On One Hand

July 27, 2009

How to Confront Hate Speech On the Internet

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 4:54 pm
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I recently made the observation that there are a lot of hateful videos on YouTube, that I assumed would have been removed under YouTube’s Terms of Service but were not. So when I saw the video about “how to confront racism” – in our everyday lives – it occurred to me that something is lacking when it comes to confronting more blatant hate speech on the Internet, where words are simultaneously more virulent, and more common.

We live in connected world. It used to be that only a few public figures, like politicians, celebrities and journalists, had access to wide audiences over the radio, or TV. Now nearly every living room in America is connected to every other over the Internet, and not only are a lot of private conversations open for anyone to see, but we have the ability to connect and communicate face to face with people like us, virtually anywhere in the world we want to.

Because of the Internet, communities that didn’t always have a way to organize now have one – and that’s usually a good thing. But the internet makes it easy for groups to splinter out into micro communities, and a lot of the fringe ideas that circulate there are not so good. There’s a lot of hate speech out there, be it against a person’s race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. And far be it from me tell anybody they don’t have the right to spew out whatever filthy, disgusting political rhetoric they want to – that’s the definition of freedom of speech – but another important feature built into the concept of freedom of speech is that we have the right to speak back.

I consider myself an ally to a lot of disenfranchised groups, meaning that even though I’m a white male, I’m for the interests of people of color, women, the disabled, transgendered people, and other historically disenfranchised people overcoming prejudice and getting a fair shake in society. It’s not just a political position, it’s a role I take in the world. That means that on behalf of those groups I try to stand up and correct the wrong ideas I see, whenever I get the chance. I’m a proud multiculturalist, which to me means I don’t believe any single group of people out there is better than another, and I believe we should make room for everybody who wants to live peacefully in our society even if they don’t want to adopt the exact same lifestyles and values that we do.

The most important way for us to be an ally in our everyday lives is in the ordinary conversations we have in our schools and workplaces, with families and friends, nudging conversations in the right direction or, when somebody says something racist or sexist, telling that person “that’s not cool.” When they’re people who trust us or see us as peers, that kind of encouragement is very effective. But that’s not what I’m talking about here – in this case I’m talking about blatant hate speech.

Hate speech is different because the person saying it isn’t really open to new ideas, and isn’t just trying to be chummy you and hoping you’ll bond over a race joke or derogatory observation about a minority group. Hate speech is meant to antagonize you, and to personally offend or hurt the groups of people it’s directed at. Hate speech will take advantage of racial slurs and insults, attack groups as individuals rather than just for political positions, and will often falsely claim that the targeted groups of people are involved in conspiracies to bring down society.

Alot of people out there would ask why bother with a person with so much hate who clearly isn’t open to your words? But I think it’s important to engage them anyway. First, as I said before, the Internet is a connected place, and we want to make sure that any people in a targeted group who could be damaged by the rants of a racist or homophobe to know that not everyone in the world thinks that way. Second, we don’t want the people engaging in hate speech to feel empowered when nobody’s disagreeing with them.

So in my life, whenever I see a hateful YouTube video, comment or blog entry, one that might use known racial slurs, make false generalizations about an ethnic group, or take a tone meant to make people feel insulted for who they are, I take a few seconds to reply that that’s unacceptable. I don’t go out looking for hate speech to reply to, but I do come across it every now and then and don’t let it go unanswered.

If you decide to engage further, or get drawn into some conversation that you don’t want to let go – because they’re probably going to insult you for criticizing them – there are a few important things you want to keep in mind.

First off, never, ever, ever, ever attack the hate speaker’s race, religion or identity. If, for example, you see a YouTube video of a black woman bashing on Muslims, don’t say anything about her race. Don’t do it even if you get really, really mad, and don’t do it even if you mean it ironically just to prove a point. Because if you do you’ve subjected yourself to the same criticism for speaking hate. Also don’t say, “because you’re from a minority you should defend other minorities.” That’s a distraction and an empty argument. If she were a white person bashing on Muslims, it’s not like it would be any better. Hate speech is equally wrong no matter who it’s coming from, so focus on the words and not the person saying it.

