—that by the mid-2000s, Hungarian political actors could reasonably apply the term hate speech to any type of public expression they found objectionable. A mere decade earlier, Hungarian legal scholars and social scientists were engaged in deep discussions regarding the possibility and wisdom of limiting free expression and were contemplating establishing “speech expressing hatred” as a legal category to protect ethnic and racial minorities from assault. By the time I was considering writing an ethnography of the chaotic social life of hate speech, these antiracist efforts were largely sidelined, and interpretations and uses of the term had proliferated. The indeterminacy of the term’s meaning, however, did not seem to dampen either the fervor with which accusers lobbed allegations of hate speech against their political opponents or the outrage that the allegations caused among the accused.
Ethnography was the approach best suited to study the relationship between speech patterns and social upheaval. The ethnography of communication research tradition theorizes communication as a practice (patterned, context-bound, locally meaningful, accountable communicative action) and posits a mutually constitutive relationship between communication and the sociocultural lives of speakers (Boromisza-Habashi and Parks 2014; Carbaugh and Boromisza-Habashi 2015). Against this theoretical background, hate speech metadiscourse appears as a practice, and any use of the term is seen as meaningful communicative action in context. The meaning-in-use of the term is not only referential but also sociocultural, in the sense that it is informed by local beliefs about social organization, communicative action, and emotion, and that it facilitates social (dis)order.
Besides describing the meanings-in-use of hate speech, it is also necessary, from the perspective of practice, to evaluate those uses. Evaluation requires standards; the evaluation of action can be assessed, among other ways, according to criteria of success and failure. How do accusations of hate speech succeed, and how do they fail? Accusations of racist hate speech have a number of social functions, including holding other participants of public discourse accountable, rallying citizens to the cause of antiracism, cultivating a set of norms for participation in public discourse, expressing support for those targeted by hate speech, and so on. In this discussion, I am particularly interested in the first one of these functions—the capacity of hate speech metadiscourse for holding others accountable. To charge another speaker, or group of speakers, with hate speech is a normative challenge (Hall 1988–1989), a communicative action performed to cast another action as being misaligned with a community’s norms of communication and the speaker(s) who performed that action as running the risk of exclusion from the community. In the case of hate speech, such normative challenges tend to be issued by speakers in a third-party social position—that is, neither by those who performed the objectionable act nor its targets.
The normative challenge of hate speech can prompt counterchallenges or acquiescence. Counterchallenges take five forms (Hall 1991). The accused can find an excuse (e.g., “I did not say that, someone else in my group or another group did!”). They can minimize the degree of norm violation and invoke higher norms (e.g., “I am not hateful, I’m a patriot!”). They can call into question that the act had actually occurred (e.g., “I never said that!”). They can negotiate the interpretation of the act as a norm violation (e.g., “What I said was not hate speech—it was a joke! Lighten up!”). Finally, they can negotiate the legitimacy of the invoked norm—that is, the degree of consensus that exists about its force (e.g., “Is that what you think hate speech is? Well, that’s your opinion.”). Challenges and counterchallenges combine into what Hall calls “alignment episodes,” bounded exchanges in the course of which participants display joint commitment to discussing and remedying breaches of local social order.
Normative challenges succeed when alignment episodes end with the accused participants’ acquiescence. Accusations of hate speech as normative challenges succeed when they prompt one of three forms of acquiescence: the accused stops performing the type of expression the challenger labeled hate speech, they rephrase what they said in a way that does not contain the type of expression labeled hate speech, or they issue a verbal or nonverbal apology. These acts realign the accused and their speech with the social and communicative ecology of the community in the name of which the accuser acted. Acquiescence, however, was not the typical response to accusations of hate speech in the Hungarian context; in fact, I did not come across an alignment episode that concluded with acquiescence.
