Combating Hate Speech
The internet is making it possible for people around the world to communicate with lightning speed and, for the most part, it’s a good thing. Whether it’s keeping up with friends and family or meeting new folks across the world, connected technology has made it a lot easier for us all to share ideas and information, seek advice and much more.
And, while most of this interaction is kind and respectful, there are those who use it to demean, insult, bully and abuse. Hateful speech is horrible no matter who it’s aimed at and who witnesses it, but it’s especially troubling when it affects children and teens, who may not have the experience level or emotional maturity to compartmentalize it or know where to seek help. For some it can
not only be demeaning but affect their self-esteem, leading to depression, isolation, anger and anti-social and self-destructive behavior.
This guide is aimed, in part, at parents and educators, seeking to prevent children under their care from experiencing or engaging in hate speech as well as dealing with it in healthy ways when they encounter it. But it’s not just for child caregivers. Hate speech can affect people of any age, including adults, which is why we’re also recommending this guide for affected adults, law enforcement, the medical/mental health community, clergy and anyone else dealing with the impact of hate speech.
Hate speech is more than just harsh words. It can be any form of expression intended to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or class of people. It can occur offline or online or both. It can be communicated using words, symbols, images, memes, emojis and video.
Memes, for example, may be images or images with words that appear to be humorous or even cute, like the white supremacists use of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon-like character that doesn’t inherently have racist or anti-Semitic meaning. Those who traffic in hateful memes may dismiss concerns by saying “we’re only kidding” or “it’s a joke,” but in context, hateful memes can have meaning to those who traffic in hate speech. Cartoons that depict ethnic or religious groups or even genders in “humorous” ways can – but are not always – be an example of hateful memes.
A dog whistle is a word or phrase that may seem innocuous to some but have a specific meaning to certain groups of people. The words themselves may not seem hateful, but they can be interpreted as such. In some contexts, “nationalism,” can be a euphemism for racism or anti-immigrant bias. That doesn’t mean that everyone who espouses nationalism is racist or anti-immigrant, but the word is sometimes used in that context. Pointing out names of one or more prominent members of a racial or religious group could be a legitimate criticism of that person but it could also be a dog whistle pandering to hatred of the group. Using derogatory words, even if the word itself is not a racial or ethnic slur, can be hateful speech. Examples include using words like “animals” or “invaders” to describe immigrants; comparing people to “trash” or “garbage”; or alluding to certain groups of ethnic minorities as cockroaches or diseases, as was done in the Rwandan genocide.
In general, online hate speech targets a person or group because of characteristics tied closely to their identity, like race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or sexual identity.
Unlike most other countries, there is no legal definition of hate speech in the United States. Most hateful language is protected, therefore legal, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to be free from government interference in speech. But, even under the First Amendment, hate speech is unprotected and not permitted when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or includes specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group. Many other countries have laws on hate speech. Europe passed anti-hate speech laws in the wake of World War II, to curb incitement to racial, ethnic, and religious hatred after the Holocaust. French law, for example, prohibits public and private communication that is defamatory or insulting, or that incites discrimination, hatred, or violence against a person or group on account of place of origin, ethnicity or lack thereof, nationality, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or disability. In Germany, Volksverhetzung (“incitement to hatred”) is an offense punishable by up to five years in prison. Since 2017, Germany has criminalized hate speech on social media sites, stating that social networking sites may be fined up to €50 million Euros ($56 million U.S. dollars) if they persistently fail to remove illegal content within a week.
Advocates for laws against hate speech argue that they are compatible with protections on freedom of speech because under all legal codes and international human rights protections, freedom of expression has limitations. As noted above, even the First Amendment does not protect certain types of unprotected speech, like incitement to violence, child pornography and provocations such as yelling “fire” in a theatre.