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Hateful Speech Begets Violence

We all seem to be at war with one another. On college campuses, when Israeli speakers are invited to speak, they are shouted down. When conservative rabble rousers arrive on campus they and their supporters are met with threats of physical assault. When those who oppose speakers or marchers use tactics such as assault, window breaking or setting cars on fire, they are applauded by so-called defenders of free speech. The question of whether it is OK to punch a neo-Nazi is debated as a serious issue among progressives.

Humanity has used violence and coercive force to impose the views of one group on another since the beginning of recorded civilization. Progress has often been gauged by indications of how far we have come from such practices as the tortures of the Inquisition, from genocidal wars dedicated to exterminating those who looked or believed differently. The behavior of ISIS, the tactics used by Assad in Syria, the inquisitorial methods of the Taliban have all been cited as evidence that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had in our progression from violence to civilized ways of solving disputes between peoples.

Recently, Russia and Syria were accused of war crimes for killing large numbers of civilians in their efforts to rid Aleppo of anti-government rebels. Last week, in Mosul, Iraq,  American bombs killed from 150-300 civilians in a building mistakenly thought to contain only ISIS fighters. In the week prior to that, U.S. airstrikes in Syria killed 49 civilians in a mosque and another 30 children in a school. The Guardian has observed, “America and the UK condemned Russian airstrikes that killed or injured hundreds of civilians during last autumn’s siege of Aleppo, accusing Vladimir Putin of war crimes. The question now is whether the US, backed by British air power, is committing similar atrocities against civilians in Mosul.” Such incidents, reported by the military as “collateral damage,” and “unintended consequences” are written off as the price to be paid for waging wars of good against evil. But are they not just the excuses of those who have massive military power  for using it to accomplish our strategic ends?

We have adopted a mindset in which we tell ourselves that the only reasonable, perhaps the only honorable, response to evil, is to use force to exterminate it—regardless of the damage the use of such force causes. We tell ourselves that this is a self-evident truth, But this is the mindset of the Inquisition, of the Crusades… of Jihad. How did we get to such a way of thinking about how we should deal with each other? Is there an alternative?

Gandhi recognized a continuum from hate speech (not defined only as speech directed at some groups, but rather the expression of hatred in speech) to physical violence and he refused to engage in such speech, even against his opponents. We all need to recognize this same continuum and the fact that one instance of violence leads to another. When we justify violence of any kind as a solution to problems, we not only promote greater use of violence, but we end up justifying atrocities committed in the name of good. I am accusing all of us of fostering the use of violence through our hateful talk and our demeaning conceptions of our fellow human beings. If we want a better world, it must start with our own behavior.







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