Improving living conditions does not end hate speech

Executive Director Susan Benesch spoke at Hate Speech: How to Counteract?, an international conference that took place in the Azores on May 4th. The orginal article is available in its original Portuguese at Observador.


Professor at Harvard University, Susan Benesch, stated at an international conference in the Azores that “living conditions do not seem to be the determining factor” in relation to hate speech.

Harvard University professor Susan Benesch defended this Thursday that hate speech is a “real threat to democracy, warning that improving living conditions is not enough to end that speech.

“We also see hate speech from people whose living conditions are not difficult at all. Unfortunately, even looking at other examples in history, living conditions do not seem to be the determining factor related to hate,” she said.

The researcher from Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University spoke to the Lusa agency and Antena 1, regarding the international conference “Hate speech: how to counteract?”, which took place at the University of the Azores, in Ponta Delgada, organized by CICS.NOVA.UAc (Interdisciplinary Center for Social Sciences).

Susan Benesch argued that hate speech uses fear to “convince that a group of people” represents a threat to the social order, making “people, even those with good economic conditions, feel threatened”.

“Hate speech manages to convince one group of people to fear another group so much that they believe violence is acceptable or even necessary. This is a very effective tool to make the group more cohesive, in such a way that political leaders use it a lot”, she stressed.

The former American journalist, who directs the “Dangerous Speech Project” considered that hate speech is a “real threat”, warning that “those who intend to preserve democracy cannot relax”.

“For me, hate speech is a symptom. It is an indicator of society. Partly because people often feel uninhibited online to express what 30 or 40 years ago they couldn’t express themselves publicly,” she said.

Instead of “censorship”, Susan Benesch argued that hate speech should be fought through a “counter speech” that “forces society to look” at the issue and “admit the problem”.

“Most people who decide to fight back against hate speech are not trying to change the thinking of those who promote it. Instead, they are trying to change society in general and change the audience’s perception”, she stressed.

Pilar Damião de Medeiros, a professor at the University of the Azores, warned that “hate speech does not know dialogue” and seeks, “simply, to diminish minorities or other social groups”, instigating xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and racism 

“In Portugal, when we are close to the celebrations of 50 years of freedom achieved at great cost, we have the extreme right watching. In my view, it seems that the monsters that we thought extinct since World War II are lurking again”, he declared.

Considering that the “extreme right-wing noise” has “neither bases nor concrete data”, the sociologist, who was part of the organization of the event, stated that the conference intended to “motivate the debate on the danger of living in an era in which the hatred grows sharper”.

“We have to be activists every day in this fight against hate speech in all its variants. If we want to keep our democracy alive, the values ​​of social justice and respect for human dignity, it has to be with work done by all of us”, he concluded.