I previously wrote for this Smerconish.com about why I teach a college class about hate speech. Part of that class – the substantial part – is about what we can do about hate speech.
So what can we do? Every year, I hear students express what amounts to fighting hate with more hate, one of them proudly stating when a boy in her high school made fun of one of her friends, she responded by making fun of his appearance. Another student responded by playfully suggesting the class get shirts that say “Fight Hate With Hate.” We have seen this all too frequently on college campuses, where students shout down speakers, including administrators, so they and everyone else will not hear what those people want to say. We see the same thing with “fully grown adults” across the political spectrum. Fighting hate with hate leads to more hatred – on both or perhaps all sides.
There are better ways.
Here are some things we can all do:
Educating ourselves and promoting awareness among others is an essential first step. Integrate lessons, discussions, and programs in all aspects of your life, as well as schools and universities, through peer education programs and mentoring, workshops and training sessions, guest speaker presentations from people with lived experience with hate speech, and media literacy and online programs.
We can enact laws as well. Although the First Amendment protects hate speech, certain types, such as incitement to violence and discourse that incites immediate lawless action, are not covered. Given these openings, laws can be changed to address help speech. Our lawmakers can also require social media to implement or improve reporting mechanisms and action plans to address online and offline speech. In addition, we can provide better police training to enable them to respond to unlawful hate speech more effectively. Finally, we could give victims civil remedies and financial penalties to use against hate speech perpetrators.
Many people place a lot of responsibility on social media. Much can be done there as well. Social media companies can make it easier to report hate speech and provide efficient, swift, and transparent responses, including sanctions against hate speakers. Social media sites can independently address the problem through updated and more effective use of algorithms and AI to detect and flag hate speech and trained content moderators to review reported and flagged hate speech and address it.
Another way to combat hate speech is by engaging the different communities in our society in a collective effort to both foster understanding of other points of view and, through dialogues, workshops, and training sessions, provide people with the knowledge and tools to recognize and effectively respond to hate speech, through cooperation, not confrontation. Civic engagement – including our youth – is crucial and can include community dialogues, town meetings, bystander intervention training, volunteering, and other activities. Anyone can do this and choose their level of involvement. However, influencers, opinion leaders, and community leaders must get involved. Only a few days ago, on May 25, the White House released “The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,” which reflects this kind of approach to hate speech.
Promoting positive speech and dialogue is crucial. We need to lead by example, using empathetic and respectful language in our online and face-to-face interactions. Educate others about the impact of words and the value of positive communication. Encourage empathy by considering different perspectives. Create spaces for open dialogue to foster understanding and bridge differences. Embrace diversity and challenge stereotypes. Recognize and reinforce positive speech and behaviors. Promote media literacy and provide tools for conflict resolution.
Lest we forget, the mainstream media, which often spends more time fanning the flames than anything else, has a significant role to play. First and foremost is journalistic ethics, but we must admit that when it comes to hate, the only “sides” are right and wrong. The mainstream media must accept and understand that and provide the training, diversity, editorial power, and journalistic guidelines to back that up. We’ve known this for years. In December 2017, Brookings released a report, How To Combat Fake News and Disinformation, in which it noted that news organizations should “call out fake news and disinformation without legitimizing it.”
We also need to help and support victims. Hate speech hurts. Too often, we ignore the victims. But they need our help. There are many ways to do this, including the provision of counseling and emotional support from professionals and peers, legal assistance, including advocacy on behalf of victims, educating people about the damage caused by hate speech, providing and publicizing support networks and peer groups, and getting our parents and our schools to provide safe spaces and help for victims. Resource databases and public advocacy will also help. The Justice Department-funded Victim Connect Resource Center provides information and assistance to victims of hate crimes. There is no reason it could not also provide the same support to victims of hate speech.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Ghandi.
Sandy Bohrer was a First Amendment lawyer for almost 50 years and co-wrote a children’s book with his daughter, Jessica, also a First Amendment lawyer, about freedom of speech called, “Your Voice is Your Superpower: A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom of Speech (and the First Amendment).”