Hate Speech (a few thoughts)

This past academic year I taught widely in a local school district, working with grades ranging from 6th to 12th. Perhaps I was naïve, but I was surprised just how frequently I would need to discourage the use of hate speech. Usually, this required a dialogue with a student after a particularly prickly teachable moment. I could not have guessed how prolific the use of derogatory language was amongst the kids, but I was more surprised by how many claimed to have never had the matter brought to their attention prior to my doing so. According to many students I encountered, neither parents nor educators had previously discouraged the use of language most would be sanctioned for in a professional or public setting. 

While the racial slurs were gratefully less common, they nevertheless occurred. Frighteningly common were the derogatory statements that made use of such terms like “retard” and “faggot." It's a uniquely troubling experience to have a young teenager filled with anger shout such words at another. Not only were these utterances heard during time outside of the classroom walls, I heard them frequently during the class period. When I would engage the student in dialogue about the matter, they readily acknowledged such verbal habits were not professional or respectful. Yet, they also insisted that such habits had gone overlooked, excused, or even supported by parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators. The students were surprised I had taken notice at all, let alone found the matter concerning.

I know that there is still great debate about the legal limits of free speech, about what reasonable restrictions might or might not be suitably placed upon one of our most cherished liberties. That is an important conversation, but I am more interested here about the kind of discourse we want to encourage in an educational environment and thereby in our future businesses and public spaces. I am a passionate advocate for intellectual freedoms, but it feels abundantly clear that the importance of civil discourse is in dire need. Teaching our children how and why to communicate in accordance with common and healthy norms (and also when it might be appropriate to break those norms) is an important lesson.

It seems to me that the violence and tragedy consuming our news and lives over the past several months highlights the need for more rigorous and thoughtful attention to stopping hate speech in all its forms, particularly at an early age where positive habits of compassion and civility can be  formed and practiced. I understand that in the face of the type of violent acts the past few months have seen we can be left asking ourselves, “what is there to do?” When we face such seemingly insurmountable odds, weariness and despondency might be easy comforts.

However, as an educator and a parent I believe we have to keep making the more more difficult choice: teach our children to be more eager to have polite and civil discourse with all peoples, and less willing to participate in hate speech and the divisive discrimination it so obviously engenders. History has long taught what the past few months has painfully reminded us of—that our acts of violence are nearly always preceded or accompanied by violent and hateful language. If we recognize that nearly every gesture of inclusion is accompanied by a tacit or explicit act of exclusion, then we can hopefully speak and write with greater civility and respect for ourselves and others.