Dear readers – I had the honour to deliver the keynote for Allianssi’s seminar on hate speech last week! Such an inspiration to see so many young people working on such an important topic. This is a slightly cleaned up version of what I had to say:
Thank you so much for having me today. My name is Panda Eriksson and my topic for today is Hate speech follows us offline. I’ll also put a content warning here – I will be addressing themes of violence and of hate crimes.
First a couple of words about me. I work as the president of Trasek, which is an NGO working for the rights of transgender and intersex people. I also work with equality and accessibility questions as a consultant at the city of Turku. Where I meet hate speech the most, however, is in my activism with trans issues and anti-racism. As a non-binary trans person and avid anti-fascist, I’ve taken the neo-nazi who physically assaulted me to court and yet when I think about pain I don’t remember the experience of physical violence. I think of the pain I feel sometimes when reading the hate explosions on Twitter or the weight in my chest that came from listening to a white, middle aged, fancily dressed lady downtown calling my friend a murderer, a rapist and a leech of society. People who say things like non-whites or suvakit should be taken “behind the sauna” to be shot.
But let’s reverse a bit to a more general level. Professor Paul Iganski of Lancaster University has said that hate crimes are communicative acts. Research in the form of crime surveys in the US and the UK indicate that people who have experienced hate crimes show more post-traumatic behaviour than victims of other crimes. They stop parking cars in certain places, move out or refuse to live in certain areas, stop visiting certain places, report problems with family, school, work, psychosomatic reactions and psychological symptoms. What Iganski meant when he said hate crimes are communicative acts is that it is the perceived message that hurts more, much in the same way that being scared of something often is more taxing on us that the thing itself – we might remember the boggart from Harry Potter.
I said hate crimes, but the reality is that there is no universal definition. There is a problem in defining hate speech in a legal setting. Are we talking about harassment? About inciting violence? We often talk about hate speech in a homogenizing way, which can be good when discussing the phenomenon itself, but this makes it harder to process on a legal level. Criminal hate speech is, for example, the threat of violence or incitement to violence, but the kind I am, in a way, even more worried about right now is the everyday hate speech that I feel has slowly been normalized. I’m talking about racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist or similar stereotypes and discourse in our everyday meetings. I’m also worried about companies endorsing discrimination as well as media not realizing their role in regulating hate speech.
Digitalization has brought the threat of hate speech closer to all of us. We are, however, exposed in different ways. Moa Bladini of Gothenburg University concludes that while men also face a lot of verbal violence online, women and gender minorities are exposed to more personal hatred. Danish research by the Danish Institute for Human Rights shows that most comments containing hate speech appear in connection to refugees, religion, gender equality, politics and integration and, at least in their sample, the majority came from men. Where women are targets of gender-related hate speech, men are attacked based on social status and political beliefs. As far as age goes, Professor Atte Oksanen from Tampere University has found that young people are more likely to be victims of cyberhate.
In other words, men are attacked as immigrants, as gay people, as communists, while women are attacked as women. It is not uncommon to see gendered forms of violence, such as rape threats, being used to attempt to silence women. As far as gender minorities go, transphobia is alive and kicking – for proof of that just google the latest interview I gave to Susanne Päivärinta.
So what does hate speech lead to? The main issue is the decline of so called subjective well-being. Victims of hate speech generally report lower self-esteem, lower happiness and lower trust in addition to the hate crime effects I described earlier. Another serious consequence is that people report that they refrain from participating in debates in social media – and I would suppose, in other, larger societal contexts as well, because of the tone, the aggression, the hatred. To some extent – and this is partially my own experience – people refrain from confronting hate when they see it, because they do not want to become victims themselves. My question is whether a democracy actually can work if an increasing number of its citizens report that they don’t feel safe or don’t want to participate in discussions on sore topics, such as human rights or equality. I personally believe that the bridge between social media and societal participation is shorter than we might think.
The bridge we’ve already crossed, and cross numerous times a day in our current digital lifestyle is the divide between the online and the offline. Ask anyone who has experience cyberbullying and they’ll tell you that their experience is no lesser just because it hasn’t featured physical violations. It does not lack a physical aspect – because the anxiety, the self-esteem issues, the sadness and the feeling of being sick to your stomach does not disappear when you close the app or the webpage. As our digital self and our physical self have become so entangled that we no longer can talk about the online and the “real life” as separate issues, hate speech prevention and legislation need to bridge that same online/offline divide.
In conclusion, I would like to ask everyone to think about how we can fight the normalization of hate. Hate speech is in many forms illegal and proven to cause harmful consequences that often target women, gender minorities, racialized people, disabled people, and others already in a disadvantageous position in society. Because there is an aspect of power – of silencing the voices of these people – it should be an issue that our 100 year old Finland would take seriously. I see the normalization of hate speech as a threat against democracy. Because let’s face it – it is illegal, for a reason – as is arson, and yet we don’t organize seminars on it, or have prominent figures of society defend the freedom to burn houses the way we sometimes hear the freedom of speech -argument being used.
I ended my speech at the Finland 100 rule of law seminar yesterday by saying I hope the issues of equality would be such an obvious part of the general atmosphere in society by the time we celebrate Finland 150 that I wouldn’t be invited to speak as I wouldn’t even fit the program. I will repeat my wish here: It is my sincerest wish that we could one day soon find a way to turn all this hate into something constructive, and that is why I am so infinitely happy to see all of you here today. Your work matters and your effort itself is making this world a better place. Enjoy this day! Thank you.