Confronting Hate Speech Head On

Avoiding the Kindness Trap

We have all observed the increasing presence of hateful and denigrating language. With the upcoming International Day for Countering Hate Speech (June 18), the United Nations (UN) has renewed their campaign, “Say #NoToHate”, with a set of resources to help individuals, organizations and states identify and more proactively confront hate speech. We applaud this effort. What is more, we would like to add a word of caution about a common mistaken assumption in responses to hate speech, and share four tips for how your organization can respond to hate speech and other debasing narratives.

The information and tools provided by the UN in this context are robust, and convincingly demonstrate the danger of hate speech, which can be directly linked to violence against minoritized and excluded communities. The international organization also recognizes the way hate speech functions in society—once certain ways of speaking are common, it is hard to pull back from that norm, and people become desensitized to the way the language normalizes outgroup vilification. These dynamics are also relevant for other bigoted, racist, or xenophobic language and narratives that may not fit directly with the legal definition of hate speech.

Surprisingly, a false dichotomy that we often encounter when people or organizations respond to hateful rhetoric is the prescription to listen, show tolerance, empathy, respect and love. But let us say it loud and clear: We cannot confront hate speech with kindness.

Listening, empathy, respect and love are important, but not tools for dismantling hate speech. This is because hate speech is not about a lack of understanding. Tolerance cannot deconstruct and highlight the harmful impacts of hate speech. This is a common and inadequate approach that deserves further attention to help us all avoid it. 

As Ibram X. Kendi explains, racism—a prime example illustrating hateful narratives—is driven by “interests not ignorance”. The same goes for the larger category of hate speech and denigrating narratives which imply that certain groups of people are less human, and therefore less deserving of rights, protections and wellbeing. Interests are attached to resources, opportunities, power—essentially all that is political.

We agree wholeheartedly with the UN’s recommendation that in response to hate speech, organizations must adopt “counter communications”—essentially a pro-active narrative strategy. We know that hate speech is not simply mean things people say, but rather dehumanizing language that fosters the belief that racialized and minoritized groups are dangerous, problematic or inherently unintelligent. Hate speech can only be effectively met with narratives that recognize the full humanity of historically targeted communities. Here is how we suggest constructing your organization’s responses to hate speech:

Recommendations to Confront Hate Speech

  1. Directly name the way the specific language dehumanizes others or implies debasing foundational assumptions. For example: “This social media post is promoting hate speech. It dehumanizes undocumented immigrants by calling them illegal aliens. Human beings are not illegal, but some actions are. Seeking safety and asylum shouldn’t be.”
  2. Avoid the simplistic hate/love dichotomy, and reorient communications to recognize histories of injustice and power imbalances. People and groups who are the target of hate speech don’t need others to be kind to them. More people need to recognize and reject the use of language built on injustice, intolerance of difference and othering. We must use language to collectively contribute to increased equity and recognition of common humanity

    For example: Recently a white male student used racist tropes to heckle a Black female student participating in a protest at the University of Mississippi by jumping up and down in front of her making monkey noises. Some outlets and individuals framed this event as bad behavior by a young man. His fraternity demonstrated this logic even in their response condemning the act  when they stated: “The racist actions in the video were those of an individual and are antithetical to the values of Phi Delta Theta and the Mississippi Alpha chapter.”

    However, those racist actions draw on a history of oppression, violence and injustice perpetrated by groups and institutions, justified and upheld by dehumanizing language and logics. Instead, when confronting hate speech, we must use our communications opportunities to recognize the long history of anti-Black dehumanizing tropes, and the power and privilege at work that allow for this type of behavior to emerge in the public space today. For example, a more effective statement from the fraternity to counter the hate-based communication would have been: “The racist actions in that video were all the more problematic as we know they draw on a long history of anti-Black tropes which have historically allowed violence against Black people. We strongly condemn these actions as antithetical to the values we strive to achieve.”
  3. Tolerance is not a substitute for justice. However, it is often framed as a key solution to address issues that flow from hate. This is likely in response to the shared understanding that intolerance is a form of hate. The reality is, opposites do not necessarily provide effective solutions. Tolerance implies someone in a dominant position effectively putting up with others. It centers the person whose experience is defined as normative. This is an objectionable framework in and of itself. We aspire to generate communications beyond tolerance—to use language to promote solidarity, equity and human flourishing.

    Tolerance can be useful in one instance relating to hate speech: when it is understood in the context of power relations. As an alternative to outright censorship—which can in itself magnify the impact of hate-based speech—people in privileged positions and or with power can engage with those spreading hate speech in order to debunk, contest and generally trouble the assumptions underlying it. 

    Communicating from a Narrative Justice approach means carefully distinguishing how your organization approaches tolerance, to ensure, for example, that the responsibility of educating those using ableist, antisemitic, Islamophobic or xenophobic language does not fall on the people dehumanized by it. For example, as an ally supporting the LGBTQ+ community, you can educate yourself on the language used by hate-based groups to attack rights, and protect, among other things, the freedoms of people who identify as queer. This goes beyond—and is different from—tolerance: you are actively seeking to better your understanding of the communications you are encountering and to adopt alternative framings and vocabulary that recognize shared humanity. 
  4. Provide an alternative. When we confront hate speech, it’s a moment of heightened language awareness for everyone present. Let’s use that to our advantage to shift language possibilities. This can be done through refinement (i.e., distilling what you want to say), consistency of message and creating urgency on your topic.

    Remember, in the same way we respond to language that we find triggering, there is an opportunity for your audiences to emotionally connect with language that reflects who they are or what they want to see. As organizations working toward positive social change, sometimes we forget that people can’t always articulate the messages they support with language that advances their cause. Your organization needs to provide people with the language of social change and justice. Intuitively, once people hear language that reflects their point of view, they can then represent it within their communities or circles of influence. That is incredibly useful for building support for equity and recognizing the dignity of the people around us.

As you and your organization continue to navigate the landscape leading up to the 2024 US presidential election, you will likely have many opportunities to address hate speech. We encourage you to check out the UN’s comprehensive resources. Just remember, to drive a Narrative Justice approach in your responses to hate speech, name dehumanizing language, avoid the love/hate dichotomy, advocate for tolerance if contextualized with power and privilege, and provide easily adoptable narratives to trouble and delegitimize hateful messages.

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