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Defining Opinions: The Difference Between Free Speech and Hate Rhetoric

As humans, we voice our opinions every day. This type of heuristic tendency allows us to perform better in our daily lives, make decisions, and give ourselves identities. We use opinions in education as well, giving a twist to its objective idealization with personal subjectivity. Arguably, politics is something where thoughts are shared often.

We see a lot of things being said. Foreign policy, immigration, the economy, women’s rights and so much more fall under biased voices of politicians, political analysts, people in the media, and even ourselves.

Imagine this: you’re sitting at the dinner table with your family during Christmas. Abortion becomes the topic of discussion; you are neutral on the subject, whereas a family member is pro-choice and another pro-life. Arguments begin, and it ends in a lot of hurt feelings and unnecessary things said. People walk away hurt because of the personal attacks that were made, irrelevant to abortion, but still a part of the discussion.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, and people use that often to exercise their rights to say whatever they wish. However, can an opinion elicit hate rhetoric? Can an opinion be hate rhetoric?

Let’s look at some Meriam-Webster definitions, to be fair: an opinion is defined as “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter” whereas hate speech is described as follows: “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people.”  Are the views we express and believe the same as attacking someone over theirs?

A week or so ago, a speaker named Milo Yiannopolous came to speak on behalf of the alt-right and the West Virginia University College of Young Republicans. Milo began to attack a professor at WVU, among other people too, for his sexuality, calling him a “fat fa***t.” On Twitter, people began to debate as to whether it was hate speech or an opinion protected under the Bill of Rights.

As I looked for myself, I was told by a friend from high school that it was not hate speech, because Milo is gay himself. I got angry at first but then began to really think about what is an opinion, and what defines a derogatory statement.

It is important to be heard, and important to freely express how you feel without feeling attacked. However, is it okay to attack another individual, who has the same rights as everyone else, for who they are?

Where do we, as a society, draw the line between beliefs and hate? Are they interchangeable? Were we ever meant to draw this line in the first place?

Language is interpretive. How I may hear something is different than how you may hear something, and so on and so forth. What I think is hateful, may not be hateful for someone else. However, I strongly believe and stand by that shaming someone for their sexuality and body weight is wrong and should be condemned by no one.

Words turn into actions incredibly easy; once you say something enough, you start to physically carry it out. We have seen this so many times, especially during the Civil War, the 9/11 attacks, and most importantly: the Holocaust. The opinion of one person became absorbed by many others; people began to physically attack others, just like a domino effect.

Although we are free, we are a lot more than writing on paper. The First Amendment protects us, but not one of the most human qualities: our emotions.

Conclusively, we eventually become our words. Repetition is an important part of a language and becomes attached to our physicality more than we know. Although we are free to express how we feel, doing so with the intention to hurt and demean others promises nothing but oppression and real-life dystopia. We are here to lift each other up, encourage one another and believe in our fellow people. By using hate speech, we regress and fall apart more than we could ever fit together. A big part of sharing your opinion is compromising with those around you; we all have thoughts we are entitled to, but that does not elicit insulting others.

We must be more compassionate, and we must move forward with respect for each other. We are the common demeanor, and when we come to that conclusion, synergy can and will be achieved.

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Shan Cawley
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Shannon Cawley is an author and full-time student based in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her first chapbook, "depression is a thunderstorm and i am a scared dog" is set to be released by Maudlin House Press during the summer of 2017. In her free time, Shan works at her dorm's dining hall, involves herself in numerous extracurricular activities, and advocates for sexual assault victims as well as sufferers of mental illness.

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