[T]he context in which something is said, and the identity of the speaker obviously make a great deal of difference in how we react to the speech. But if there is in fact a hierarchy to hate speech, on what basis should comments be judged? I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others on this.
Gladwell proposes a scale based on content, intention, and conviction. This neatly forgives people who simply mis-speak, or those who unintentionally offend without malice, while properly condemning those silver-tongued few who are able to say vile things about groups of people without using any actual slurs or epithets.
Race is always a difficult topic -- every time I write about it on my blog, I get a few defensive comments that I mostly don't publish, a few IMs from white friends saying "I'm not sure that's fair...", a few IMs from black friends saying "You're being a bit presumptuous again..." and then a whole lot of people, including most of my readers saying, essentially, "BOOOO-RING!"
Maybe we should make this more fun? With a clear scale for measuring racism, we could make a website for it! (raceometer.com is still available.) Enter in your potentially racist speech, get back a racism score, and put the badge on your site. The fact that we've got three dimensions to measure on means that you could have a Race Cube, whose size would increase based on how offensive you truly were. If you came up with something horrendous, but you didn't really mean it, you'd get a zero in "conviction" and end up with a flat square.
Or if you're Mel Gibson, and meet all the requirements, maybe you'd prefer a trading card game, where you could boast about your score. And then hopefully the truly racist cards would become increasingly rare over time and this kind of offensiveness would exist only as a thriving market on eBay. I've included an artist's rendering here for collectors.