There are two reasons for Hungarian speakers’ reluctance to acquiesce to public accusations of hate speech. On one hand, acquiescing to such an accusation places the accused in a position of moral and/or psychological inferiority. Accusers and the accused had two competing interpretations of hate speech at their disposal to label public expression as hate speech (Boromisza-Habashi 2013). According to the tone-oriented interpretation, public expression ought to be labeled hate speech if it is marked by a hateful tone that serves as a testament to a personal pathology of prejudice. Speakers of hate speech, in this view, cannot keep their prejudiced attitude toward minorities under control and let it bubble to the surface of public discourse. The content-oriented interpretation holds that the defining feature of hate speech is its (racist, discriminatory) content. This latter interpretation casts speakers of hate speech as morally inferior bigots. As a result of the coexistence of these interpretations, people who publicly accused others of hate speech could expect three outcomes: the accused either refused to accept the purported moral or psychological authority of the accuser, they defended themselves from accusations by opting for an interpretation of hate speech opposite to that held by the accusers, or both. Consider, for example, how the hosts of a televised far-right talk show, Press Club (Sajtóklub), collaborate on countering an anticipated challenge from the political left. Before the conversational excerpt below, the hosts expressed their support for a German politician who declared that one of his Jewish political opponents was contributing to growing antisemitism in Germany by (allegedly) trafficking drugs. Jewish public figures in Hungary, the hosts continued, should also “look in the mirror,” mend their ways, and stop feeding antisemitic sentiment. To support his argument, one of the hosts read a salacious conversation from the transcript of a rival talk show that, he claimed, frequently featured leftist Jewish participants. In the excerpt below, he explains that, because of their unbridled political bias, the political or Jewish left will accuse him of hate speech just for reading the transcript (all translations of Hungarian data are mine):
Host 1 They will call us fascists again because, why did I read this on the air? Obviously, because I am an antisemite. Or at least a latent antisemite. (scattered audience laughter)
Host 2 And the saddest thing is that it is these gentlemen who lend their support to the law against hate speech. The very people who spout hatred and human debasement. They will introduce it in the parliament, and they will pass it and will use it against us, normal people, and they will continue these games of theirs in the media. (Bayer et al. [June 25, 2003], pt. 2, 7:49)
Host 1 objects to the political left’s censorship of any view critical of Jews. In response, host 2 characterizes the talk of Jewish participants of the rival talk show as “spout[ing] hatred and human debasement” and accuses them of sponsoring “the law against hate speech” that “they” (Jews) will pass and use “against us, normal people” while continuing their own immoral public behavior. Host 1 anticipates a content-based moral challenge (i.e., they will be accused of voicing antisemitic sentiments), and host 2 formulates a counterchallenge by invoking a tone-oriented interpretation of hate speech (i.e., their political rivals are using a double standard by passing a law against hate speech while failing to admit that their own tone is hateful). Playing one interpretation of hate speech against another offers those expressing blatantly antisemitic views a way to deflect accusations of hate speech.
On the other hand, Hungarian public discourse surrounding hate speech did not result in any degree of normative consensus beyond a shared sense that hate speech was morally objectionable. Nevertheless, this minimal degree of moral agreement was not enough to keep accusers and the accused engaged in alignment episodes that might have led to the acquiescence of the accused and the attendant restoration of orderly public discourse. The accused quickly formed counterchallenges by negotiating the interpretation of the act or the legitimacy of the norm inherent in the accusation, both of which undermined the possibility of alignment.
The lack of normative consensus was on display not only in accusations of hate speech but also in political discourse aiming to institute speech governance. At the height of the Hungarian hate speech debates in 2003, for example, members of parliament engaged in an ultimately fruitless struggle to craft legislation that would establish limitations to “free speech” and thus create the legal foundations necessary for prosecuting hate speech (Boromisza-Habashi 2013). Their debates brought to the surface a fundamental dilemma immanent in the Hungarian Constitution in effect at the time and in the legal systems of numerous Western societies: curtailing free speech leads to the violation of one fundamental human right; not curtailing free speech leads to the violation of another—namely, the right to human dignity and security. Hungarian conservatives and liberals formed a rare alliance against the socialists who privileged the protection of human dignity over the protection of free speech. Based on an analysis of transcripts from various parliamentary committees, I glossed their interpretation of the relationship between the two fundamental rights in this way: “Hate speech (gyűlöletbeszéd) violates the human dignity (emberi méltóság) of others. Human dignity is protected by the Constitution. Freedom of expression (véleménynyilvánítás szabadsága) is also protected by the Constitution. Since the right to human dignity and the right to free expression are both within the Constitution, one cannot be compromised for the sake of the other. Therefore, hate speech is a mode of expression protected by the Constitution” (75). Socialists countered with the following interpretation: “Hate speech violates the human dignity of others. Human dignity is protected by the Constitution. Freedom of expression is also protected by the Constitution. Since the right to human dignity and the right to free expression are both within the Constitution, one can serve as the limit to the other. Therefore, hate speech is a mode of expression not protected by the Constitution” (75).
