Collective responsibility to combat hate speech

The shocking massacre that took place in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 brought into horrible focus the lethal damage that can result from hateful and discriminatory ideology, and the sharing or publicising of this via the internet. The government and media were swift to condemn the gunman’s hate speech manifesto circulating on social media and there followed a unified response from many sectors of New Zealand society that “this is not who we are”.

However, hate speech is not limited only to the extreme right or those with racist views and since 15 March the public debate about what actually constitutes hate speech has cranked up to a new level. University of Waikato professor of law Alexander Gillespie, referring to the Bill of Rights, and Human Rights Acts made the point that “rather than the public battling back and forth over what is, or is not” in breach of these acts, the Government needs to “give much clearer guidance of what (and why) speech or words are legally acceptable/ or not”. 1 In 2016 the New Zealand Law Society published an informative article that reviewed several cases that had attracted widespread media attention titled: When is it hate speech? 2

But what about when media outlets, or media personalities, become the propagators of hate speech? One example played out in mid-March but was immediately overshadowed by the 15 March massacre. In the first weeks of March national media attention was on the Canterbury measles outbreak which attracted wide ranging media commentary. Duncan Garner on NewsHub’s AM Show gave a malicious rant that was later reported with the headline: Anti-vax murderers shouldn’t get access to the welfare system. 3 Characterising tens of thousands of New Zealand parents as ‘murderers’ and all parents that do not vaccinate as ‘Anti-vaxxer’, Garner included such hateful remarks directed toward parents as being “a selfish idiot”, “murderers”, “you might just die early”, and “truly delusional flakes”. If this is not considered a form of hate speech then I wonder, what is?

Media commentators frequently target non-specific groups such as parents, beneficiaries or the homeless with vitriolic attacks that often appear to go unchallenged. In the same week, on 15 March, NewsHub published another opinion article about the measles outbreak, this time by managing editor Mark Longley titled: Not vaccinating your kids is a form of child abuse.4 Longley’s article was more measured in tone than Garner’s rant, but accursed parents of child abuse and used retributive language such as “being stupid” and “you can punish them”. What kind of punishment did Longley have in mind?

In both instances Garner & Longley made intimidating accusations, and used discriminative language that denigrates and threatens. If either of them had directed this kind of language toward Muslims or Māori they would probably have lost their jobs by now.

As a university community we all have a part to play in combating the use and spread of hate speech wherever it occurs. Academic staff and students have the of academic freedom to enable them to publically criticise individuals or organisations that may be overtly, or covertly, discriminating. General staff can be mindful of this in the workplace, and at a personal level can call-out discrimination in their own social circle. Discrimination and denigration in the media can be challenged by submitting a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority by any person.

We have an opportunity to be a more loving, caring, and inclusive society through accepting people’s cultural, religious or ideological differences that are not hateful or divisive. To be more caring and inclusive in the ways we communicate with each other. And to be less tolerant and more vocal about hateful or divisive attitudes or messages in the media that for some time now have gone unchallenged.

Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.

1 The Press, 27 March 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/the-press/20190327/281762745605019
2 NZ Law Society, 1 Dec 2016, https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news-and-communications/latest-news/news/when-is-it-hate-speech
3 NewsHub, 13 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/03/duncan-garner-anti-vax-murderers-shouldn-t-get-access-to-the-welfare-system.html
4 NewsHub, 15 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2019/03/opinion-not-vaccinating-your-kids-is-a-form-of-child-abuse.html

2 thoughts on “Collective responsibility to combat hate speech

  1. Malcolm raises a very relevant topic for our times.

    My concern centres around how the force of law might be used here to silence dissenting opinions. And in the wake of the horrific events that took place in Christchurch only a short while ago, there is the risk of a knee-jerk reaction that is not well thought out.

    To take Malcolm’s example. I am pro-vaccination. Those who do not vaccinate their children presumably do so out of ignorance, laziness or choice. For the first two the solution is to educate and to make it as easy as possible to acquire vaccinations. Those who don’t vaccinate out of choice are swimming against the tide of evidence. Perhaps we should call them “vaccination deniers”. It is fine to call out vaccination deniers for that – they are going against the evidence. They are entitled to hold that view as much as they are entitled to hold the view that the moon is made of marshmallow but it doesn’t make their opinion well supported based on the evidence or well-grounded and it is not hate speech to say so. Nor is it hate speech to point out that by not vaccinating they contribute to the erosion of herd immunity and thereby impose some costs on others.
    Duncan Garner’s comments were a bit over the top (although if you are offended or intimidated by being referred to as a “truly delusional flake” then you might need to work on your resilience). But should we make what he said illegal? That is inevitably what we will be talking about. Once we move into the realm of deciding what can and cannot be said on the basis of being offensive then we are on dangerous ground. Causing offence is not sufficient grounds in my view. Further what is offensive will be a shifting sand. That which is offensive today will not be tomorrow (remember when the word “bugger” was offensive?) and what we say happily today will be offensive tomorrow. What is offensive to one person is art to another (remember the “Virgin in a condom” sculpture? https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/capital-life/67466278/null) “We’ll know it when we see it” is not a good basis for law-making. The example given in the link to the Law Society article of Brian Tamaki’s statement about homosexuality and earthquakes is not hate speech. It is laughable and ludicrous. Let him say it and let the rest of us laugh.

    Intimidating and threatening is a different story but it is also a higher threshold and often involves inciting to a criminal act. Saying things that are defamatory or libellous are also unacceptable but covered under current law.

    We need to be careful. By wanting to silence views no matter how repugnant we find them we risk driving them further underground. Those views won’t go away, we will simply not be able to see them. And that may well be a more dangerous world than the one in which we expose hateful views to sunlight.

    1. I wonder if Stephen may have misread Malcolm. My reading was not that he was advocating the silencing of views, but rather pointing to the incivility of the shock-jock sensationalism of so many of New Zealand’s TV news personalities. At a time when so many of the voices of public discourse revel in fear and indignation, deploying language that demarcates a desirable us from a deplorable them, isn’t it time we encourage more civil dialogue? Should we not expect our news personalities to engage with issues with greater journalistic responsibility?

      There are connections and continuities to be made between the inflammatory rhetoric of populist politicians, the sensation-seeking of TV and Radio pundits, and conversational interaction on social media for the media ecology of outrage in our digital attention-economy. It’s effects when translated into action can be deadly.

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