Hate speech, contagious, spreads discrimination
Interculturality can be a strong ally in the battle against racism and hate speech
A weekday in Paris, February 2020. An Asian looking woman wearing a mask hops in the metro. She sits down. After throwing an awkward glance, the woman sitting across from her moves towards the very end of the car. A couple of weeks later, two kids from a Chinese family were reported to have been bullied by classmates in their school in the outskirts of the city. Their parent says “[the bullies] approach them pretending to be afraid, then run away; they no longer want to talk to them.” The first scene illustrates how stereotypes and prejudice operate. The second one sheds light on how prejudice can lead to discrimination and harm. The epidemic of Corona virus has not only called for a need for sanitary and health measures, but also exposed how widespread fear taps into prejudice and leads to discrimination. We, unfortunately, have no ready-made solutions, but we believe that resources in interculturality offer a path to confront the facets of this issue.
This March 21st marks the 44th International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The date harks back to the grisly episode in 1960 in South Africa, when police killed 69 and injured 300 people during a peaceful gathering against the apartheid laws restricting the freedom of movement of black people. Understanding and fighting racism is a struggle that has been important to identify other forms of oppression today: ethnic, religious, gender and sexual, for instance. In our home country, Brazil, the Supreme Court ruled last year that homophobia was an attempt against the rights and dignity of LGBT people under existing laws criminalizing racism. Here in France, legislation prohibits and punishes racism — which comprehends wrongdoings towards people based on their actual or perceived ethnicity, nationality, race or religion — expressed in the form of injury or defamation, discrimination, and physical aggression. Racism is a complex phenomenon by nature and is manifested in various ways, and while often linked to discrimination, laws discern both.
Discrimination happens when individuals are either favored or disadvantaged because of either their characteristics or personal choices. It is often a concrete a direct consequence to negative prejudice. In the era of social media, discrimination has become even more evident: a study from Cardiff University’s HateLab Project, which compared Twitter and police recorded crime data from London, showed that the spread of hate speech over social media leads to more crimes against minorities. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers states that “the term ‘hate speech’ shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.”
While fighting discrimination and racist violence remains an important issue in governmental agendas, mechanisms to ensure the rights and dignity of all people should go beyond policing and judicial measures or legal recourses. Public policies and social action aimed at understanding stereotypes and fighting prejudice and stopping the spread of hate speech that leads to racial discrimination must as well be implemented. Ideally, these strategies should reach children at an early stage in education to build a generation that understands and believes in equality, regardless of skin color, accent, where one comes from, or which god one praises. Just as important, making room for a positive narrative about migration and diversity in education and in the media should be encouraged.
At Élan Interculturel, for instance, we are tasked with developing new methodologies to enhance intercultural dialogue and value diversity through formal and informal education. Interculturality, as international instruments define it, refers to the existence and equitable interaction of diverse cultures and the possibility of generating shared cultural expressions through dialogue and mutual respect. In our projects, we are faced with many situations of cultural shocks. And we are inclined to believe that if they aren’t addressed, they could propagate hate speech and potentially amount to cases of racism and discrimination.
Cultural shocks are often a result of unfamiliarity, preconceptions, and misinterpretations. In one of the cases we dealt with, a French woman in Finland talking about migration with a local, and was told, “did you pass by the train station? There are lots of migrants. Look out for yourself, they come here to rape our girls.”The Finnish local’s comments indicate that she saw the French woman in an empathic, humanized way — unlike the others at the train station to whom she referred in a generalization.
In our work, we try to reinterpret shock situations like this one to pave the way for negotiations in which, through decency and self-awareness, it would be possible to visualize the bigger picture and use diversity as a resource for the recognition of other people’s values and cultural frames of reference. This absolutely does not mean that we should relativize oppressions and disregard power relations, but rather develop the capacity to not make our own culture (not only linked to our nationality, but mainly to our social, economic context, and so forth) mainstream. To think intercultural is, therefore, to use the exchange of cultures as the construction of culturally non-hierarchical societies and the experience of diversity in a fair way. Raising awareness about how stereotypes can be misleading may help to avoid prejudice and discrimination and the spread of hate speech against strangers — as both the reported and our first-hand cases aforementioned illustrate.
Our European Union project Migreat! draws from Freirian popular education, Saul Alinsky’s community organizing, Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, and Margalit Cohen-Emerique’s critical incident methods to develop counter narrative tools and methods inspired by this broad base of praxis. Our training sessions aim to co-construct a handbook, visual tools and theatre scripts to give practical support to public policymakers, educators and activists, that all may be immigrants themselves too, so that they can work to propose alternative narratives around migration along with migrants. It is an example of a practical proposition for systemic changes using intercultural approaches: the attempt to rebuild narratives initially based on stereotypes and prejudices collectively and decentering.
If racism and racial discrimination are to be dealt with as structural problems and not just individual ones, hate speech, which is active in its perpetuation, should be acted upon, not by hiding, censoring or muffling voices, but by demanding frank, genuine arguments from the media and public leaders and by allowing alternative narratives to flourish. Multiculturalism is about the coexistence of diversity, but interculturalism aims to create something new through cultural exchanges. An intercultural approach is not all sufficient for social transformation, but it might be an ally once we see it as an ethical positioning for political struggles and live diversity as a resource and not a threat stemming from prejudice.
A version of this article in French was published on D’ailleurs et d’ici!
*Mariana Hanssen, lawyer with a master in Public Policy and Development from Paris Descartes, is project assistant at Élan Interculturel
*Hugo Arruda, graduate from Sciences Po School of Public Affairs, works as consultant at Élan Interculturel