I remember the first time I was called the N-word. I was around eleven years old and my family was driving to Virginia Beach for a family vacation. I looked over at the car next to us and this woman was yelling out her car to us “NI—R! NI—R!” My mom asked me if I understood what she called me and I told her no because it did not register that she could be yelling at me. After all, I didn’t know her and I was a child – why would she have anything to say to me? My mom explained to me that she called me the n-word and that she wanted me to know what that looks like. We didn’t discuss it any more after that.
It amazing to me how people try to rationalize and trivialize hate speech, when we all know what words can do. We remember the good things said to us and remember the worst things said to us. And more often than not, we remember the bad faster than the good. If you think about it, many people are in therapy for words – for the times their parents called them worthless, to hash out words that they didn’t understand from their significant other, and to sort through the feelings of someone telling them that they loved them. Sticks and stones can break your bones and words will send you off the deep end. If words can drive someone to seek a therapist, why couldn’t words create public health issues?
It’s hard to find research that specifically evaluates the public health effects of hate speech. But I would argue that hate speech can turn into a public health issue. We use words to communicate and convey our thoughts and feelings about others. There are meanings attached to words that have positive and negative connotations. We also know that when you really understand a language, you understand context. The underlying context of hate speech to humiliate and to make the insulted party feel unsafe. Literature on the public health effects of hate crimes and abuse demonstrate the adverse health effects of not feeling safe. Words also do world-building. They teach us about the rules of our immediate communities and the greater world around us. Hate speech is a world-building tool. It makes it clear to whoever is being insulted that there are physical and theoretical places where they will not be protected and will not receive opportunities. It also can promote action. We can see the connection between the thinly veiled hate speech of the most recent presidential election and the increase in anxiety among minority populations and in hate crimes in the United States. And if that is not good enough for you – let’s not forget that verbal abuse is real. There is plenty of research that establishes how harmful verbal abuse is in adults and in children. When we consistently allow and condone hate speech, we are putting others in a position to be verbally abused.
The point of hate speech is to either to make a group of people feel as if they are powerless or to make the person who is dishing out the inflammatory language feel powerful. And because hate speech is usually directed to a group of people, you have an arrow aimed at a population that will trash their health. When a person in power turns a blind eye to hate speech in the workplace or in schools, they are really saying that they do not value the safety of a group of people. And we all know the stress that a lack of safety puts on the body and mind. This also traipses into moral and ethical territory. If you passively allow or protect people who use hate speech to verbally abuse others – are you as moral as you think you are? Are you contributing to a grander public health issue? Just some food for thought.
The Neighborhood Bioethicist
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