This is not an exhaustive list of bad thesis statements, but here're five kinds of problems I've seen most often. Notice that the last two, #4 and #5, are not necessarily incorrect or illegitimate thesis statements, but, rather, inappropriate for the purposes of this course. They may be useful forms for papers on different topics in other courses.
A thesis takes a position on an issue. It is different from a topic sentence in that a thesis statement is not neutral. It announces, in addition to the topic, the argument you want to make or the point you want to prove. This is your own opinion that you intend to back up. This is your reason and motivation for writing.
Bad Thesis 1
- : In his article Stanley Fish shows that we don't really have the right to free speech.
Bad Thesis 2: This paper will consider the advantages and disadvantages of certain restrictions on free speech.
Better Thesis 1: Stanley Fish's argument that free speech exists more as a political prize than as a legal reality ignores the fact that even as a political prize it still serves the social end of creating a general cultural atmosphere of tolerance that may ultimately promote free speech in our nation just as effectively as any binding law.
Better Thesis 2: Even though there may be considerable advantages to restricting hate speech, the possibility of chilling open dialogue on crucial racial issues is too great and too high a price to pay.
A thesis should be as specific as possible, and it should be tailored to reflect the scope of the paper. It is not possible, for instance, to write about the history of English literature in a 5 page paper. In addition to choosing simply a smaller topic, strategies to narrow a thesis include specifying a method or perspective or delineating certain limits.
Bad Thesis 1
- : There should be no restrictions on the 1st amendment.
Bad Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech.
Better Thesis 1: There should be no restrictions on the 1st amendment if those restrictions are intended merely to protect individuals from unspecified or otherwise unquantifiable or unverifiable "emotional distress."
Better Thesis 2: The government has the right to limit free speech in cases of overtly racist or sexist language because our failure to address such abuses would effectively suggest that our society condones such ignorant and hateful views.
A thesis must be arguable. And in order for it to be arguable, it must present a view that someone might reasonably contest. Sometimes a thesis ultimately says, "we should be good," or "bad things are bad." Such thesis statements are tautological or so universally accepted that there is no need to prove the point.
Bad Thesis 1
- : Although we have the right to say what we want, we should avoid hurting other people's feelings.
Bad Thesis 2: There are always alternatives to using racist speech.
Better Thesis 1: If we can accept that emotional injuries can be just as painful as physical ones we should limit speech that may hurt people's feelings in ways similar to the way we limit speech that may lead directly to bodily harm.
Better Thesis 2: The "fighting words" exception to free speech is not legitimate because it wrongly considers speech as an action.
A good argumentative thesis provides not only a position on an issue, but also suggests the structure of the paper. The thesis should allow the reader to imagine and anticipate the flow of the paper, in which a sequence of points logically prove the essay's main assertion. A list essay provides no such structure, so that different points and paragraphs appear arbitrary with no logical connection to one another.
Bad Thesis 1
- : There are many reasons we need to limit hate speech.
Bad Thesis 2: None of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive.
Better Thesis 1: Among the many reasons we need to limit hate speech the most compelling ones all refer to our history of discrimination and prejudice, and it is, ultimately, for the purpose of trying to repair our troubled racial society that we need hate speech legislation.
Better Thesis 2: None of the arguments in favor of regulating pornography are persuasive because they all base their points on the unverifiable and questionable assumption that the producers of pornography necessarily harbor ill will specifically to women.
In an other course this would not be at all unacceptable, and, in fact, possibly even desirable. But in this kind of course, a thesis statement that makes a factual claim that can be verified only with scientific, sociological, psychological or other kind of experimental evidence is not appropriate. You need to construct a thesis that you are prepared to prove using the tools you have available, without having to consult the world's leading expert on the issue to provide you with a definitive judgment.
Bad Thesis 1
- : Americans today are not prepared to give up on the concept of free speech.
Bad Thesis 2: Hate speech can cause emotional pain and suffering in victims just as intense as physical battery.
Better Thesis 1: Whether or not the cultural concept of free speech bears any relation to the reality of 1st amendment legislation and jurisprudence, its continuing social function as a promoter of tolerance and intellectual exchange trumps the call for politicization (according to Fish's agenda) of the term.
Better Thesis 2: The various arguments against the regulation of hate speech depend on the unspoken and unexamined assumption that emotional pain is either trivial.
By FIRE Intern July 20, 2015
Disappointingly, when discussing free speech and its value to society, I have become accustomed to some variant of the inevitable rejoinder: “Hate speech is not free speech.”
This maxim has been repeated in discussions about everything from the protest against portrayal of the prophet Muhammad to the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag. It has been parroted by nationally syndicated news personalities under the guise of constitutional truth. I have seen it painted without irony on the free speech wall of my own college.
