Does Reading Hateful Comments Increase Prejudice and Hatred?

by Jalees Rehman

How should social media platforms address hate speech and abusive comments while also maintaining a commitment to freedom of expression? The platform Twitter, for example, evaluates whether posts by individual users constitute abusive behavior, which it defines as “an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice”. Twitter’s rationale is that promoting dialogue and freedom of expression requires that all of its users need to feel safe in order to express their opinions, and that abusive posts by some users may undermine the safety of others. If users engage in abusive behavior, they may be asked to remove offensive posts, and if there is a pattern of recurring abusive posts, the offenders may be temporarily or permanently suspended. This rationale sounds quite straightforward, especially when a user specifically threatens or incites violence against other individuals. However, if the offenders post hateful comments denigrating members of a gender, race, sexual orientation or religion without specifically threatening individuals, then it becomes challenging to demonstrate that the victims of such hate speech are less safe. What is the impact of hate speech? Researchers have begun to address this important question and their results highlight the dangers of unfettered hate speech.

Dr. Wiktor Soral from the University of Warsaw in Poland and his colleagues recently conducted multiple studies to investigate the impact of hate speech on shaping prejudice and published their findings in the paper Exposure to hate speech increases prejudice through desensitization. In the first study, the researchers examined the views of adult Poles (computer assisted face-to-face interviews of 1,007 participants, mean age 46 years) in regards to prejudice against Muslims and members of the LGBT community because both of these groups are frequently targeted by hate speech in Poland. Participants were first given a list of anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT hate speech examples such as “I am sorry, but gay people make me feel disgusted” or “Muslims are stinky cowards, they can only murder women, children and innocent people.” The researchers were asked to rate these statements on a scale of 1 to 7, from “Not at all offensive” (1) or “Strongly offensive” (7). The researchers then asked the participants how often they heard anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim hate speech. Lastly, the researchers then assessed the prejudice level of the participants by asking them to rate whether they would (or would not) accept a member of the Muslim or LGBT communities as a co-worker, a neighbor, or as part of their family. Read more »

How not to accuse someone of prejudice

by Emrys Westacott

Ob_fdeef4_capture-d-ecran-2013-04-15-a-12-45-1A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:

If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.[1]

The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:

If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.

As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.

In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.

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The Question of Stereotypes

by Tara* Kaushal

Indian-Stereotypes-Sahil-Mane-PhotographyProbing pigeonholing from my experience as an educated urban Indian. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

I'm brown skinned, and that, along with my features and fusion dressing style clearly mark me as being from the Indian subcontinent. I travel to the ‘First World' a fair bit, and spend a lot of time in Australia, where most of my family live. More often than not, when I have conversations with locals there—on the street, at the post office, paying for groceries—a standard, unanimous response when I tell them that I'm only visiting, that I live in India is “But your English is so good!”

I realise that this is not simply racism and arrogant Euro-/white-centricity—it is also curiosity and ignorance. Whatever it is, for the longest time, I didn't know whether to be all WTFed about it, or simply amused at their ignorance. And I certainly didn't know how to react—was I to justify this with “I studied literature/Worked with the BBC/Was a magazine editor” and/or “Where I come from, English speakers are the norm, honey”? How about: “Your English is not bad either.” Or should I have mentioned Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth…? And then storm off (not!) or smile or be condescending? How does one react to racial stereotyping?

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