Sunday, January 26

Keshav Tadimeti: Hurtful, discriminatory comments should not be defended as free speech

(Shelby Chan/Daily Bruin)

I was sitting at Union Station at 6:30 in the morning, waiting for my train to arrive at the platform. Although I was busy reading on my phone, I noticed a man take a seat beside me. Suddenly, he turned and asked:

“Are you building a bomb? Are you going to blow this place up?”

I was initially confused, but when I looked at him, I knew he wasn’t joking. A chill ran down my spine and I felt the walls closing in on me. In that moment, I feared for my life.

This man knew nothing about me – it was clear his question was based on my ethnicity – but had already assumed that I was a threat to him, despite the fact that I only wanted to get on the train to celebrate a belated birthday with my parents. His discriminatory question was enough to make me curse my ethnicity and regret coming to the station. How audacious of me to think that I was entitled to ride on a train I had paid for.

Discrimination is real. And it hurts, literally.

In fact, numerous neurological and psychological studies have shown that social pain, or emotional distress originating from things such as exclusion, ostracism and discrimination, is perceived by the brain, to a notable degree, like physical pain.

Research pioneered at UCLA has shown that when the human body experiences physical pain, the sensation is broken down by the brain into two components: sensory and emotional. The sensory component is perceived by the part of the brain mapping to the site of the injury, and the emotional distress is usually directed to a region known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, or dACC. But, when social pain is perceived through things like racism or discrimination, the same dACC pathway is stimulated, leading to the characteristic “sting” of pain.

In other words, punching someone in the face and making racist comments about them are similarly perceived by the brain, activating many of the same pain receptors. And it’s clear from recent events that many UCLA students have been getting punched in the face.

Be it the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity’s use of meeting minutes to record racist and misogynistic comments or the Bruin Republicans members’ public denouncing of the transgender community, it’s clear from recent instances of racism and discrimination that we students have failed to see the difference between expressing controversial opinions and propagating hate speech on campus. As if to rub salt on the wound, these groups have rushed to hide behind the First Amendment’s right to free speech to justify denigrating members of the student body.

However, this free speech argument is little more than a facade and students need to realize that there is a clear distinction between free speech and discriminatory speech. Controversial opinions sanctioned by the right to free speech are not the same thing as disparaging comments that needlessly harm members of the student population – the former sparks discussion about the topic, but the latter, despite how legal it may seem, only butchers discussion altogether.

In this regard, students that propagate hate speech, thus advocating for discrimination, directly harm their victims. Making sexist and racist comments may simply seem like an expression of free speech, but it is little more than discrimination wrapped in an artificial, if legal, excuse.

Of course, one could argue that making these comments is just another way of expressing a controversial viewpoint. In fact, the external vice president of Bruin Republicans Alex Rhim stated in a submission column that Bruin Republicans neither endorses nor criticizes the viewpoints of the members who denounced the transgender community, arguing that such viewpoints foster “free discussion” on controversial issues. This argument is similar to ones posed by sympathizers of Pi Kappa Phi – that the fraternity’s members were only exercising their freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

However, in the face of the overwhelming research showing that such socially harmful speech has lasting ramifications on victims’ physiological and psychological states, it’s clear that these free speech arguments are meager attempts at justifying hateful viewpoints. Controversial speech is speech that promotes conversation by explaining the merits of a contested viewpoint; hate speech, however, blatantly disparages a group of people without any attempt at sound argumentation.

For example, making racist comments about Mexican people – as did members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity – does little to spark conversation, and it’s shameful of students to hold up the freedom-of-speech card when they are putting other students’ psychological and physiological well-being at stake.

Ultimately, if students truly want to engage in constructive discussion about controversial topics, they need to foster a nurturing environment that allows for differences of opinion. Holding up a poster proclaiming that all transgender individuals have mental disorders is by no means a catalyst for inclusiveness.

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Senior staff columnist

Tadimeti was the Daily Bruin's Opinion editor from 2017-2019 and an assistant Opinion editor in the 2016-2017 school year. He tends to write about issues pertaining to the higher education, state politics and the administration, and blogs occasionally about computer science. Tadimeti was also the executive producer of the "No Offense, But" and "In the Know" Daily Bruin Opinion podcasts.

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  • Lolwut

    Freedom of speech is a legal defense, not a moral or intellectual one. Invoking the first amendment does not place an ignorant or bigoted opinion beyond reproach; it merely argues against censorship.

    In that same legal context, I disagree with the premise that hateful or discriminatory discourse is somehow distinct from other free speech. Hate speech is free speech precisely because there is no objective way to differentiate it from other forms of protected expression. It’s never been an issue of correctness or constructiveness (or a total lack thereof)- it’s the basic idea that no one should have the power to decide that certain topics or ideas aren’t okay to express. Having to share the air with the Westboro Baptist Church, various white supremacist groups, flat-earthers, and every other manifestation of loud bigotry and/or ignorance is the unfortunate price of that essential liberty.

    What’s important is that we collectively remember to exercise OUR freedom of speech in condemning those who espouse hate, and make it clear to one another that our campus community rejects these views. Winning over the hearts and minds of fellow Bruins will do more for the causes of inclusiveness and equality than we could ever hope to accomplish by trying to force it with outright censorship.

  • Michael Spangler

    First off, I call bull on the bus incident, as it has become a “badge of honor”, for the left, to claim victim status. I’m not buying it.

    Secondly, Keshav is suggesting that words are the same thing as physical violence. If someone tries to punch me in the face, I am legally within my rights to defend myself by punching back. Therefore, based on Keshav’s logic, if someone says something that hurts my feelings, it is violence against me, and I should be able to respond with violence.

    This is the view point of a petulant child and a fascist. Violence should never be an acceptable response to someone’s words. That is evil.

    Thirdly, who is going to be the great arbiter of what is “hate speech” and what is accepted speech? Keshav? The government? Who are they to play dictator in determining what is acceptable for the rest of society to say, think, or write?

    Keshav is someone who wants the government to send men with guns to arrest bloggers, journalists, students, and citizens for expressing a point of view he doesn’t approve of. That’s called being a fascist, which makes Keshav a bad person.

  • Thurgood C

    Mom!! The big bad man hurt my feelings! Hurting my feelings should be illegal.

  • Sol

    Hello, author. I’d be interested to hear your legal justification for the proposal that hate speech or discriminatory speech be held outside the realm of constitutionally protected speech. So far, the only rough rationales you have offered is that the speech is discriminatory or hurtful. Unfortunately, such arguments are dramatically insufficient to criminalize speech in our current jurisprudence. I’ll be interested to see what case precedent you can site comma and what non frivolous arguments you have for such a drastic reduction of civil rights regarding speech.

    Likewise, using a metric of whether speech fosters discrimination or conversation is legally illiterate. It has no value against civil liberties. Frankly, private people can and should be able to discriminate in their personal interactions with other private citizens. For example, I am free, as a private citizen, to not associate with any private person I choose.

    I feel as though you didn’t do your research on this. Regardless, I’m interested to hear your non frivolous arguments legally for your conclusion. I look forward to debating this with you.

    A constitutional free speech attorney

    • Sol

      Hello again, author. A little less than a week ago, I challenged many of the factual and legal inaccuracies of your article upon which you based your call for restrictions to free speech rights. I am disappointed but unsurprised that you were unable or unwilling to defend your points further.

      I’ll consider the topic done for now, but I encourage you to better research the topic, especially since you are indeed advocating for violations of basic human and civil rights.