Photo: Timon Studler | Unsplash

Everyday actions for young people ‒ and against hate speech

Hate speech is not discussion. Producing hate speech is not a human right and it may not be spread as part of free speech. Therefore, we must always intervene when we detect hate speech.

A recommendation by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe defines hate speech as expression that spreads, incites, promotes or justifies hatred based on intolerance. Young people experience hate speech pretty much everywhere ‒ at schools and cafés as well as online. A publication by the Ministry of Justice, ”I often find myself thinking how I should be or where I shouldn’t go” Survey on hate speech and harassment and their influence on different minority groups, reveals that young people aged 13‒24 years were more likely than any other age groups to feel that hate speech affected their mental health. We also know that young people rarely tell adults about the harassment or hate speech they have encountered.

I had the honour of leading the Kenelle vihapuhe kuuluu? ('Who does hate speech belong to?') panel discussion of the Erasmus+ ‒ Youth in Action programme at the NUORI2017 event in Tampere. The panel discussed the skills needed by those working with young people in recognising hate speech, and considered different ways to intervene with hate speech. Videos on which young people talked about their experiences of hate speech were displayed during the discussion. In the first video, the young people were asked about what hate speech feels like. Their answers were touching: hate speech hurts and causes insecurity and shame.

Those working with young people have the responsibility to make the school, youth club or place of recreational activity a genuinely safe zone free of hate speech, but how can this be realised in practice?

Zero tolerance on hate speech

It is typical for hate speech to be targeted at people who are already in a vulnerable position. While young people are often left to deal with their experiences of hate speech or harassment alone, adults must intervene in the situation.

We must remember that the distress of a young person might not be visible from the outside. Nonetheless, it is possible to discuss hate speech without an acute situation in the particular youth group. A zero tolerance policy against hate speech creates a sense of security, clarifies rules and lowers the threshold for broaching the issue. For example, if the gendered hate speech or harassment encountered by girls is never discussed, the young people will learn that the issue is not worth discussing.

Commitment to the zero tolerance at the level of the entire organisation provides one way of influencing and condemning hate speech. Such a practice is in place, for example, in the Vantaa youth services. It is thus worth considering how this topic could be dealt with in your organisation. Perhaps you could discuss this on your coffee break this afternoon?

"It was just a joke!"

Jokes reflect prevailing power structures, but do we need to intervene in every tasteless joke? Hate speech can be dealt with by talking about what kind of a discussion culture is acceptable and what is not. It is also worth it for professionals to develop their personal critical media and emotional skills as well as their knowledge of legislation. Intervening gives a strong signal and provides operating models for dealing with hate speech. Being the "spoilsport" is also a part of being an educator, and intervening in banter with racist undertones is always a better alternative to staying silent.

The actions against hate speech make way for the young person's growth in his or her own terms. This also allows supporting the young person engaged in hate speech by highlighting the problematic features of the racist comment. It is possible to support the young person's growth and well-being even when condemning something he or she does. Even if the young person producing a message of hate meant no harm, the person receiving the message has the primary right to interpret its content. Adults should consider who they are protecting by their actions: the target of the hate speech, or the one producing it.

Everyday actions against hate speech

Discussing the topic with colleagues provides support in the work against hate speech. No one has to be left alone when encountering the producer or the target of hate speech. The following tips can be used to strengthen commitment to the zero tolerance policy and the creation of a safe space:

  1. Showing interest in the daily life of the young people, including their everyday media use.
  2. Learning to recognise hate speech and taking even small hints of experiencing harassment by the young people seriously.
  3. Regularly discussing phenomena related to hate speech with young people. This enhances the likelihood that the young people do not hesitate to tell about the incident to an adult they trust.
  4. Intervening in each and every incident. As this is a sensitive topic, having a one-on-one discussion with the victim/perpetrator should be the goal.
  5. We must not give up! We should keep in mind that discussing the topic can also enable the young people to learn ways to support one another in encountering hate speech situations. It might thus not be possible to instantly see all the results of the work.

Would you like to learn more about the topic? You can find out more from the following materials, for instance:

  • The Finnish National Agency for Education has just published the work Rakentava vuorovaikutus. Opas demokraattisen osallisuuden vahvistamiseen, vihapuheen ja väkivaltaisen radikalismin ennaltaehkäisyyn. ('Constructive interaction. A guide for strengthening democratic participation to prevent hate speech and violent radicalism') The key idea of the publication is to provide tools for discussions on difficult topics.
  • Disinformaatio, vihapuhe ja mediakasvatuksen keinot ('Disinformation, hate speech and methods of media education'), a report published by the School Cinema Association and the Mediakollektiivi co-operative, includes comprehensive information about materials and publications related to hate speech. The School Cinema Association will also publish material aimed at educators during this spring.
  • A blog text on the freedom of speech by the Finnish League for Human Rights may act as an incentive for a discussion with young people.
  • Have you already been watching the Norwegian youth series Skam? The television series deals with topics related to issues such as equality, islamophobia, mental health and sexuality from the young people's personal perspective. It is also an excellent starting point for discussing hate speech.
  • The Peace Education Institute will also publish a guide on planning equity work in youth work in the autumn.

Isabella Holm

The writer follows digital media phenomena from multiple perspectives as a founding member of the Dadamedia co-operative, a lecturer and an organisation expert. Isabella believes that we can be supported in the midst of the digital revolution by having a creative but critical sense of the media.