Hate Speech – The Essence of the Problem

The mosque in Kruszyniany. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The mosque in Kruszyniany. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Opposing hate speech will probably have no tangible effect on those who spread it. It will, however, introduce an alternative narrative into realms that sorely lack it and which young audiences happen to draw upon. Failing that, the radicalization of young people — as evidenced by latest polling data on LGBT and Jewish communities and the results of the most recent elections — will proceed unencumbered.

A calm night in June. Ramadan is about to begin. Millions of soccer fans are glued to their TVs, watching another astonishing display of football mastery courtesy of James Rodriguez, Colombia’s midfielder. Not everyone is focused on the match, though — deep in the Podlasie countryside, a group of unidentified perpetrators pays a visit to the village of Kruszyniany, leaving tangible reminders of their sojourn on the local mosque and Muslim cemetery: a drawing of a pig and vulgar graffiti defacing the wooden facade of the mosque and cemetery headstones.

The act inspired righteous indignation on both sides of the political spectrum, including such opinion-making circles like the National Movement and their competitors on the extreme right, National Revival of Poland. The efforts of representatives of the Polish Defence League to distance their organization from the hoodlums suspected of committing the act were much less determined. Obviously, no one wanted to assume any sort of responsibility for the situation, and I will refrain from recounting theories as to who defaced the mosque and the cemetery (ranging from “leftist provocation” to “actions of Zionist operatives”) out of respect for the intellect of our dear readers.

It is, however, impossible to fail to draw an analogy between the crude drawing of a pig on the side of the mosque and the oft-repeated Internet-borne urban legend about a Spanish mosque, whose construction was halted unknown parties after they allegedly dug under the foundation of the temple to bury… a porcine carcass, as Islamic jurisprudence considers pigs to be “unclean.” Such stories are often brought up on Internet foruns whenever Islam comes up as a subject of discussion. Supporters of the aforementioned right-wing organizations are the most vocal when it comes to parroting the story, as clearly evidenced by their arguments about the stance their organizations should assume towards the acts of vandalism in Kruszyniany. For people observing these discussions from the outside — an attack on the Tatar community in Poland was just a question of time.

That is exactly how hate speech works. Polish Internet forums give rise to a very specific picture of an average Muslim: a bearded man (or a burqa-clad woman subjugated to the will of a man) who immigrated to Europe to abuse the goodwill and generosity of local social services, an al-Qaeda sympathizer who hates Christians and whose numerous offspring is secretly a pool of future recruits for terrorist organizations. Obviously, we cannot ignore their secret and deviant sexual proclivities for young children and animals — Internet-dwelling opponents of Islam have already perfected the art of scrutinizing these behaviors and found all followers of the Prophet guilty, from the innocuous Mr. Mohammed living in the Stockholm suburbs and up to the Prophet himself. 

Clichés like these are nothing new. Ancient Athenians used similar speech to discuss Athenians, the dwellers of civilized poleis employed them against Macedonians, while all Greeks (including the Macedonians) used them to denigrate the Persians, and so forth and so on ever since the dawn of mankind’s history. If we look at the way Jews were depicted by anti-Semitic propaganda of the 1920s and 1930s, the only thing that distinguishes these portrayals from the more modern ones is that the former were less focused on the purported sexual deviations. The dehumanized, demonized Jew became an easy target for a broad range of attacks. Is there any reason to think that societies which are falling victim to dehumanization today will suffer a different fate?

In demonizing the Other and ascribing to him the responsibility for a host of different problems lies the essence of hate speech. In our examinations of the issue of hate speech, we often erroneously use freedom of speech as the basis for discussion — assuming, to some extent, that each belief we are capable of expressing should be considered a value in and of itself. The primary problem, however, does not lie in our capability for discussion. Associating the issue of hate speech with the matter of freedom of speech is related to the reduction of the former — an approach that, unfortunately, governments often employ in their strategies of combating the problem — to provisions and regulations of the criminal code. The belief that jailing someone for their speech is wrong is basically a truism. However, David Irving and his ilk will not falter in their convictions because of a ruling issued by an Austrian court (Especially if we’re willing to jail Holocaust deniers while still negotiating — on the EU and intergovernmental level — with people negating that the Armenian Genocide ever happened).

The legal consequences are a necessary yet not the most important measure — the essence of countering hate speech lies in opposing its expression, in decisive demonstration of its undesirability in the public discourse. Maybe persons spreading hate speech will not be the wiser for it; however, an alternative narrative will be provided for young people who cannot find other options in the spaces available to them. A consequence of the above-mentioned absence is the progressing radicalization of young people, as evidenced by polls of high school youth on their attitudes towards LGBT and Jewish communities, as well as the results of the most recent elections. A person with a penchant for extreme sports like reading discussions on popular web portals and social media will have no doubt as to which attitudes can be considered dominant in such circles.

We will not be able to counter hate speech if we do not concede one simple truth: every one of us has a right to their own beliefs, but each position taken in the public discourse has to be thoroughly backed up. If someone believes that a rise in immigration causes a rise in unemployment numbers, that person assumes the responsibility of proving the market experts pointing out a lack of correlation between the two wrong. If someone believes that there is an inordinately high number of people with pedophiliac proclivities among gay people, that person should be required to prove, in a credible way that complies with the methodological assumptions of both sciences, that the claims of pre-eminent sexologists and psychologists, established over decades of scientific work, are, simply put, incorrect. If someone believes that women are less predisposed to performing certain tasks due to their gender — they should only be allowed to make their findings public only after conducting authoritative research whose results would lend credibility to their claim.

In each of the above-mentioned cases, a thorough examination of the realities would result in our disavowal of the thesis we put forth. The introduction of such notions into the public discourse is, more often than not, a result of the desire to punch up the readership and “clickability” numbers or the wish to promote oneself through the dissemination of unproven claims. A mob whipped into a frenzy by uncorroborated claims of Islamic conspiracies is just as dangerous as the one incited to action by claims of blood libel and ritual murder of Christian children. Thus, the true source of hate speech lies in the quality of the contemporary public debate. It is much easier to include a warning against a Jewish/Islamic/gender threat in a 140-character-long tweet than it is to thoroughly examine the important issues. It is absolutely necessary to establish positive methods of countering hate speech. Understanding the language employed by contemporary Internet haters seems to be the most important challenge we’re facing today. Social media activity — as hateful content can most often be found on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — cannot be limited to back-and-forth discussions and attempts to counter accusations put forth by hate speech peddlers. First of all, we need to question and subvert the false perspectives these people introduce into the discourse: the threat of Islamization, the threat of gender, the decline and fall of white societies. As long as we lend legitimacy to these sorts of slogans, we will not be able to hold normal discussions.

Reducing the problem of hate speech to nothing more than a conflict built around the issue of freedom of speech can be nowadays considered a somewhat archaic approach. It applies to people concerned about threats to freedom of speech (disregarding whether their concern stems from genuine liberalism or their love for spouting hate speech) as well as those who consider the multiplication of legal recourses the only solution to the problem. Both parties are blind to the essence of the issue. 

The greatest challenge we are currently facing is stopping the veritable explosion of hate, hate that always begins with words — something that we would do well to remember.