hate speech
Reading Time: 5 minutes Stop hate. (Thad Zajdowicz, Flikr, Public Domain)
Reading Time: 5 minutes

“… I believe that often the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech,” Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one the richest, most influential people on earth regarding the propagation of speech, said in an interview this summer.

hate speech
Stop hate. (Thad Zajdowicz, Flikr, Public Domain)

Available evidence, though, which has exponentially exploded since Donald Trump took office, indicates Zuckerberg’s assumption is wishful at best.

For example, nearly two years’ worth of generally responsible, fact-checked journalism and rational discourse has accompanied this administration step by step, yet it has barely moved the needle in the president’s low but resilient favorability ratings among supporters.

Many Americans prefer bad speech

Very apparently, tens of millions of Americans are impervious to good speech, meaning fair, accurate, well-meaning speech. They seem to just prefer hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric, whether it’s true or not.

Clearly, the internet has worsened this trend, giving literally billions of nameless (pseudonyms are common), faceless (avatars replace actual photos) human beings bold confidence that they can say the vilest things with complete anonymity and virtually zero accountability. In the much braver, non-virtual world, people know who and where the bad actors are, and routinely make them pay, legally or not, for their misdeeds and misspeaks and other transgressions against civility.

On the internet, it’s late 1870s Dodge City, Kansas, except the murderous gunslingers, amoral thieves, heinous slanderers and other assorted bad people are — for all intents and purposes — invisible. Wyatt Earp, should he exist in such an ether, wouldn’t be able to find any of them and bring them to justice, or extra-judicial injustice, anyway.

Internet hate spills into real life

Whereas the internet is the contemporary bogeyman of our seething, hate-filled moment in American life and particularly our politics, the tendencies we nurture online have spilled over into what used to be known as “civil discourse,” which has become anything but civil.

“For many people right now, trying to take the perspective of the other side on divisive political issues feels like giving in — or a betrayal,” says David Fairman, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute and associate director of the M.I.T.-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

Fairman for 30 years has been assisting groups with bitterly antagonistic histories learn to discuss their differences — and possible resolutions — respectfully. According to a New York Times op-ed — “Recovering the (Lost) Art of Civility” — these once-incompatible groups have sometimes transcended their animosities to a point where they can “even find ways to work meaningfully together.”

A zero-sum game

Public discourse has become a zero-sum game under the ever-truculent President Trump. Any perceived loss, even of a single policy argument, is viewed as a loss of power, stature and dignity that transfers to the winner while in exact reverse proportion it impoverishes the loser.

Fairman contends, “Since the Republicans won back the House of Representatives in 1994, it’s been a much fiercer competition between the two parties than at most times since the Civil War. When you see yourself as the minority party for the long term, you have incentives to cooperate with the majority party to move some parts of your agenda. But when you think that you might win back control soon, there’s a strong incentive to just hold out and fight. On the other hand, when you gain control, you know it might not last, so you want to maximize your wins and use whatever tactics you can to overcome opposition.”

So while our all-or-nothing politics get nastier, the rhetoric grows more combative in Congress and statehouse across the country, on the internet (even beyond the so-called “Dark Net”), and in normal political intercourse among regular Americans in public spaces. Families are looking forward to this Thanksgiving with trepidation, as national political divides also split kin.

As hate rises, people tune out

Many Americans have become so frustrated and weary of the acrimony and mendacity that they are just turning on to more pleasant distractions and tuning out political noise. But the hate-speech continues.

Ironically, while violent crime across the United States is at a historic low, various tracking indexes show that hate appears to be rising, according to another Times editorial. Anti-Semitic incidents have reportedly doubled since the president’s inauguration, and the verbal hate is unleashing physical violence. A murderous anti-Semite yelling “Jews must die” slaughtered 11 Jewish worshippers and wounded six others, including four police officers, at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The day before, a man was arrested in Florida for mailing pipe bombs to two Democratic presidents and other politicians, plus a CNN office and various journalists — all Democrats who had caught the president’s ire. Both villains’ internet spaces were cesspools of hate, where anonymous like-minded people egged them on.

The internet, particularly social media, has become the world’s incubator for human awfulness.

Half-heartedly, social media reacts

Faced with mountainous verbal sewage on their sites, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter, and even dark-web spots like Gab (where the synagogue attacker roamed) have been forced by business pressures and politics to try and silence the worst actors. Yet, so far it’s just spitting in the wind.

“ … it takes only seconds to draw a line between the public posts of these internet goblins and their real-life attacks. What is happening on social networks and across digital communications platforms is disturbing and ever metastasizing. And preventable,” wrote Times opinion editor Kara Swisher in a piece today titled, “I Thought the Web Would Stop Hate, Not Spread It.”

But “preventable” means social media sites would need to seriously confront their meanies and crazies, but with tech big-shots like Zuckerman mealy-mouthing about “free speech” and the supposed powers of “good speech,” expect not much to change.

What this needs is a full frontal assault by Congress, the courts and those among the American people — the majority of us, actually — who dearly want “free speech” not to include hate speech and incitement to violence. I have posted about the downsides of free speech before, here and here.

But while we dither, bad speech is, as always, blowing good speech out of the water everywhere.

Do we throw our hands in the air and just exclaim, “Well, what can we do, it’s in the Constitution!”

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...