It takes courage to speak out against hatred, but some national leaders continue to do it, even when it isn’t politically easy. Like most countries in Europe, Sweden has a growing far-right movement, fueled in part by xenophobia. The nationalist Sweden Democrat party was tiny for decades until it won its first parliamentary seats in 2010 – but now they are the country’s third largest party, and growing. Sweden also just suffered a terrorist attack that’s especially frightening since it’s so easy to do: a man drove a stolen beer truck into a Stockholm crowd on April 7, crushing people in its path. Last week police said their suspect is from Uzbekistan and is sympathetic to the Islamic State.
Yet Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven responded to the attack by affirming peaceful civic values: “We are determined never to let the values that we treasure – democracy, human rights, and freedom – to be undermined by hatred.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded similarly, after a man plowed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in December, killing 12 and injuring 56: “Moving forward, we say to the terrorists: you are murderers full of hate, but you will not shape the way we choose to live our lives. We are a free, caring, and open people. […] This is what makes up our response to the hate-filled world of terrorism, and it’s stronger than terrorism.”
Neither Lofven nor Merkel was responding to Dangerous Speech, but they may well have helped to prevent or diminish it. Such responses are crucial in the wake of a terrorist attack when, we have observed, vitriol, hatred, and Dangerous Speech surge on social media. Merkel and Lofven wisely rejected both the terrorists’ hatred and the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim speech that followed the attacks. Other leaders and influential figures of all types should learn from such responses.
Their pre-emptive counterspeech is unlikely to influence those who already strongly oppose and regularly express hatred toward the target groups (in this case, Muslims and refugees.) We believe it can be effective, however, in influencing those who do not hold strong beliefs against the target group and who normally do not act or speak with hatred, but who are so incensed by a terrorist attack that they lash out. While we do not know the relative sizes of these two categories, any reduction in the size of the latter can keep Dangerous Speech out of the mainstream and keep it to the fringes of society – where it belongs and from which it cannot, realistically, be removed.