Can hateful speech be countered by talking?
A new project underway at Concordia University suggests it can. Through a new strategy, Project Someone aims to encourage students to listen to, rather than denounce, hateful remarks.
The idea behind the strategy is that if new generations of students listen and try to understand hurtful or offensive words, they will become resilient to radicalization.
Vivek Venkatesh, an associate professor of education at Concordia and the project's director, describes the reasoning: "What we want to do is to begin conversations between groups of people who may not agree with one another on issues of political and social import... We need to learn how to hate in a pluralistic society—this is something that our project is trying to allow multicultural societies to express."
The project is based on the idea that free speech exists for the very purpose of fostering radical democracy.
"Radical democracy doesn't say, 'Oh, let's agree to disagree,'" explains Venkatesh. "It says, 'Let's not look at building consensus at all times.'"
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U.S. colleges have mixed feelings about free speech, suggesting rather split opinions on an approach like that used at Project Someone.
For instance, in an April 2016 survey of 3,072 college students, 72% of respondents said colleges should not limit political views that groups find offensive. But when was rephrased to refer to speech that promotes stereotypes and slurs, 79% of respondents said that yes, schools should be able to restrict it.
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The previous year, a New York Times op-ed arguing colleges only allow students to "self-infantilize" when they crack down on offensive speech was met with both criticism and support.
Following the election and the politically contentious start to this year, U.S. colleges have debated whether to meet students' demands for spaces where they would remain protected from hateful or potentially offensive speech. Some lawmakers threatened to cut funding for schools that offered safe spaces to students upset by the election results.
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Critiques of Project Someone and similar efforts to allow hateful speech worry that it will encourage racial stereotypes and prejudices.
But Venkatesh says he's had the opposite experience in the classroom. "We show photographs and ask people what the photos mean to them," he explains. In one session, Venkatesh says, a photo of Muslim women in hijabs elicited a range of responses—some about the women's beauty, and others about what they saw as Islam's oppression of women.
"People felt that they could voice their opinions and could say 'these are prejudices I do hold,'" says Venkatesh. But by the end of the session, "they said, 'I am willing to reconsider my prejudices'" (Choise, Globe and Mail, 2/17).
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