June 18 is the United Nations International Day for No Hate Speech.
Proverbs generally enshrine a true observation on our lives. Sometimes, however, their talk is only part of a more complex picture. So it is with the proverb: “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” The truth is that while we certainly shouldn’t be intimidated or silenced when people verbally attack us, poisonous words can actually hurt us a lot. They can destroy our self-confidence, break friendships and kick us out of public life.
Stories in the media have shown how accusations of inappropriate behavior can hurt both people’s feelings and their careers, whether true or false. A buildup of social media can also leave a young person friendless and demoralized. Sometimes it leads to suicide. We hope those attacked in this way will show extraordinary resilience in responding to these destructive words, but we must not minimize the harm they have suffered.
Hate speech is more damaging than the occasional angry and destructive word. One can imagine it as a black hole into which people are totally drawn so that they are consumed by hatred and by the desire to destroy those they hate. In its extreme form, we see it embodied by people with racist ideologies who express their hatred of different groups through social media and take action by shooting members of groups they hate. We see it embodied also in the unnoticed and seemingly innocuous people who target public figures and ruthlessly pursue them with hate messages. It then becomes part of a decoy game where people project the image of themselves as implacable avengers. It is a game that can destroy the lives of its victims.
In any society, hate speech can aggravate hostility between different groups of people and trigger violent action. It prevents people from breaking through the barriers of fear and anger that divide them and seeing others not as threats but as people like themselves. The young people we work with at Jesuit Social Services, many of whom are in the criminal justice system, often experience hate speech both from their peers on social media and from mainstream media that portrays them as a dangerous threat to society. society. Its effect is to make it difficult for them to connect with society.
If hate speech is so destructive both to those who engage in it and to those who are targeted by it, how can we counter it? The responsibility lies with the whole of society. We must not tolerate it when we see it directed against athletes on the field, against members of religious, racial or political minorities, or against people with unpopular opinions. We may strongly disagree with people, but we must not speak hatefully against them. In our speech too, as the football slogan says, we must always play the ball and not the man.
As individuals, we can also do a lot against hate speech. The first step is to discipline our curiosity. Hate speech feeds on advertising. If it is ignored, if no one is interested in the titillating details that embellish it, if the speakers who indulge in it are not listened to, it will die of lack of energy. If hate speech is seen as acceptable, it will thrive. In public discourse, tolerance allows and leads the malicious speaker to believe that others believe him or are intimidated by him. Protesting against it, calling out the politicians and media fanning the flames claiming not to be responsible for it, and demanding regulation of the massive social media companies that feed on it, are important small steps for individuals. They will help shape society for the better as more and more people follow their example.
Finally, we need to feel and express compassion for people who are victims of hate speech. Often people walk away from them as if they were radioactive and pose a risk to anyone who comes near them. Reaching out to them to express our sympathy, to show interest in their work, and to applaud them when we get the chance is a decent thing to do. It also attracts the poison of hate speech.
Father Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.