In the shadow of the latest racist shooting, there should not be a blurred line between hate speech and free speech. But to the media there is. And in the eyes of the courts, both are the same.
Until recently, the people who formed hate groups lived mostly in the shadows. They filled dark corners, and were seen as fringes and extreme. But two things happened: One was political; the other was a new approach.
In communications, we often speak of triggering events. The election of Barrack Obama was a huge triggering event, shattering a race barrier, and moving the nation forward. But to those lost in ignorance, it was a catalyst to change their ways. They viewed an inspiring and pivotal moment in American history as the type of progress they could not abide by. They changed their approach and stepped out of the shadows, with a communications makeover. In the most perverse twist of fate, they borrowed the messaging of the people they hated. And they mixed it with their own brand of lies. No longer were they the KKK or Neo-Nazis – now they were white nationalists speaking of white heritage, culture – and framing it as under attack from diversity, tolerance and progress.
These “white nationalists” claimed that so-called non-American influences were eroding a society they valued. They took this new, rebranded form of racism to social media and attempted to craft a political movement. Not the first time a movement based on hatred and discrimination had taken front stage, recalling the Confederacy, but this time it was trying to reverse roles and make the oppressor seem to be the oppressed.
Empowered and emboldened by the election of 2016, they staged a massive rally in Charlottesville in 2017. It ended badly. They used the very same social media outlets that most Americans look at each day, and the same ones who have helped erode the news media. Then some but not all social media and blog sites cracked down on their rebranded hate groups, limiting their access.
Back to that line between hate and freedom of speech. The blurred area is the dog whistle. The ability to wrap hatred and prejudice in terms that reach out to and embolden their followers, and so pass unperceived. From a hand gesture to symbolizing “white supremacy” to coded key words – these new hate messages make it past the sensors.
Cut off on some social media, they now turned to the main stream media, whose belief in the exchange of ideas makes them an easy target. For generations the news media have shared community ideas in the letters to the editor. And newspaper editors often like to see letters that generate more letters. They feel that they have an obligation.
But, the hateful far right toned down their rhetoric, and steeped it in fake facts. The result is an op-ed that might seem rational, but it is little more than repackaged hatred, emboldening extremists and pulling them out of the shadows. The result is also a greater involvement in the political process by hate groups, and in some cases – violence.
So where do we need to draw the line? Don’t we all have the right to free speech? This is hot topic today. Hate speech in the United States is considered free speech, in contrast to most of Europe. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech is protected free speech under the First Amendment. In fact, the Supreme Court never pointed to any category of speech as hate speech, and said that it should be excluded from the First Amendment.
The ACLU put it this way: “Bigoted speech is symptomatic of a huge problem in our country; it is not the problem itself. Everybody, when they come to college, brings with them the values, biases and assumptions they learned while growing up in society, so it’s unrealistic to think that punishing speech is going to rid campuses of the attitudes that gave rise to the speech in the first place. Banning bigoted speech won’t end bigotry, even if it might chill some of the crudest expressions. The mindset that produced the speech lives on and may even reassert itself in more virulent forms.”
But then came Charlottesville, and attacks and more shootings. And, it makes one think of the Weimar Republic – formed in Germany after World War I. The 12-year experiment in democracy allowed for all ideas to be free and exchanged. And, as economic times got bad, extremists used media to blame people who were blameless in Germany’s economic problems – Jews, gypsies and communists. The end result was the Nazi power grab of 1933.After World War II, the West Germany’s Federal Republic outlawed such racist and inflammatory rhetoric. Mainstream media outlets were not allowed to be the conduit of hate. It did not end hatred, but it kept a lid on it.
Today, where do we go in the US? The media deserve the right to be free. Citizens have the right to express their beliefs. Censorship is a dangerous road to walk down.
Maybe the solution comes down to each of us. Let’s call hatred what it is – not white heritage, not some nostalgic desire to return to a Gone With the Wind world that never existed. It is wrong, it is based on lies, and it hurts people and society. Elevating it is of benefit to no one. The best advice was what mom gave us years ago- ignore a bully. Don’t engage with a hater. And that is the lesson the media has to learn too. Every time the use of the term white supremistis used in a way that makes it sound reasonable, each time they refer to white heritage, and whenever they print the opinions of racists and extremists – they are not serving the foundations of journalism. Rather than allowing an exchange of lies masked as ideas, they are giving oxygen to racism. We need to cut the oxygen off – there are notgood people on both sides. There are two sides, the truth and lies. We all need to be on the right side.