The United Nations, responding to the alarming rise in hate speech internationally—targeting Jews, Christians, Muslims, Scientologists, immigrants, Blacks, Asians and many others—proclaimed June 18, 2022, as the first annual International Day for Countering Hate Speech.
No longer in the shadows, hate speech has emerged into the mainstream. It infects democracies and dictatorships alike. Often spread through the carrier wave of the internet, fed by lies and fear, hate speech can be mild or blatant, shrill or subtle. It can mask itself as wit or earnest sincerity. Many who use hate speech call it free speech, which is like saying that battery acid is the same as water because they’re both liquids.
The United Nations defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor. This is often rooted in, and generates, intolerance and hatred and, in certain contexts, can be demeaning and divisive.”
Most of the ills of humanity begin with verbalized hate.
Hate speech can go unpunished as long as the factor of incitement is absent. “Incitement” means what has been said has been weaponized for discrimination, violence, hostility and any hate crime, atrocity or torture. The casual acceptance of hate speech in our society—the “harmless” ethnic joke, the “innocent” defamatory epithet, the snickering snide comment—has a long history. But it seems that only recently, with the explosion of the internet and social media giving us all a megaphone, has it come under international scrutiny.
The fact is that—contrary to the “aw, you’re so sensitive, can’t you take a joke?” justification—most of humanity’s ills begin with verbalized hate. Such ills include terrorism, domestic violence, human rights violations and the decline of cultures. It’s difficult to look at a screen or monitor without seeing a form of sponsored hate speech. Former sitcom-actress-turned-fountain-of-bile Leah Remini discovered hate speech was an easy cash cow. Her TV venom-fest resulted in over 600 threats and acts of violence against Scientologists, and contributed to one murder. In 2018, five Jehovah’s Witness congregations experienced attacks and arson after the announcement that Remini was going to attack their religion in her next season.
Sickened by her bigotry and not wishing to be associated with the blood on her hands, Remini’s sponsors abandoned her in droves, resulting in the unlamented demise of her hate program.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres wrote, “Tackling hate speech is… crucial to deepen progress across the United Nations agenda by helping to prevent armed conflict, atrocity crimes and terrorism, end violence against women and other serious violations of human rights, and promote peaceful, inclusive and just societies… Today, I fear, we have reached another acute moment in battling this demon, and so I have asked my Senior Advisors to explore what more we can do.”
The result is a Strategy and Plan of Action which addresses hate speech around the world. The Strategy involves commitment on an international, national, local, community and individual level. “Tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all,” the plan states. “Starting with individual women and men. All are responsible. All must act.”
The Strategy involves, among other things, engaging with new and traditional media, analyzing the root causes and drivers of hate speech and using education as the best prevention of hate and the best promoter of understanding.
Can free speech drive out hate speech? Can education bridge the gap, bringing about an intolerance of hate speech within each of us?
It’s a start, at least, and who knows how far it may go if we take the UN’s exhortation to heart: “All are responsible. All must act.”