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Hate speech and bullying often overlap. Bullying, whether in-person or online, is defined as repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Often, but not always, bullying can involve demeaning a person based on characteristics such as their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or body image. In some of these cases, depending on the motivation and content of the aggression, bullying could also be defined as hate speech. In these cases, bullying takes on an especially harmful dimension.

Hate speech can harm individuals, communities and societies. Research focused on the impact of racial, ethnic, religious, gendered, and LGBTQ hate speech finds that the targets of hate speech can experience negative emotional, mental, and physical consequences.

These can include low self-worth, anxiety, fear for their lives, and even self-harm or suicide. Hate speech harms our relationships with each other. It interferes with our ability to communicate with others and to empathize. Because it often relies on stereotypes and scapegoating, it negatively impacts our ability to address the root causes of social problems. Therefore hate speech can also harm communities, even when it targets individuals.

Online hate speech has resulted in serious offline harms. The theory of “dangerous speech,” as developed by Susan Benesch, explains that some types of hate speech are prone to incite violence. This “dangerous speech” follows specific patterns that cross societies, time periods, and type of targeted group. Recently, dangerous speech in online contexts, specifically on social media, has resulted in deaths in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. But there have also been examples in the U.S., such as the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where the perpetrator had engaged in online hate speech prior to his crimes. Although not everyone who engages in hate speech commits violent crimes, many people who commit hate crimes point to hate speech on the internet as their inspiration for such acts.

Hate speech harms everyone. Expressions of hate against minority populations can be used to normalize discrimination, outbreaks of hate crimes, and targeted violence. Even for those who simply witness it, hate speech harms our ability to effectively process information. Many examples of online disinformation are centered around exploiting social struggles around race and ethnicity, deepening these social rifts through use of hate speech. This is designed to inflame our emotions and prevent us from evaluating the truth or falsity of the claim.

Not all negative speech is hate speech. You could, for example, disagree with a religious doctrine or policy without being hateful. You could be opposed to a government whose citizens widely practice a particular religion or are from a dominant ethnic group without being hateful to that group. You could criticize customs practiced by different groups without necessarily demeaning individuals in those groups or threatening their well-being.

You can certainly disagree or criticize a public official or any other person without it being hate speech. However, there are certain types of speech that cross the line, For example, it is perfectly okay to criticize the views of Jewish, African American or LGBTQ leaders, but sometimes those criticisms are framed in a way designed to imply that the criticism is based, at least in part, on their identity rather than what they say or how they act. This can be nuanced, and sometimes hard to prove, but it is an important distinction.

People create hate speech for a variety of reasons. Sometimes hateful speech can reflect a person’s genuine political beliefs or distaste for a group of people. Hate speech can also be a product of lack of knowledge, experience, or reflection if the speakers come from an environment where slurs are commonplace. Speakers may be unfamiliar with members of a targeted group, and not realize they are stereotyping or using language that could be considered hateful. They may also lack knowledge about the relevant facts. One example could be a person who uses a slur referring to a religious stereotype, without any personal knowledge of the beliefs of that religion or the history of discrimination toward that group. Perhaps they have a good reason to dislike specific people from that group and falsely assume that most people from that group have the same negative characteristics.

Other times speakers may be engaged in “trolling” or being intentionally provocative to illicit a response from other people. This is commonly seen on the internet, where so-called “trolls” engage in this behavior as a pastime. Sometimes hate speech can be simply out of ignorance, such as uttering an ethnic slur – without even knowing it’s a slur and might be offensive and hurtful.

Finally, hate speech is dependent upon context. What may be hate speech in one context can be innocent or even positive when used in other contexts. There are, for example, terms that are generally considered to be hateful when used by someone outside the targeted group that can be used as a term of endearment within the group. There are also words that start out as derogatory, like “queer” and “Chicano” that have been adopted and repurposed as affirming terms by members of the affected group.