Just as with free speech, there is a distinction to be drawn between hate speech in a legal context and hate speech as a more abstract concept. I would submit, however, that regardless of whether we are speaking legally or conceptually, “hate speech” can prove valuable to public understanding and must be protected.
In the United States, hate speech is not a recognized exception to the free speech protections under the First Amendment. Put simply, the vast majority of “hate speech” is free speech. In the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg v. Ohio, the justices assessed speech that would be considered “hate” by most people’s colloquial definitions: at issue was a Ku Klux Klan leader’s inflammatory speech urging listeners to take revenge on racial minorities. The court held that it did not constitute an incitement of lawlessness and was therefore constitutionally protected.
Similarly, in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the court overturned a teenager’s conviction for burning a cross on a black family’s lawn. In R.A.V., the content of speech was determined to be an inadequate justification for prohibition. The right to the undoubtedly hateful speech of the Westboro Baptist Church was also upheld in Snyder v. Phelps, which dealt with the members’ protest ahead of a soldier’s funeral. The judgments in these cases establish a strong precedent against any sort of legislative attempt to punish hate speech in the United States.
To say that hate speech is not free speech in America is plainly false. The judiciary comprehends the imprudence of allowing a centralized authority to regulate not just what one is allowed to say, but what one is allowed to hear.
One of FIRE’s co-founders, Alan Charles Kors, when talking about the importance of protecting hateful speech, recalls a scene from Robert Bolt’s playA Man for All Seasons. In it, Thomas More states his refusal to arrest Richard Rich, a man who later conspires to have More convicted on false pretense, even “[i]f he were the Devil himself until he broke the law.” Upon hearing this, Roper, More’s zealous son-in-law-to-be, asserts that he would cut down every law in England to get after the Devil. More responds:
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? … This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – Man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? … Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
The question More poses evokes another: Who watches the watchmen?
If the law is thrown aside in order to prosecute some nebulous “bad,” what will happen to the “good” when the roles are reversed? If hate speech is to be defined, who gets to say what it is and is not?
This problem is not at all hypothetical. A recent example in Britain demonstrates how this can be abused. As a last ditch ploy to woo Muslim voters in the United Kingdom, Labour party candidate Ed Miliband promised to make criticism of Islam a crime. And in France, following the Charlie Hebdo killings (which some seem to believe was a justified reaction to hate speech), authorities arrested, among others, comedian Deiudonné M’bala M’bala for a Facebook post expressing solidarity with Amedy Coulibaly, one of the shooters associated with the attack.
Thankfully, American legislatures cannot enact laws authorizing this sort of action. But as universities seek to suppress a broader range of speech they deem hateful, the power to control what students and faculty may discuss settles increasingly into the hands of campus administrators. This is of immediate concern to those who hold unpopular views. As Bolt’s Thomas More suggested, those who support administrators exercising discretion in this way might start to have their own viewpoints banned when the winds change.
Many will argue that speech can be both valuable and hateful, and many see offensive comedy and criticism of Islam as examples of that concept. But what about a more exclusive definition of hate speech limited to the most apparently unacceptable and frequently outlandish ideas? Is there any intrinsic value in Holocaust denial or advocacy of genocide?
In his book Freedom From Speech, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff says, “I believe the even greater failure of higher education is neglecting to teach the intellectual habits that promote debate and discussion, tolerance for views we hate, epistemic humility, and genuine pluralism.”
Why not ask ourselves how we know that the Holocaust occurred? Ideas are like muscles—they atrophy if they are not properly exercised. Which is preferable: a person who accepts the Holocaust’s historicity based exclusively on the fact that it is what they have been told, or a person who experiences doubt and examines original documents, meets people with serial numbers tattooed on their arms, and visits the death camps or the mass graves? The fundamental point of epistemic humility is that it is not enough for a person to believe the truth; they should believe the truth for the right reasons. A quotation attributed to Aristotle, and wise regardless of the original source, goes, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Some ideas are repugnant, and some people will hold these ideas against all reason. Even so, there is something to be learned from seeing a person express such an idea, if not from the idea itself. Ken Miller, an alumnus and professor at Brown University, penned an article describing the most unforgettable speaker he ever heard at the university. The leader of the American Nazi Party, himself a Brown alumnus, had come to speak. Miller learned firsthand the charisma with which pernicious ideas could be expressed. He understood the “allure” of fascism. Such an experience afforded students a visceral understanding both of history and of their own vulnerability. It was then perhaps the speaking, and not the speech, that was of lasting value.
If such lofty academic idealism fails to persuade, perhaps the simplest reason to permit such speech is that, as FIRE’s co-founder, Harvey Silverglate, put it: “If there are Nazis in the room, I want to know who they are so that I can keep an eye on them.”
James Altschul is a FIRE summer intern.