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Hate Speech in Perspective

Patricia Pereira Sethi

The political landscape around the world today is ravaged by hate speech. Be they democracies, dictatorships, oligarchies, or autocracies run by religious zealots, the odium and anger spewed out is abysmal and appalling. There is fury targeted at so many, with so-called “immigrants and outsiders” topping the list of people to deride and abhor.

Hate speech comprises incendiary language that attacks a person or a group on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. It could occur verbally, physically, or online, via the Internet and various social media platforms, with the express purpose of flailing people or entities.

Experts, including American University professor Susan Benesch, have studied the disturbing phenomenon and have defined the parameters which transform rage-infused content into dangerous hate speech. They argue that at least two of the following five indicators must hold true to transform a discourse into hate speech:

 A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience.

 An audience with exaggerated and imagined grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate.

 A speech performance that is clearly understood as a call to violence.

 A social or historical context that is propitious for violence: including long-standing competition between groups for limited resources; caste and religious divisions; lack of effort to solve grievances; previous episodes of violence.

 A means of dissemination that is influential in itself, because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience. With no palpable counterbalancing force.

According to historians, Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, were expert exponents of hate speech. Today, US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, as well as a slew of other leaders, straddle the danger zone.

Many analysts contend that Trump’s rhetoric meets the criteria regularly: certain phrases used by the president are consistent with provoking tensions: his constant references to reporters as the “enemies of the people” and his refusal to silence supporters who chanted “Lock her up” on the day that a pipe bomb was intercepted on its way to Hillary Clinton’s house.

Duterte trivialised the rape of women when he remarked that “there are many rape cases in Davao, because there are many beautiful women in Davao. Men are thus mesmerised and tempted.” He also compared the Jews killed by the Nazis to the drug dealers and addicts being hunted down by his administration, apologising only after pressure mounted about such blatant anti-Semitism. He attacked Christianity as well, the religion of 90 per cent of his nation’s population, by asking: “Who is this stupid God, who first created Adam and Eve, then threw them out of the Garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit…You created something perfect and then you think of an event that would tempt and destroy the quality of your work and roll out the concept of original sin – so even if someone is not yet born, he is tainted with original sin. What kind of religion is this? I cannot accept it.”

Bolsonaro belittled women when he proclaimed that he had “four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.” He told a female representative of the legislature that he “would not rape her, because she was so ugly.” His flagrant homophobia stretches to the point where he would “rather have my son die in a car crash than have him show up dating some guy.” He has condemned the black descendants of rebel African slaves saying: “They don’t do anything…they’re not even good for procreation.” He has praised Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, expressed support for torturers and called for political opponents to be shot, earning him the label of “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world”.

The question is how does one handle hate speech on a personal level? Should we ignore it or react politely? Is it better to respond tit for tat and stoop down to the same gutter level? Psychologists contend that we must collectively tackle hate speech so that it will not be permitted to become the norm. They recommend certain rules to confront barbaric behaviour: Be a good witness, record and identify the incident and report it immediately to the authorities. Be prepared to speak out, but don’t escalate the conflict. Become an ally, join sides with the person who is being mistreated. Escort the person attacked to a safe space until the conflict is resolved. Analyse and study why people behave the way they do.

If hate appears online, report the message to Facebook or Twitter: ask the page administrator or the moderator to remove the message. Social media companies are committed to removing messages in which people are confronted on the basis of their race, religion or ethnicity, but this does not happen automatically. Facebook and Twitter only remove messages after they have been reported by a user: all reporting is anonymous so there should be no fear of a backlash. Based on your report, Facebook and Twitter will decide to take messages offline or even block an account temporarily or permanently. Most internet fora, including the Facebook pages of newspapers and WhatsApp, have a moderator to keep control of affairs and who is responsible for all material that is posted on the page. The moderator has the power to take a message offline, he can send users a warning or ban them from the forum.

Most important, we have to instil in our children and young adults at home, school and in college, the values of decency and respect, sensitivity and compassion towards others. They must have a foundation of moral and cultural norms which they can carry with them throughout their lives. And we should vote out all politicians who sow hate. They have no place in any civilised society.

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