Risha Talks: As lines blur between freedom of speech and hate speech, we must create civil dialogue

by | Feb 27, 2019 | Blog

As my niece gets ready to leave home to attend college this year, I feel both excitement and concern for her.

Excitement because college campuses open your eyes to so many great experiences and your mind to learning and hopefully thinking differently where needed. We meet people from all walks of life.

My concern: the people we meet from all walks of life. Students arrive on college campuses carrying unconscious biases, belief systems and ideals they learned while growing up, perhaps based upon negative experiences with other races, someone’s sexuality or religion.

Maybe it’s not bias. Maybe it’s flat-out racism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism or classism. Either way, I give pause for her emotional and mental well-being.

Lately, colleges, universities and school districts have become regular clients for me because they are rampant with issues surrounding hate speech and acts of racism. We don’t have to look further than our own state universities to see it, but there are many colleges and universities experiencing the same national embarrassments.

Blackface, swastikas, the n-word and other racial slurs, threats of lynching, and nooses hanging on campus trees. I am not regaling hateful incidents from the 1960s. These abhorrent acts are happening now, even at the high school and middle school levels.

Because these things are happening, we need to take drastic measures to protect all students. We also need to think beyond our schools and remember that these kids become adults.

They will work for companies, get elected government leaders and become community leaders. It seeps into every area of our world, most likely disguised as freedom of speech or expression.

As I train and speak with others, especially those who commit some of these acts, freedom of speech comes up often. We have blurred the lines of freedom of speech and hate speech, along with the simple concepts of respect and human decency.

I recently spoke to a 15-year-old student who told me that she uses the term f—-t when talking about gay people but that she doesn’t mean it to be harmful or offensive. When I asked if a gay person were to hear her using that term in passing, how did she think they would feel, her answer slightly stung.

“If they’re offended, they should ask me about it instead of getting upset,” she said.

In a perfect world, that would make sense. Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist.

It is imperative that we consider intent versus impact. Your intent may be to joke with your friend, but the impact could be harmful to someone who hears it. Words are powerful. They could hurt others, cause fear or cause someone to lose hope.

According to an NPR interview, in Nadine Strossen’s book, “Hate: Why we should resist it with free speech, not censorship,” her central argument is that “the most effective way to counter the potential negative effects of hate speech is not through censorship, but rather through more speech. And that censorship of hate speech, no matter how well-intended, has been shown around the world and throughout history to do more harm than good in actually promoting equality, dignity, inclusivity, diversity, and societal harmony.”

This means we need to counter hate speech with that of love.

I believe that most hateful ideas begin with language, whether spoken or written. In order to work toward a solution, we shouldn’t give hateful speech a pass when it is around us. We should address it when we hear it by redirecting it with love and understanding, because at some point, disregarding it makes you a part of the problem.

We should create civil dialogue and show love and light in the face of hate and darkness. Teach kindness, common decency and respect to your kids when they are small so as they enter school, they are a positive part of the solution, not a collective part of the problem.

A quote often attributed to Margaret Thatcher says it best: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become … habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character.”

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