Don’t bash on a person’s religion, either. If a Christian man is using hate speech against lesbian or gay people saying it’s commanded by his religion, don’t attack him for being a Christian or say that Christianity is intolerant of gays. First of all, there are a lot of gay-friendly Christians and even gay Christians who are going to be thrown off the bus by that argument. Second, even if you are convinced that someone’s religion is all just a bunch of crap, religion is an identity group, and deserves tolerance and respect. And a person who believes a religion considers it very, very important, and isn’t going to give it up no matter how hard an argument you hit him with, So if you tell a person who is Christian and also happens to be a homophobe that his problem is Christianity, you just linked up Christianity to hateful views, and that person is more likely hang on to hate now that its a matter of faith.

Now if you want to have your own debate with someone about theology, or explain why you don’t believe in a religion, that’s fine. But don’t use it as a response to hate speech, and don’t get in theological conversations with those people.

As another extension of the idea that the problem is hate speech, not the identity of the person speaking it, point out that what the person is saying is bigoted, hurtful and wrong. Don’t call the person bigoted, hurtful and wrong. That makes that person cling harder to his or views, because now the hate speaker is defending him or her dignity rather than unacceptable ideas. Don’t try to psychoanalyze people or peer into the way they were raised or the communities they grew up in, don’t question their unvoiced insecurities or repressed sexual desires or whatever you want to resort to. It’s way too easy for that person to feel validated when it turns out you made a false assumption – because those are things you can never know. What you do know is that this person is involved in a hate group or producing hateful material. You can tell them that they lose all credibility in anything they want to say when they’re talking that way.

Finally, Don’t expect a person using hate speech to be converted by anything you say. If those people do change their minds, it will take place over a number of months or years, because those views are hard to give up. You can engage them as much as you want – as long as you stay principled and don’t devolve to the same kind of viciousness generalizations they use. But if you start getting really stressed out about it and it starts weighing down on your soul and raising your blood pressure, step away. You don’t need to subject yourself to that, and it puts you in a place where you’re more likely to forget what you’re talking about and delve into personal attacks. Let somebody else take the charge.

Anybody is capable of being a good ally to a group of people targeted by slurs, hostile political arguments or false conspiracy theories. Sometimes all you have to do is identify yourself as someone who opposes such views, and like in an election, enough people making the same case can prove that the majority is on their side. Stick to your principles, and don’t get caught up in nonsense.

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10 Comments »

  1. *much agreement*

    Comment by brian33 — July 28, 2009 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

  2. I can see that you’ve put a lot of effort and passion into this. Below’s another transcription (assuming you wrote it then read (freely) with it).

    We live in connected world. It used to be that only a few public figures, like politicians, celebrities and journalists, had access to big audiences over the radio, or TV. Now nearly every living room in America is connected to every other over the Internet, and not only are a lot of private conversations open to everyone, but we have the ability to connect and communicate face to face with people all over the world..

    ..communities that didn’t always have a way to organize now have one – and that’s usually a good thing. But the Internet makes it easy for groups to splinter out into micro communities, and a lot of fringe ideas can circulate that are not so good. There’s a lot of hate speech out there, be it against a person’s race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. And far be it from me to tell anyone that they don’t have the right to spew out whatever kind of filthy, disgusting political rhetoric they want to – the definition of free speech is that they get to do that- but another important feature of freedom of speech is that we have the right to speak back.

    I consider myself an ally to a lot of disenfranchised groups, meaning that even though I’m a white male, I’m for the interests of women, people of colour, the disabled, transgendered people, and a lot of other historically disenfranchised groups that just kinda want a fair shake. It’s not just a political position, it’s how I approach the world. That means that on behalf of those groups I try to stand up and correct wrong ideas I see, whenever I get the chance. I consider myself a multiculturalist, and I’m proud to be, and that means I don’t believe any single group of people out there is better than the other, and I believe that we should make room for everybody who wants to live peacefully in our society even if they don’t want to conform to the exact same ideas and lifestyles and values that we have.

    The most important way for us to be allies in our everyday lives is in ordinary conversations we have in schools and workplaces, with just families and friends, we can kind of nudge conversations in the right direction or, when somebody says something racist or sexist, just tell them “that’s not cool.” When they’re people who we trust or who trust us as peers, that kind of argument is very effective. But that’s not what I’m talking about here – in this case I’m talking about blatant hate speech.

