What Is a Hate Group?

After hearing (or being reminded, I’m not sure which) that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) classified the Family Research Council (FRC) as a hate group in 2010, that got me wondering. What is the definition of a “hate group,” anyway?

It’s unclear how, precisely, the SPLC defines “hate group.” While searching their website, I found the following statement on their “Hate Map” page.

All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

I was unable to find another statement on the SPLC which might further clarify their definition of “hate group.” (If you find one, please let me know and I will gladly revise this page as needed.) Mobathorne has pointed out to me that this statement may simply express what the SPLC considers a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition, for a group to be a hate group.

Why, precisely, does the SPC allege that the FRC is a hate group (so defined)?

According to the SPLC’s “intelligence file” on the FRC, the FRC is an “anti-gay” hate group. It seems intuitively obvious to me that it is, at least, possible that a Religious Right organization can be “anti-gay,” in the sense of morally condemning homosexual behavior, but without hating people who experience same-sex attractions and without “attacking or maligning an entire class of people.” In other words, I think it’s at least possible that someone could sincerely “hate the sin [of homosexuality], but love the sinner,” i.e., the homosexual. This is true, even if many of the people and groups who have espoused that line have been insincere when uttering it. Indeed, the SPLC itself acknowledges that “Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.”

So why does the SPLC’s summary of why it classifies FRC as not just an anti-gay group, but an anti-gay hate group? In their words:

The Family Research Council (FRC) bills itself as “the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power,” but its real specialty is defaming gays and lesbians. The FRC often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science. The intention is to denigrate LGBT people in its battles against same-sex marriage, hate crimes laws, anti-bullying programs and the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
To make the case that the LGBT community is a threat to American society, the FRC employs a number of “policy experts” whose “research” has allowed the FRC to be extremely active politically in shaping public debate. Its research fellows and leaders often testify before Congress and appear in the mainstream media. It also works at the grassroots level, conducting outreach to pastors in an effort to “transform the culture.” (emphasis mine)

If you follow the link to the SPLC’s intelligence file, you can read several quotations of the FRC which SPLC cites to justify its designation of FRC as a hate group.

In one of its initial responses to the SPLC’s designation, the FRC argued that the designation is “character assassination,” not a discussion, consideration of the issues, or a debate about the merits of the FRC’s position.

“The surest sign one is losing a debate is to resort to character assassination. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal fundraising machine whose tactics have been condemned by observers across the political spectrum, is doing just that. The group, which was once known for combating racial bigotry, is now attacking several groups that uphold Judeo-Christian moral views, including marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
“How does the SPLC attack? By labeling its opponents ‘hate groups.’ No discussion. No consideration of the issues. No engagement. No debate! These types of slanderous tactics have been used against voters who signed petitions and voted for marriage amendments in all thirty states that have considered them, as well as against the millions of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement. Some on the Left have even impugned the Manhattan Declaration – which upholds the sanctity of life, the value of traditional marriage and the fundamental right of religious freedom – as an anti-gay document and have forced its removal from general communications networks.
“This is intolerance pure and simple. Elements of the radical Left are trying to shut down informed discussion of policy issues that are being considered by Congress, legislatures, and the courts. Tell the radical Left it is time to stop spreading hateful rhetoric attacking individuals and organizations merely for expressing ideas with which they disagree. Our debates can and must remain civil – but they must never be suppressed through personal assaults that aim only to malign an opponent’s character.
“We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Family Research Council, American Family Association, Concerned Women of America, National Organization for Marriage, Liberty Counsel and other pro-family organizations that are working to protect and promote natural marriage and family. We support the vigorous but responsible exercise of the First Amendment rights of free speech and religious liberty that are the birthright of all Americans.”

In its rebuttal, the SPLC provided evidence that the FRC (and affiliated groups) have propagated “known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and [engaged in] repeated, groundless name-calling.” SPLC’s examples include the following.

  • FRC claimed that “one of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and to eventually recognize pedophiles as the ‘prophets’ of a new sexual order.” 
  • The American Family Association claimed that “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews.” 
  • Various right-wring groups have claimed that homosexuals “are essentially pedophiles who molest children at far higher rates than heterosexuals.”

On the basis of that evidence, it seems to me that the SPLC has provided a prima facie case that the FRC is a “hate group,” insofar as that case is consistent with the SPLC’s statement regarding hate groups. But is it fair for the SPLC to refer to the FRC as a “hate group” for that reason? I need to think about this more, but I’m not so sure because it’s unclear precisely how the SPLC defines a hate group.

One worry I have about the SPLC’s statement is that it might be (?) overly broad. Again, the SPLC writes, “All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people….” I think all or virtually all law abiding citizens have beliefs that “attack or malign” the entire class of con

victed felons. According to that statement, that would mean that all or virtually law abiding citizens (as an informal group) would constitute a “hate group.” That seems neither accurate nor what the SPLC intended. But, again, it’s not clear that the SPLC believes that merely having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people” is a sufficient condition for an organization to be a hate group. It would most helpful if the SPLC were to offer an explicit definition of “hate group” to clear this up.

Another worry I have is this. Assume that organization O is spreading false information about group G. If O knows the information is false, then O is lying. If O sincerely believes the information is true, then O is either self-deceived or ignorant.

It intuitively seems to me there is an additional step missing here that would enable us to move from “FRC is spreading false information about homosexuals” to “FRC is a hate group.” Can that additional step be justified? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. Let me know what you think!

Update (19-Aug-12): Added link for the quotation I attributed to SPLC as their definition of “hate group,” discussed whether that definition states the sufficient conditions for a hate group or merely a necessary condition.