These conflicting readings of the Constitution were anchored in and affirmed two conflicting views of (legal) personhood. Socialists cast citizens as members of communities (közösségek) who, as such, deserved an equal degree of dignity and protection from verbal assault. In contrast, their political opponents called for the protection of the rights of the individual (egyén). Invocations of citizens-as-members-of-communities and citizens-as-individuals contributed—along with the two opposing interpretations of the law—to the entrenchment of the two sides’ political positions on the law and two equally reasonable but incompatible political worldviews (Lakoff 2002).
In addition to derailing alignment episodes, the lack of crystallized norms relevant to the interpretation and prosecution of hate speech paved the way for the attacks on what Hungarian right-wing critics of antiracist advocacy saw as the hate speech agenda (Boromisza-Habashi 2011). This alleged agenda comprised three elements: antiracist allegations of hate speech, the promotion of antiracist interpretations of hate speech, and initiatives to create legal penalties against hate speech as a criminal or civic offense. The attacks took full advantage of the lack of consensus about the meaning and evaluation of hate speech. Anti-antiracist advocates rushed to point out the ideological inconsistency at the heart of the hate speech agenda—namely, that liberals who were otherwise deeply committed to protecting freedom of expression did not mind outlawing speech they did not like. (Never mind that Hungarian liberals were actually opposed to passing legislation criminalizing hate speech.) This line of argument built on the legal dilemma inherent in speech governance discussed earlier. Other critics argued that antiracist advocates of the hate speech agenda were themselves filled with hatred, a line of argument resting on the tension between tone- and content-oriented interpretations of the term. A particularly interesting (and somewhat bizarre) form of making such an argument was what I call “adversarial mirroring” (Boromisza-Habashi 2013). Adversarial mirroring can be explained loosely as, “You have just charged me or my group with hate speech. This implies that you are treating me or us as morally inferior to yourself. This is clear evidence that you hate me or us. Your accusation of hate speech reveals your hatred for me or us, and therefore counts as hate speech.”
Other argumentative strategies attacked the hate speech agenda on the basis of its purportedly alien origins and suggested that the lack of the agenda’s rootedness in the Hungarian language and history explained the lack of consensus surrounding the term’s meaning and normative charge. The conservative historian Mária Schmidt published an article in 1996 in which she mounted an attack on the “Act Against Hatred” movement and sociologist György Csepeli for popularizing the term “hate speech.” In the article, Schmidt cast the term as an Orwellian linguistic abomination:
The slogan [“Act against hatred!”] is an attractive one. It makes one feel that hatred is shameful and that acting against it is commendable. Following the politicization and compromising of the word “hatred,” György Csepeli also discredited the way words constitute speech in our language in an article in Népszabadság: “Words are also action. . . . The utterance of words by itself constitutes action. . . . Hence I don’t have to shoot or slap someone, I can do the same with words.” This is how we arrive at the new invention in the politics of language, “hate speech.” The reason why hate speech must be penalized with severe laws is that hatred as such must be acted against, and speech, contrary to our existing conception of it, becomes action when combined with hatred. In a constitutional state, one must be held accountable for one’s actions. Thus, the norms of the constitutional state remain unbroken if we extend criminal law to speech. “Hate speech” is an unintelligible and undefined compound whose meaning can perhaps only be compared with concepts like class enemy or enemy of the people, and its construction is downright Orwellian. (1996, 15)
Schmidt attempts to undermine the hate speech agenda by charging that the term at its core is an “invention” that violates “our existing conception” of what the words “hate” and “speech” mean in “our language.” The term “hate speech” feels artificial and alien to any authentic Hungarian speaker, which should be reason enough to suspect that an insidious, politically motivated, Orwellian manipulation of language is taking place. Thus, the denial of the reality of hate speech—that is, its existence as a category of observable public expression—became a means of displaying an authentic national identity.
