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A Workshop at DSI on Defusing Hate and Counteracting Dangerous Speech

by Genieve Ramrattan, ’17

The human tendency toward violence is a tricky, delicate thing. It gets triggered when we feel afraid or threatened, ‘fight or flight’ as we’ve all heard before. We usually associate this with a physical situation, the visceral feeling of fear when confronted by threat of bodily harm. But Rachel Brown studies how words make us feel threatened, how words drive us to harm and to hate. On November 16th and 30th, she shared her insights with DSI in two workshop sessions that took students through the steps outlined in her Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech as part of DSI’s staple Global Guest Lecture class.

Dangerous speech, as we learned, is specifically defined as “speech that increases the risk that its audience will accept or participate in targeting a people with some type of harm (anything from discrimination to violence) based on group identity.”

Dangerous speech also, is not necessarily the spoken word, it comes to us through a multiplicity of channels: Twitter, Facebook, news sites, leaflets, flyers.

On the topic of multiplicity, there is also no singular group identity to which we subscribe. We identify with multiple groups simultaneously and constantly. Complexity is an integral part of humanity. We identify with racial groups, cultural groups, schools of thought, political affiliations, the list is endless, the facets of our identity are innumerable.

Rachel Brown: Defusing the Hate guide

Dangerous speech pits people who identify with one particular group, against people who identify as another. The most startling thing is that dangerous speech is not always planned or intentional. Someone can call forth these deep insecurities, and urge one group against another unintentionally. An important learning from these sessions with Rachel was the responsibility we need to take for our words. They have power beyond just our intention. To quote Cheryl Heller during Communication Design class last spring, “It doesn’t matter what you mean, or what you meant to say, it only matters what others hear.” Rachel reminded us that ideas are formed from words, and those ideas fuel actions.

Dangerous speech is manufactured in 140 character groups on Twitter, or impassioned words at a rally, or memes on Reddit, but they all implant ideas that can be acted upon. Combating those ideas is a complex, difficult task. The more we try to talk someone out of their ways of thinking, the more we attempt to counteract dangerous speech with what we consider logical, reasoned arguments, the more entrenched someone might become in their ways of thinking. They reject all else, and cling to their version of the narrative, their interpretation of reality. Coupled with this is the fact that we only tend to listen to news and stories from our own groups, this fuels our own versions of narratives, and prevents us from seeing it from other perspectives. We are each unintentionally trapped in our own echo chambers.

After an exercise in creating personas, we developed strategies meant to defuse hate speech. The main takeaway from this exercise is that coming at the problem head on is almost never the most effective method. We need to understand the belief system of the person or group in which we want to intervene, understand what part is being threatened and identify the leverage points., which might include other groups they identify with that are not being threatened, commonalities with the group they feel threatened by, or shared values that could promote non-violence. Based on Rachel’s experience working in the field, she said: “Come at it sideways.”

To find out more visit the Center For Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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