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By Morgan M. Davis
Almost universally, freedom of expression is a championed human right. And yet, that very freedom can be used to incite the violence and hatred that drives oppression. In the last century, we have seen the devastation of nations driven by charismatic speeches few calling “the other” vermin, rats, or cockroaches. Diplomats still struggle to find a middle-ground between maintaining freedom of expression, while preventing incendiary speech that sparks overwhelming violence.
At a panel discussion at the United Nations building February 1, diplomats, academics, human rights groups, and others met to discuss the identifying factors of violence inducing speech and how it can be prevented. The two-hour talk was led by Santiago Canton, program director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Panel participants included Ambassador Geir O. Pedersen, permanent representative of Norway to the United Nations, Adama Dieng, United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Frank LaRue, a United Nations special rapporteur, Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project at World Policy Institute, George Weiss, founder of Radio La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tools Foundation, and Aidan White, founding director of Ethical Journalism Network.
The discussion presented a snapshot of the ongoing challenge to suppress speech that can lead to mass violence or even genocide while also encouraging more open freedom of expression. That balance, as the panelists recognized, is a difficult one to identify. It can incorporate the use of legal ramifications to stop incendiary speech, but the group expressed that restrictive laws are not the preferable way to tackle this issue. The ultimate goal is to have citizens self-regulate.
Small bursts of violence as a result of blasphemy are regrettable and should be deterred, but the state is not obligated to protect citizens from being offended, it needs to focus on protecting its people from harm, LaRue said. Cases of hateful expression, like in “The Innocence of Muslims,” are incredibly tasteless, LaRue explained, but it does fall in a protected realm of speech. Incendiary speech that should be stopped is the type that intends to result in imminent harm of a targeted people.
Politicians must clarify the fuzzy middle ground of expression that will result in mass deaths and the venting of frustrations. Much of this clarification comes from understanding the relationship between speakers and their environment, Benesch said. Certain speech has a “special capacity” for violence and is interpreted as a call to action by the audience, much like the Rwandan radio broadcasts during the genocide that named individuals who needed to be terminated. This type of speech is most effective when an influential person says it. This, Benesch said, is the problem. But by recognizing these characteristics, leaders will be able to identify violence before it happens.
Benesch added that another way to prevent this speech from getting out of hand is by having other influential speakers engage the population with more information on the subject, making an audience less susceptible to the pull of the instigator. And, much like a public service announcement emphasizing the need for condom use to prevent HIV, awareness ads can also encourage active bystanders to speak out, added Weiss.
The panel focused largely on the content and context speech rather than the medium of the speech act. In the modern world of Internet and social media, we may need to take as much of a look at where and how hate is shared, as at the hate itself. One of the ways to determine whether or not hate-speech will incite violence is by looking at how susceptible the audience is, as the panel said. The beauty and problem of the Internet is its ability to target an audience. People with similar views, fears, and animosities in different locations that may not have otherwise met now have a tool to unite. Like other speech, there remains a question as to whether this online communication is merely an airing of grievances or a call to arms.
For those wishing to deter hatred, the Internet can also be a tool for good. Many of the panelists explained that a strong way to battle negative expression is to push back with positive expression. Many people are uncomfortable verbally confronting speech that makes them squeamish, but the Internet and social media offer an alternative platform for challenging others and voicing an opinion. This sort of societal self-regulation has worked quickly and effectively in the past, without the use of the Internet. As Benesch mentioned, racist terms and ethnic slurs, while acceptable in the United States just 30 or 40 years ago are now strongly frowned upon. No law made it illegal to use these vulgarities, but if a public figure were to say one now, they would face immediate backlash. This is a trend that can, and should, continue to spread throughout the world, as average people feel empowered to speak up when they feel others are out of line.
Much of the power of deterrence is in the hands of the media, said White. As much as educating and creating a dialogue among the audience is important, so is monitoring the way they receive information. Just like society as a whole can self-regulate, journalists too need to maintain an ethical code to report the news in an effective and responsible way. How the media covers or sensationalizes a story can trigger a reaction, White said. In a media world that is inhibited by the tightening of financial belt straps, quality reporting often falls by the wayside. This importance of an ethical code for the betterment of society is an idea that needs to be further explored and standardized. Just as a government has a responsibility to its citizens to protect them from harm, so too does the media have a responsibility to properly educate and inform its consumers.
Morgan M. Davis is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant.
[Photo courtesy of Harry H. Marsh]