    Hate speech is different because the person saying it isn’t really open to new ideas, they don’t want to have a conversation, they’re not trying to be chummy with you and they’re not hoping to bond over a race joke or a derogatory observation about a minority group where you can just say you don’t like it and they’re like “oh okay’. Hate speech is meant to antagonize you, and to personally offend or hurt the groups of people that it’s directed at. Hate speech will take advantage of racial slurs, insults directed at an entire group of people. Hate speech will attack groups as individual people rather than just for their political positions, and will often falsely claim that the targeted groups of people are involved in conspiracies to bring all society down.

    A lot of people out there would say “why bother with a person with so much hate who clearly isn’t open to listen to you?” But I think it is important to engage them anyway. First, like I said, the Internet is a really connected place, so we would want to make sure that any of the people from one of the targeted group who happens to hear or see that conversation knows that someone is on their side. Second, we don’t want the people engaging in hate speech to feel empowered like everybody agrees with them.

    So in my life, whenever I see a hateful YouTube video, comment or blog entry, one that might use known racial slurs, make false generalizations about an ethnic group, or take a tone meant to make people feel insulted for who they are, I take a few seconds to reply and say “that’s unacceptable.” I don’t go out looking for hate speech to reply to, but I do come across it every now and then and I don’t let it go unanswered.

    Comment by changus — July 29, 2009 @ 1:24 am | Reply

    • If you decide to engage in detail, or get drawn into some conversation that you don’t want to let go – because they’re probably going to insult you for criticizing them and you’re going to be personally invested in it – there are a few important things you want to keep in mind.

      First of all, never, ever, ever, attack the hate speaker’s race, religion or identity. If, for example, you see a black woman bashing on Muslims, don’t say anything about her race. Don’t do it even if you get really, really mad, and don’t do it even if you mean it ironically just to prove a point about prejudice. Because if you do, you’re no better than she is; you’ve just subjected yourself to the same criticism for speaking hate. Also don’t say, “because you’re from a minority you should defend other minorities.” That’s a distraction and an empty argument, and a lot of groups of people say that’s a form of prejudice, because really? if she were a white person would that be somehow less bad? It doesn’t really matter what race she is, no matter what race she is, hate speech is wrong, so just focus on what she says rather than who she is saying it.

      Don’t bash on a person’s religion, either. If a Christian man is using hate speech against lesbian or gay people saying it’s commanded by his religion to condemn it, don’t attack him for being a Christian or say that Christianity is intolerant of gays or anything like that. First of all, there are a lot of gay-friendly Christians and even gay Christians who are going to be thrown off the bus by that argument. Second, even if you are convinced that somebody’s religion is just a bunch of crap, religion is an identity group, and it deserves tolerance and respect. And a person who believes in that religion is going to consider it very, very dear to them. If you tell a Christian person that their problem is Christianity, you just linked Christianity to their hateful views, and that person is more likely hang on to their hate now that it’s a matter of faith.

      Now if you want to have your own debate with someone about theology, or explain why you don’t believe in their religion, that’s okay. But don’t use it as a response to hate speech, and don’t get in theological conversations with hate groups

      And this is another extension of the idea that the problem is hate speech, not the identity of the person speaking it, but you want to point out that what the person is saying is bigoted, hurtful and wrong. Don’t call the person bigoted, hurtful and wrong. That makes the person cling harder to his or views, because now the hate speaker is defending his or her dignity rather than just the unacceptable ideas. Don’t try to psychoanalyze them or tell them “it’s the community you grew up in”, or “you’re just insecure”, or don’t tell a homophobe that they have repressed sexual desires for the same sex; that’s really tempting, but if you’re wrong, that person knows themselves better than you know them, and they’re just going feel validated and use that validation to discount your whole argument. All we know is that this person is producing hate speech and we can see the ideas for what they are, so discuss those ideas rather than getting distracted by anything else. And you can tell them that they lose all credibility in anything they want to say or argue when they’re talking in such an offensive way.

