When hate speech is dangerous speech

The terror attack on Christchurch has ignited the debate about hate speech and censorship. Quote.

The terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques, in which 50 people were killed, have brought questions of whether New Zealand is doing enough to legislate against racial and religiously-motivated attacks to the fore. For those in minority advocacy groups, and the Human Rights Commission, the answer is a clear no.

Stuff end quote.

Last year Massey University quietly dabbled in a study of hate speech. Quote.

Staff from the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Netsafe, and UNESCO began meeting with researchers and Government departments in an attempt to understand if New Zealand’s hate speech laws were strong and relevant enough in an age of cyber-abuse and rising online tribalism.

Proponents of free speech were incensed. The public conversation swirled. 

The taskforce quietly disbanded.

“We dropped the work,” says distinguished professor Paul Spoonley, of Massey University, who wrote a briefing paper for the group last year.?”There just seemed to be no public appetite for change, and we didn’t think we’d get anywhere. End of quote.

It’s true there is no public appetite for curtailing free speech, but since when does the academic left give up so easily? They probably didn’t. It is quite likely that they gave the report to the government with a request to change existing free speech laws so they can introduce a new hate speech law because Andrew Little is wanting to do just that. Quote.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has signalled his agreement, telling Stuff in March he would fast-track a review of the existing legislation governing hate speech primarily the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

end quote.

Because the definition of hate speech varies from person to person it is impossible for free speech law and hate speech laws to work together. One law must dominate the other because banning defined hate speech will impinge on someone else’s free speech.

This government will be forced to choose between hate speech and free speech and my fear is that they will throw free speech under the bus.

This government does not have to let an act of terrorism destroy our freedom. They could instead examine the sort of speech that motivates and incites terrorism, and fortunately for them, someone has already done it. quote.

Dangerous Speech is any form of expression (speech, text, or images) that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of another group. We have observed striking similarities in the rhetoric that leaders use to provoke violence in completely different countries, cultures, and historical periods.

One of these rhetorical hallmarks or recurring patterns in Dangerous Speech is dehumanization, or referring to people in another group as insects, despised or dangerous animals, bacteria, or cancer. More hallmarks are listed below. Rhetoric alone can’t make speech dangerous, though; the context in which it is communicated is just as important. One can capture that context, and analyze speech for dangerousness, by asking about five aspects of the speech:

Speaker:  Did the message come from an influential speaker?

Audience: Was the audience susceptible to an inflammatory message, e.g. because they were already fearful or resentful?

Message: Does the speech carry hallmarks of Dangerous Speech? The hallmarks are:

Dehumanization. Describing other people in ways that deny or diminish their humanity, for example by comparing them to disgusting or deadly animals, insects, bacteria, or demons. Crucially, this makes violence seem acceptable.

Accusation in a mirror. Asserting that the audience faces serious and often mortal threats from the target group – in other words, reversing reality by suggesting that the victims of a genocide will instead commit it. The term accusation in a mirror was found in a guide for making propaganda, discovered in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

Accusation in a mirror makes violence seem necessary by convincing people that they face a mortal threat, which they can fend off only with violence. This is a very powerful rhetorical move since it is the collective analogue of the one ironclad defense to murder: self-defense. If people feel violence is necessary for defending themselves, their group, and especially their children, it seems not only justified but virtuous.

Assertion of attack on women/girls. Suggesting that women or girls of the audience’s group have been threatened, harassed, or defiled by members of a target group. In many cases, the purity of a group’s women is symbolic of the purity of the group itself, or of its identity or way of life.

Coded language. Including phrases and words that have a special meaning, shared by the speaker and audience. The speaker is therefore capable of communicating two messages, one understood by those with knowledge of the coded language and one understood by everyone else. This can make the speech more dangerous in a few ways. For example, the coded language could be deeply rooted in the audience members sense of identity or shared history and therefore evoke disdain for an opposing group. It can also make the speech harder to identify and counter for those who are not familiar with it.

Impurity/contamination. Giving the impression that one or more members of a target group might damage the purity or integrity or cleanliness of the audience group. Members of target groups have been compared to rotten apples that can spoil a whole barrel of good apples, weeds that threaten crops, or stains on a dress.

Context: Is there a social or historical context that has lowered the barriers to violence or made it more acceptable? Examples of this are competition between groups for resources and previous episodes of violence between the relevant groups.

Medium: How influential is the medium by which the message is delivered? For example, is it the only or primary source of news for the relevant audience?

All five conditions need not be relevant, for speech to be dangerous. For example, a message can be dangerous even when the speaker is anonymous. Only two of the conditions are necessary: the message must be inflammatory, and the audience must be susceptible. For an analytical framework based on these five conditions that is meant for evaluating whether speech is dangerous, and how dangerous, please see Dangerous Speech: A Practical Guide. end quote.

After Christchurch, Muslims are understandably jittery. President of the Manawatu Muslim Association, Riyaz Rahman, says there is still work to be done on curbing hate speech and he wants police at the very least to keep a hate speech register. Quote.

“I think the freedom of expression that we have does not allow for hate to be curbed. Sometimes we’re not able to identify the problem ? there needs to be a line drawn somewhere so we know what is what.”

Currently, “hate crime” is not a specific offence in New Zealand, and incidents are not recorded. end quote.

Before we start stoking the fires of discord by drawing lines in the sand and compiling registers of hate crimes much more discussion is needed.