In a similar manner, denying the racist social reality that antiracists signal with the use of the term “hate speech” could also be made into a token of national belonging. Consider the following excerpt from a 1987 interview in which a young conservative explained one of the greatest dangers of the hate speech agenda to me—namely, that it conjures up an alien (global, American) reality that collides with and conceals actual Hungarian sociohistorical reality:
The way I see it, the opium or dope is this idea of “let’s recreate the world through the internet and globalization, and the really cool people work at globalized corporations, they are the ideal types, and those who don’t really want this are spoiling this oh-so-diverse world that we are busy building here.” [This] is a worldwide tendency. I mean that you have to, you are obliged to put a Chinese guy on the team, because you’ve got to have a Chinese guy in the series, you need the Chinese guy on Star Trek, and you need the black dude on Star Trek and you need the lesbian on Star Trek and you get these “[corporate] team” type collectives. . . . It’s this American type of thing, and these are the cool people, and Star Trek forges ahead. . . . And people who say that “this has nothing to do with the real situation, and Serbs are killing Hungarians and vice versa, and Bosnians and Croats kill Serbs, and these folks have really lived side-by-side for five hundred years, loving each other in peace is not exactly fashionable here,” those people are considered jerks. Because they lift the veil. (interview, April 12, 2007)
The hate speech agenda, for this speaker, poses a moral threat. Accepting the American and globalist moral principles of this agenda—particularly, principles of ethnic and sexual diversity—robs Hungarians of a sense of local, regional reality and casts those who act as advocates of this reality as morally inferior “jerks.” The media and corporate-driven “Star Trek reality” of diversity initiatives acts as “opium” and “dope,” convincing onlookers that participants of such initiatives are “cool people” and “ideal types,” whereas, in reality, it conceals the actual state of affairs under a veil that ought not to be lifted. The hate speech agenda interprets any attempt to lift the veil as hate speech.
Attacks on the hate speech agenda produced an effective argumentation playbook for its Hungarian critics, which I summarize as follows:
1. Achieve positive self-presentation by means of exposing the hidden political agenda and fallacies of the opponent.
2. Let the audience draw the conclusion that the opponent is morally inferior based on “factual” evidence. Leave implicit the claim to higher moral standing.
3. Treat antiracists as a united political faction with a unified “hate speech” agenda.
4. Display expertise on the antiracist position on “hate speech” without acknowledging the antiracist morality informing that position.
5. Avoid concession to the opponent’s position even when displaying expertise on that position (e.g., by means of negative association, negative predication, irony, etc.). (Boromisza-Habashi 2011, 15).
A pattern running through failed alignment episodes, legal debates, and attacks on a purported hate speech agenda is that in all of these cases, competing interpretations of hate speech served as indexes of belonging. The social function of interpreting hate speech subsumed its referential function—that is, its function as a description of a category of observable communication phenomena. In the Hungarian context, invocations of hate speech and the implicit, oppositional interpretations of the term became enactments of social membership. On one hand, public speakers could take full advantage of the communal function (Philipsen 1989b) of the term’s use. They could use the term to make claims to political group identities and could experience membership by using the term in ways that others in their political group did. On the other hand, they could not use hate speech metadiscourse in public without being positioned by others as a member of one political party or another—a conservative or a progressive, a patriot or an antiracist activist.
These observations reveal that, in the context of the Hungarian hate speech debates during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term became an essentially contested political concept (Boromisza-Habashi 2010). The contestation of a concept is essential if contestation itself becomes the locus of its meaning and if the use of competing meanings of the concept are interpreted as norm violations. This was certainly the case in Hungary: labeling public expression as hate speech using one of the locally available meanings of hate speech inevitably brought into view other, competing meanings. This rendered the speaker a contestant for the authority to control the definition of hate speech and to attach negative sanctions not only to all forms of expression to which that definition applied but also to all competing interpretations of the term. The possession of such authority would have solidified the shifting moral landscape in Hungarian politics by instituting a clear, uncontested distinction between the righteous (those who can legitimately accuse others of hate speech) and the fallen (the accused). However, as in the case of the essential contestation of other political concepts like fascism, racism, or terrorism, the contestation of hate speech failed to produce clear winners and losers.
Essential contestation, however, had one clear outcome: the term gradually lost its significance as a means of social change. In the mid-1990s, hate speech metadiscourse was invariably interpreted with reference to antiracism; by the time of my fieldwork in Hungary, hate speech “could be a concept for speech intended to degrade a group of people based on their voting preferences, to intimidate a politician, a single person symbolizing a group, or to harshly criticize a party, a church, a medium, or even an idea” (Pál 2006, 19n38). The antiracist sentiments that the term originally captured were lost in the cacophony of all manner of politically motivated accusations of hatred.
