Why I Teach “Hate Speech”

No, it is not a “how to” course. There’s more than enough of that already. I teach the course because those of us who do not hate to have a moral obligation to spread the word that we can do without it in a non-confrontational way. I do it to hopefully inspire young people, as I’ve been inspired, to want to get out there and do good. As one of my favorite people, the late Chesterfield Smith, used to say, we can all be “doing well by doing good.”


It is not true that sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you. Words hurt and hateful words can really hurt. And we need to talk about it.


All over the world, and of course all over America, people have “weaponized” language to make themselves feel better about themselves by denigrating or demonizing someone else. We need to deescalate peacefully and effectively.


We are one of a small number of countries that do not ban or criminalize hate speech. Here, the First Amendment protects the speaker, and the media seem to repeat every insult, amplifying them. All kinds of people use hate, and we need to accept the fact it is not just “those people” we disagree with who are fomenting it. Hate speech comes from all directions. The attacks on “right-wing” speakers by students from the left on our college campuses are as much a threat to us as what the students believed those speakers intended to say. Twice only recently, students used violence to get colleges to cancel speakers. Conservative speaker event at UC Davis canceled after brawl – The Washington Post


We claim the “marketplace of ideas” will weed out the “bad” speech, but it hasn’t happened yet, so for one semester in one class here at the University of Miami School of Communication, we talk about it: racism, religious prejudice, gender, misogyny, sexual orientation, politics, cancel culture, etc. And we talk about how to change things. If you look online, it appears almost no one is teaching how to critically understand the world around us, and how to peacefully and respectfully effect change. At the end of the day, hate speech is simply morally wrong, and more of us need to speak out against it. That means approaching those who engage in hate speech in a positive way.


I usually begin my class with three things from three different genres to try to get the attention of the mostly privileged 20- and 21-year-olds in my class: A song by country singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson, called “Jesus Was a Capricorn”, in which he sings, “Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on. Prove they can be better than at any time they please.” (No, they’ve never heard of him.) Next, I play a song called “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” from a coming-of-age Broadway show called Avenue Q, the name of the song is self-explanatory. Finally, the line from Arthur Miller’s play, “Incident at Vichy”: “Each man has his Jew: it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews.” And minds do open.


We talk about “tolerance,” but as most thoughtful people know, tolerance is not acceptance of other people with whatever their differences are; it is simply a nonviolent allowance of their existence – until they bother you, like by asking for equity and not simply equality, when the truth is, equality without equity is not equality at all, but a way of making the folks who already “have” the equality feel good about themselves.


The class is a positive experience about what we can do. We talk about ways of communicating with people we see as responsible for hate speech that will help. For example, instead of “cancel culture,” we talk about “call in” culture. We watch a wonderful presentation by Loretta J. Ross about how much more effective it might be to be calling in instead of calling out people. Loretta J. Ross: Don’t call people out — call them in | TED – YouTube


We talk about strategies for having positive conversations with people we know who say something we perceive as hateful – strategies that do not involve confrontation, but instead conversation. We will be talking about hate speech and propaganda, and the big lie, from Goebbels to Orwell to today, and how to counter it. We will also talk about the very recently published study by Professor Landry at Stanford (and others) which provides evidence-based proof that the demonizing and dehumanization that characterizes conflicts between groups here in America can be reversed. We can get closer. We can reduce confrontation. We can reduce hate. We talk about the “silos” people exist in and how that kind of echo chamber existence fosters hate. We also work on some skills, like critical thinking, meaning keeping an open mind, being aware of our own biases and prejudices, and testing our thoughts as objectively as we can when we talk about these subjects. I also provide students with some help in how to speak so people listen and how to listen, not simply hear, what someone else is saying.


I teach “Hate Speech” because I believe we can be better.


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.”

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