      Finally, don’t expect a person using hate speech to be converted during your conversation. If those people do change their minds ever in their lives, it’s going to take place over months or years, because those views are hard to give up. So you can engage them as much as you want – as long as you stay principled and don’t devolve into the same kind of viciousness and generalizations that they use. But if you start getting really stressed about it and it starts weighing you down and you can feel it in your soul and it’s raising your blood pressure, just step away. You don’t need to subject yourself to that, and it puts you in a place where you’re more likely to forget your bearings and just delve into personal attacks, and suddenly find yourself using the same kind of tactics that they use. If you’re getting really weighed down by it let somebody else take the charge.

      Comment by changus — July 29, 2009 @ 1:24 am | Reply

      • Anybody is capable of being a good ally to a group of people that has been targeted by slurs, hostile political arguments or conspiracy theories. Sometimes all you have to do is identify yourself as someone who opposes those views and takes the other side, and just like in an election, when a lot of people step forward and say “I’m for the other side” they prove that they have the majority and that’s a really compelling case. You just have to stick to your principles, and don’t get caught up in nonsense.

        Comment by changus — July 29, 2009 @ 1:25 am

      • Was the purpose of that just to give a word-for-word transcription of what was in the video?

        Comment by ononehand — July 29, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

      • Basically. There were probably just two paragraphs where it actually warranted it…

        … sorry for taking up so much comment space.

        Comment by changus — July 30, 2009 @ 5:17 am

      • lol it’s not so much the comment space, as I’m impressed that you’d put so much time and investment into it.

        Comment by ononehand — July 30, 2009 @ 6:16 am

      • It was actually pretty fun to do; there were a lot of good points in there, and it was very well delivered. I do have a question though: If someone does make an argument saying “My religion states that ____ is bad”, how exactly would you refute that, considering by arguing an opposite view would suggest that the religion was wrong. Is it possible to actually target the ideas, instead of the person/religion?

        Comment by changus — July 30, 2009 @ 6:30 am

      • You can tell someone his or her religious views are wrong without condemning their religious identity. I also want to draw a distinction between views that are and are not hate speech.

        Saying “my Christian faith informs me that same-sex sexual behavior is a sin” might be something to strike up a discussion with, but it’s not hate speech.

        But saying “my Christian faith informs me that homosexuals are filthy perverts” is hate speech. If they go on to make claims about lesbians or gays as people or try to argue that they are part of a conspiracy to steal babies for gay adoptions and break up families by redefining marriage – which is entirely outside of Christianity – that is also hate speech.

        Now either of these arguments are fair game for criticism. But when you do, target the hate speech directly. Say “what you are saying constitutes hate speech, and is offensive,” point out that many Christians are gay-friendly and that there are even gay Christians. Ask why most Christians – even those who believe that same-sex sexual behavior is wrong – are able to state that view without resorting to hate speech, and perhaps ask where in the Bible does Jesus tell Christians to hate homosexuals. I think it’s also fair to ask why there are so few references to homosexuality in the Bible if God really considered it worse than any other sin, like premarital sex (which is far more common, so more worthy of Christian attention) or neglect of the poor – both these things are spoken of more frequently in the Bible.

        What you should not do is say that Christians are terrible hateful bigots. You should not say that Christians are intrinsically hateful or stupid. That’s what I meant when I said you shouldn’t attack them based on their identity.

        You should also not say “God does not exist, Darwin proved that.” That’s what I consider a theological debate with a hate group. They are not even remotely open to that conversation, and it’s an endless distraction. It affirms their notion that you are out to attack their religion or are enemies of God. Instead, speak as a concerned human being who finds problems with their hate. If they want to believe in whatever crazy ideas they want – hell, they should think that God exists on a spaceship and is soon to land in Pakistan and give humanity the gift of a million slave robots – how does that crazy belief harm anyone? It doesn’t need to be addressed. What needs to be addressed is the blatant hate.

        Comment by ononehand — July 31, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

      • Thanks for that detailed answer. I guess my problem is not being able to see the difference between “my Christian faith informs me that same-sex sexual behavior is a sin” and saying “my Christian faith informs me that homosexuals are filthy perverts”

        And it’s interesting that you’ve mentioned Darwin; a good friend and I like talking to each other about our faiths, and while open to just about any topic, he would refuse to talk evolution (because he believes in it, and would not want to go into a theological debate over it).

        Comment by changus — August 1, 2009 @ 5:34 pm


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