Conclusion: A Cautionary Tale
The ethnographic study of the hate speech debates in Hungary indicates that decades of intense essential contestation have undermined the status of hate speech as a social fact. Contestation has also undermined our ability to simply point “it” out, calling it by its name and, by harnessing the power of shame, forcing it to disappear—what “it” is has become much too muddled. It appears that we need a new political vocabulary to call out discriminatory expression that targets historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities and that, today, carries the rallying cries of violent nationalism and white supremacy to the farthest reaches of the globe.
In his classic book on ethnographic writing, John Van Maanen (2011) distinguished various “tales” that ethnographers told their audiences about what they had learned in the field. The tale I am telling in this chapter is perhaps closest to what he called the “advocacy tale.” Such tales “put forth a strong, clear point of view in which no doubt is left in the reader as to what side the ethnographer is on. . . . [They] take on certain evils in the world, show what they have done (and are doing), and tell us what might be done about them” (171). As an ethnographer working in the institutional context of communication, a practical discipline (Craig 2018), I am equally compelled to suggest practical interventions into hate speech metadiscourse and to adhere to the axiom of particularity, according to which “the efficacious resources for creating shared meaning and motivating coordinated action vary across social groups” (Philipsen 1989a, 258). I hesitate to claim that the ethnographic study of Hungarian hate speech metadiscourse can produce findings that apply, directly and unproblematically, to public talk about hate speech in other geographic or virtual places at other times. The sociocultural life of Hungarian gyűlöletbeszéd will be different in some ways from the sociocultural lives of Polish mowa nienawiści, Serbian govor mržnje, US hate speech, Afrikaans Haatspraak, French discours de haine, German Hassrede, and Dutch Haatzaaien. Some evidence suggests, for example, that the term’s meaning is less contested in mediated public expression in the United States (Boromisza-Habashi 2012). The account of the term’s Hungarian life that I share here can thus be best described as a cautionary tale to antiracist advocates who use the term “hate speech” to hold racists accountable.
Ethnography suggests that antiracist advocacy targeting racists with accusations of racism must maintain a precarious balance between accusation and identification. On their own, normative challenges of hate speech targeting racists are likely not only to produce and affirm entrenched political positions and to foster competing moralities but also to gradually corrode their own moral force. This corrosion is brought about by the ambiguity of the term and the essential contestation that such ambiguity makes possible. As a result, charges of hate speech are also unlikely to accomplish a key feature of rhetoric—identification (Burke 1969), without which a target’s acquiescence to a moral challenge is impossible. Identification occurs when speakers use locally available symbolic resources to temporarily overcome social divisions between themselves and their audiences, engender a shared sense of consubstantiality, and enter into a negotiation of symbolic and material conditions. Hate speech, it appears, is not a symbolic resource with the necessary rhetorical force to produce the type of identification that prevents those who speak the language of racism from brushing off moral challenges. Antiracist advocates’ failure to recognize this is a practical, tactical mistake (Boromisza-Habashi 2015).
But what is the “good thing” about the observation that hate speech seems to have lost its rhetorical “teeth” in the Hungarian context and likely in other contexts? Ethnographic insight into hate speech metadiscourse provides us with the warrant to free ourselves from a perceived moral and/or political obligation to salvage hate speech by redefining its referents. By acknowledging the limited rhetorical power of accusations of hate speech, we place ourselves in a position to produce better everyday metadiscourse and thereby sharpen antiracist advocacy. Such metadiscursive vocabularies can derive from scholarship—Hervik’s (2019) “ritualized opposition” is a promising example—but also from indigenous vocabularies. Future ethnographies of the Hungarian context could study, for example, the use of metadiscursive terms generated by transforming nouns that signal targets of racist expression into verbs. Today, Hungarian progressives frequently accuse the nationalist government of sorosozás (attacks on George Soros with antisemitic overtones, literally “Soros-ing”) and migránsozás (xenophobic attacks on asylum seekers, literally “migrant-ing”). Such terms successfully avoid the ambiguity of “hatred,” tie racist expression to its particular targets, and allow antiracist advocates to call out more readily observable types of racist speech.
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