May 2, 2019

Speech that dehumanises marks the limit of what a tolerant society can accept.

In March this year, Milo Yiannopolous had a visa application to enter Australia rejected. That decision was subsequently reversed. And then reversed again following the Christchurch atrocity. Yiannopolous is a British-born alt-right libertarian commentator known for his anti-feminist, anti-Muslim, white supremacist views and a former editor of Breitbart News.

When it first broke, the story of Yiannopolous’s visa received 4.9K reactions and 1.6K comments on the SBS News Facebook newsfeed. That is a big response. By comparison, the Cardinal Pell sentencing, another major story at the time, received 176 reactions and 327 comments.

8 out of 10 of these comments were from men expressing outrage about the ban on the basis of a denial of free speech. While many typed simple statements like “There goes free speech”, others engaged in name-calling and abuse of those supporting the ban, often women and people of different ethnicity.

Within half an hour of that release, another story appeared, that of Dr Preethi Reddy, a Penrith dentist, whose body parts were found stuffed in a suitcase. She had suffered multiple stab wounds. Nine weeks into 2019, Ms Reddy was the tenth woman to be violently killed this year. Her story produced an outpouring of grief from women. The same proportion of women, 8 out of 10, gave 6.5K reactions and made 1.1K comments.

At the time, I posted the comment that “Banning Milo Y gets 900 comments with rants about free speech…this young woman has had her free speech denied forever”. It received 354 comment reactions, all sympathetic: Like; Love; Sad emojis. Remarkably, more than one in three commenters made the connection between Yiannopolous’s speech and a real act of violence.

Since then, the world has shifted as the stream of online hate made its way In Real Life. As a result of what happened in Christchurch, and now in Colombo and elsewhere, what was to be a story about violence against women is now part of a broader story about hate. I think we need to be disturbed that the internet is amplifying hate, leading to violence.

Milo Yiannopolous is a signpost to whose hate the stories have in common: young men, online and IRL, breaching the limits of a tolerant society in speech and act.

I want to put up another signpost. One that points to how far we have to look to prevent young men becoming violent. I was struck by the absence of any men posting to the Preethi Reddy story with comments like “Guys, stop hitting women! It is wrong. Stop raping women! It is wrong. Stop, please, stop killing women. It is wrong”, at the same time as so many others leapt to the defence of a misogynist.

It is forever striking how much our speech matters in having consequences. Reflect on the fact that the crudest swear in the English language is the name for a woman’s genitals. One can be a dickhead, between friends, but not the other. This everyday linguistic misogyny tells us how deeply embedded hate speech can be. Speech employed by young men to dehumanise women and others to the point of making violence permissible.

Speech that dehumanises is hate speech. It points us to men using dehumanising speech to construct their identities. The violence that is expressed as misogyny shows us that preventing men’s violence goes as deep as the cultural embededness of speech. That hate isspeech, called communicative action, is exactly why it can be amplified by social media so effectively in memes, shitposting, and through clownish, ironic characterisations typified by Yiannopolous or by heroes like Neil Prakash.

Preventing violence suggests men and boys learning to manage their emotions and act out conflict in useful ways. In communicative action what the speaker does is part of speech. We can learn from Indigenous people the significance of action in speech. It appears in the frequent inability to translate English words like ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Excuse me’ and ‘Sorry’. Such things are shown by one’s behaviour, and are not communicated by equivalent words.

Anglo cultures place great store in politely forgiving rude behaviour with these little linguistic tricks. We appear to want to allow giving up responsibility for the consequences of a slight on another in the interests of our own progress.

Being sorry requires empathy, feeling as if the one who got kicked; and then stopping to ask if the other needs help. Not ‘Sorry’, but ‘Ouch! Can I help you?’. Not ‘Sorry’, but ‘What should I do differently?’.

Perhaps this saying ‘sorry’ is an aspect of a tolerant society, this tendency to pretend forgiveness. Yet women too are telling each other to stop apologising for who one is in the face of needy men wanting you to be otherwise. Don’t be sorry. Men must accept responsibility for their behaviour.

Not ‘Sorry’. Men’s violence cannot be excused with a linguistic brush-off.  We can say for certain that speech shapes action. Hate speech shapes unspeakable actions. The good, secure society must continually and unapologetically resist intolerant speech.

Richard Barcham holds a Bachelor of Political Science, UoM; a PhD in Sociology, ANU and a Grad. Dip. Natural Resource Management, UNE. He is currently living with cancer.

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