Hate speech, like an erratic stock market, rises and falls. The primary instigators of the last two jumps in hate speech have been Donald Trump (beginning in 2015) and Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter.
In Trump’s case, there is growing evidence he fueled a dramatic increase in hate speech because of his own use of such speech. That is not sufficient to explain the explosion of hate speech in our nation. This is not really about Trump; it is about us. Trump is one of us and ought not be scapegoated as some sort of alien outlier. Scapegoating a person may be the easy way to account for the use of hate speech, but it goes deeper than that.
“This is not really about Trump; it is about us.”
Something similar now has occurred with Elon Musk allowing the hate mongers to return to Twitter. The evidence staggers the mind.
Slurs against gay men appeared on Twitter 2,506 times a day on average before Musk took over. Afterward, they jumped to 3,964 times a day, according to data reported by The New York Times.
Antisemitic posts soared more than 61% in the two weeks after Musk acquired Twitter, researchers found. Not only was there an increase in content attacking Jews and Judaism on Twitter but a marked decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts, according to the ADL.
The average number of daily likes, replies and retweets on posts with slurs was 13.3 during the weeks before Musk’s takeover of the platform. After Musk’s takeover, the average engagements on hateful content jumped to 49.5 — a whopping increase of 372%.
The report found that slurs against transgender people — with 5,117 tweets on average — increased by 62% since Musk took over Twitter.
Underground rivers of hate
Deeper than Trump or Musk is the hidden underground rivers of anger, outrage, resentment and fear that flow from the often-denied racism of our culture.
Trump triggered an outburst of hate speech because he gave permission to his followers to talk the way he talked. The viciousness of this hate speech didn’t erupt full-grown in 2016. It had festered across the existence of our republic. At times it has been inhibited, restricted and squelched by laws and by a sense of shame.
“This renewed dignity granted permission to allow hate talk to emerge in public once again.”
Trump played on the sense of shame his mostly white followers felt and restored to them a sense of dignity. This renewed dignity granted permission to allow hate talk to emerge in public once again.
Explanations for the dramatic jump in hate speech lean toward blaming automation of the system. Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Product Ella Irwin told Reuters the platform is doing away with certain manual reviews rather than removing certain speech outright. The platform is now relying heavily on automation to moderate content.
This lame excuse ignores the human involvement in posting hate speech.
A war-time mentality
There’s a master trope animating the dramatic increase in hate speech: Life is war. David Livingston Smith argues in Less Than Human that the purpose of hate speech is to dehumanize people, especially when people are the enemy.
The practices of hate speech and dehumanization are most vicious during times of war. For example, during World War II, the Japanese believed they were the highest form of human life and considered their enemies inferior at best and subhuman at worst. American and British leaders were depicted with horns sprouting from their temples and sporting tails, claws or fangs. The Japanese labeled their enemies as demons (oni), devils (kichiku), evil spirits (akki and akuma), monsters (kaibutsu), and “hairy, twisted-nosed savages.” Americans were mei-ri-ken, a double entendre translated as “misguided dog.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported that American soldiers considered the Japanese as “something subhuman and repulsive, like cockroaches or mice.”
“War is the breeding ground of hate speech.”
War is the breeding ground of hate speech.
Make no mistake. America is at war — at war with her own democratic principles, at war with one another, at war with differing ideologies and philosophies. Our long and vicious culture war has led to evangelical Christians labeling progressive Christians as demons and devils. The inference here is that the culture war acts and performs as if it were an actual battle in a military war.
The Atlantic published an article yesterday arguing that the Senate race in Georgia was about Republican pragmatism, a win-at-all-costs strategy. “Win or lose, all of the criticisms of Herschel Walker obscure a larger point: The Republicans have acclimated the American public to ghastly behavior from elected officials and candidates for high office,” the article said.
I wish to push back on this political conclusion. Instead, the evangelicals have persuaded many voters that Democrats are devils.
The Atlantic puts the blame on Republicans determined to win. I’m convinced voters have been persuaded that all Democrats are devils. Not all devils are Dems, but all Dems are devils.
Or consider the hate speech of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who claimed the nation’s attention for at least a decade. Phelps had a singular focus expressed in the banner headline on his web site: “GOD HATES FAGS.” His virulent disgust of gays fueled outbursts of homophobic hate speech among other evangelicals. His metaphorical and rhetorical hate speech was as much a weapon as any bomb or assault rifle.
“Rhetorically, we are at war. People have chosen sides.”
Keep in mind that for more than 40 years our nation has been involved in these “culture wars.” There is periodic talk of another “civil war.” Rhetorically, we are at war. People have chosen sides. The other side is the enemy. The result is a dramatic rise in hate speech.
On top of hate speech, we have hate groups in America.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 892 active hate groups operating in the United States in 2015. SPLC argues: “All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
The SPLC classifies hate groups into distinct categories including race-based hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazi groups and Christian Identity groups such as Westboro Baptist Church.
The increase in hate group activity in the United States and the Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps raise a number of important ethical issues. The tension between free speech and hate speech also produces tension between Christian teachings and democratic principles.
All hate groups engage in hate speech via marches, rallies, speeches and publications. Such speech historically has been afforded First Amendment protection by the Supreme Court. The Snyder decision made clear that Westboro’s picketing at the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was entitled to First Amendment protection because it related to “matters of public import.”
A rung on the ladder to violence
Hate speech is one rung on the ladder that leads to violence and oppression. What occurs is a potential malignancy of universal dimensions. One species — in our current case white males — is riddled with a sense of being a preordained, chosen species but also is driven by a fanatic fear and anxious hate of other species. These others must be kept in their places by hate speech.
Hate speech eats away at the principles of democracy. It endangers our sense of fairness, equality and diversity. It thrives on offering a sense of supremacy for one group over all other groups.
The human dimension of this speech falls under the traditional Christian understanding that our thoughts, words and deeds are of one substance. As we think, we speak, and as we think and speak, we act. This is the reason the ancient prayer of confession in the liturgy says, “We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed.”
While the moral and ethical dimensions insist that hate speech is wrong and wicked, when it comes to the Constitution of the United States and the First Amendment, we are in a more complex situation. Hate speech cannot be so easily regulated in a culture that insists on free speech, a culture that insists on the absolute freedom to say and to do almost anything.
While a majority of developed democracies have laws that restrict hate speech (Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), that is not the case in the United States.
The First Amendment and the idea of restricted free speech involve contradictions. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats and speech tied to criminal conduct are illegal. On the other hand, the Supreme Court also has ruled multiple times that hate speech cannot be regulated due to the basic right of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution.
What to do?
Responding to the rise in hate speech can provide opportunities for Christians and others to restore community.
Christians can stand up to hate speech and the human purveyors of hate speech while respecting freedom of speech. As Christians we should be open to a broader range of practices as responses to hate speech.
Rather than attempting to use the law or attack the First Amendment, we can offer our bodies in protest marches or activities against specific acts of hate speech. We can by our thoughts, words and deeds stand against all forms of hate speech.
In other words, in this situation, the teachings of Jesus on forgiveness, nonviolence and reconciliation may trump legal wrangles over free speech.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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