SCOTT COOPER uses the research and methodology of RACHEL BROWN to discuss how to enter into a dialogue with someone who may be engaging in dangerous speech or hate speech in order to promote positive and constructive change.
In today’s highly polarized political climate, it seems that hate speech, dangerous speech, and repercussions related to such types of speech are becoming increasingly prevalent and visible. In 2015, the number of ant-Muslim hate crimes rose 67 percent.
And from then until now—directly coinciding with Donald Trump’s campaign and election—the number of ant-Muslim hate groups has risen 197 percent, with 101 hate groups currently in operation across the U.S. These statistics exemplify the direct manifestations of hate speech—defend as targeted speech aimed at directly harming a group—and dangerous speech—defend as any form of expression that increases the likelihood that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of a certain group. The impact of both is highly significant as they directly influence and play on popular attunes, emotions, social norms, behaviors, experiences, and the interpretations of problems and formulation of solutions. Thus, when tempting to constructively counteract dangerous speech and its manifestations, a number of steps must be taken for effective Acton.
First, it is necessary to assess the situation so that one may tailor solutions to the specific set of problems he or she is confronted with. In assessing the context, we must ask, What content is being created? Who is tapping into such content? How is the content being spread? In answering these questions, it becomes easier for us to not only know what we are up against but how we can analyze and counteract that rhetoric. To do this, we must first ask, Who in the audience can we engage with? How can we reach the larger audience? and How can we reach maximum engagement? Addressing these questions will allow us to identify modes of transmission and communication and points of connection within the groups we hope to reach. Once the context and the situation are assessed, we can most effectively join in a dialogue that may promote positive and constructive change.
When entering into such a dialogue, it is important for us to be wary of a number of factors:
Consider the Person’s Emotions
People who take part in hate speech are probably experiencing fear, parochial empathy, anger, disgust, or a combination of these emotions. We must listen to them in a nonjudgmental way, validate these emotions, and attempt to move them forward from these emotions in a more constructive, less damaging way. We must realize that in order to help someone back away from hate or dangerous speech, we need to give them a way to feel a sense of belonging to an alternative narrative.
Remember that Changing Beliefs is Hard
As humans, we can be very set in our ways and people may react strongly when asked to reconsider personal values and opinions that they hold central to their identity and being. This type of challenging information can be understood as a psychological threat. It is important to try to understand their self-image and what triggers are connected to that image. When presenting your perspective and information, it is most productive to frame it using the values, beliefs, and emotions that the person you’re engaging with already holds. You can use storytelling as a device to open people to new perspectives that they wouldn’t usually be open to in an argument.
Respect that People Have “Sticky Identites”
As humans, we have “sticky identities,” meaning that we have parts of our identity that we feel we cannot change. Those who participate in hate speech may feel that their core identity is under attack by some outside group. One way to ameliorate this reality is by understanding and respecting people’s grievances (for example, economic or political grievances) and providing them with alternative ways to address those grievances (for example, through collective civic engagement). In addition, we must avoid shaming people, as this will likely increase their defenses and isolate them from our perspective.
Hate speech is, more often than not, predicated upon misinformation and misinterpretation. The best way to combat the spread of misinformation is to catch it and correct it early; however, this is not always the most realistic solution. When directly confronting the misinformation, it is beneficial to avoid negative framing (for example, by saying that something did “not” happen) and repetition of falsehoods. Doing these will continue to give legitimacy to the misinformation, even though you are trying to correct it. When correcting, the most effective way to undermine the credibility of the source of misinformation, use positive framing, make sure the correction comes from a trusted source, and offer reinterpretations of the existing evidence used to back up the misinformation. If you offer additional evidence, check your facts! Make sure the source is credible and will benefit your contribution.
Acknowledge the Impact of Social Norms
We are continuously affected by the social norms that exist all around us. The awareness of these norms may cause us to be influenced by social pressure and norms based on identities. Social norm perceptions make it difficult for someone to speak out against hate speech for they believe that most people in their personal group approve of such speech. Or someone may be unable to identify the danger of participating in hate speech as it is perceived as the norm. Help make it safe for people to speak up, either by correcting misperceptions (for example, someone might think his or her peers approve of dangerous speech when in reality they don’t) or providing alternative spaces for people to speak out with social support.
In the U.S. today, an “us versus them” narrative colors some interpersonal relationships, especially with Muslims in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. This rhetoric contributes to a vicious cycle of dehumanization as well as a push for collective blame and guilt atribution—blaming all members of a group for the actions of a few, which often leads to people being expected to apologize for the actions of others of their group. In order to combat this narrative and the dangerous speech that has grown out of it, our solutions must directly counteract this dehumanization process. Through respect for people’s various identities and the channeling of emotions and passion toward positive outlets, may we find a common ground upon which a conversation may take place.