I was part of a panel today run by InternetNZ on Hate and the Internet. The event was framed as follows:
There is increasing discussion about hate speech and the issues associated with the publishing and circulation of hateful content online. But what is hate speech? And what does it mean in a New Zealand context? Is it a significant issue in New Zealand – and for whom? And what are the appropriate responses?
Here’s what I said (my bit starts at 32:50, but all of the speakers are interesting):
Kia ora tatau, Shalom, and warm greetings. My name is Dave. My name is my primary label. Did you know that there are more Daves listed as directors on NZX companies than there are women? Here are some other handy labels you can nail on me.
Middle aged, Pakeha, cis hetero male, geek, property owner, investor, company director, immigrant, American, religious, Jew, and – wait for it – Zionist. More on that shortly, for those of you who are still listening.
Don’t you hate me yet? I’m practically a walking bulls-eye.
To be clear, I’m not speaking for anyone else who wears those labels – today, and on most days, I’m speaking for myself.
My hope is that today can stimulate conversation, challenge some assumptions, and nudge us into creating our own action plans for countering hate on the Internet.
OK, let’s get that Zionist thing out of the way. It’s a bad week to be a Zionist, but then again it’s never a great week. Here’s the Oxford definition:
A movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.
In other words, I believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish country, and that makes me a Zionist.
There’s nothing in that definition about bombing little children or imprisoning Palestinians, but that’s the way much of the world sees Zionism – the word has been usurped by those who see no place for a Jewish state in the Middle East.
I hate violence and I view one of my life’s purposes as getting people who hate each other to actually talk to each other, learn about each other, and see what common ground can be found.
My first close encounter with Internet hate was in 2006 from one of NZ’s few white nationalists. He published a guide on Blogger to “Zionists in your Neighbourhood”, which specifically included a photo of my house bedecked with balloons for my then 3-year-old’s birthday party. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but the context is important: he went on to say, “Jews, Judaism and the Israeli people are not welcome in this country. Jews are a slap in the face to the human race.” In a follow-up interview with the Sunday News, he went on to say, “I’m anti-semitic. I do not like Jews one little bit … They should have been exterminated.”
And that is where the line was crossed. Saying you don’t like a group of people, while repugnant, is exercising free speech. Implying that they should all have been killed is quite another. That borders on incitement.
I later had an encounter with hate speech from the other side, when my Klezmer band played at a Jewish community event at which the Israeli Ambassador was present. I told the Ambassador from the stage to urge his government to put down their weapons and start talking and pursuing peace. I received quite a lot of hate mail and blog comments from a certain segment of the Jewish community. I had no threats to my life that time, but was accused of all sorts of horrible things.
So I seem to be a hate magnet from different sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
And I’ve had other situations where a wide spectrum of people were splainin to me online about being Jewish or Zionist. Not violent, sometimes hateful, but mosly self-righteous and not interested in honest dialogue.
So what can we do about it? Here are some general principles:
First, remember the golden rule – treat others as you’d like to be treated. I find it incredible that the very same people who criticise me for being a Zionist in one breath, say that they would punch a Nazi if they met one in the street in the next breath. Sorry people, punching Nazis – or anyone for that matter, is not OK. Just as a reality check, I asked my 90 year old mother who lost much of her family in the Holocaust if she’d punch a Nazi. After a moment’s thought, she replied, “I definitely wouldn’t punch a Nazi, but I wouldn’t invite them round for dinner either”. That’s my same mother who, when as a child I did or even suggested anything dodgy, she would ask me “what would the world be like if everyone did that?” If we want to live in a world without hate speech, we shouldn’t engage in hate of any kind ourselves.
Second, stay true to your ideals. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Haters gonna hate, if not for one thing then another, if not you then someone else. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Third, your rights offline should be your rights online and vice versa. The Internet is the world’s biggest megaphone and world’s biggest copying machine. If it would be illegal to say in a crowded room, it should be illegal to say online. It makes no sense to me to have separate rules for offline and online. There are so many edge-cases and opportunities for over-application that trying to separately legislate Internet hate speech is neither practical nor desirable.
What can we do when we encounter hate speech?
I think the key thing is to lend a hand to help others when they are being targeted. Especially for those of us from small minority groups, it means the world to us when others jump to our defense. You may not agree with my ideas, but I think you’ll agree that I don’t deserve threats or abuse for them. It’s hard and lonely to defend yourself when the righteous ugly bullies are attacking you. So when you see someone being the target of hate, do what you can to support them.
But don’t feed the trolls. Respectful and minimalistic intervention will likely lead to the best outcome for all. Escalating by taking an aggressive approach is usually a bad idea, and merely serves to give the trolls the attention they crave.
If I could enforce one rule online, it would be Wil Wheaton’s Law – Don’t Be A Dick.
So – back to the labels I presented you with at the beginning, and more specifically, the Z-word … I urge people to look beyond the labels and treat each other as humans, for the wonderful, complex, and fascinating people that we all are.
Thank you, kia ora, and Shalom.