"Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality." -Edgar Allan Poe
Poe reminds us of the power of words and the carnage ideas create when brought into existence by people with evil intent. Daily, we read one news story after another about human meanness and the role speech plays in the proliferation of human hostilities and the tragic outcomes that ensue.
In a recent article I read about media ethics and hate speech in Nigeria, I was intrigued by the story that was told about Nigeria's fight to end the violence and brutality that many believe has been connected to hate speech from journalists and elected officials. Reportedly, concerned media leaders did this in retaliation to the senseless killing of innocents by Nigerian criminals. In response, Nigerian officials are set to introduce the Nigeria Hate Speech Bill in efforts to penalize and reduce not only criminal aggression against innocents, but also severely punish hate speech with consequences that range from fines and jail terms to death by hanging. Even the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Stuart Symington, issued a statement "[calling] on journalists to be alive to their responsibilities and avoid promotion of issues that are capable of destabilizing and destroying society." The proposed legislation is controversial, and its backers are already equating hate speech with terrorism thereby justifying the harsh measures. One government leader is even calling for "an organized war against hate speech" while another wants the government to take a zero-tolerance policy against it.
Few can deny the inhumanity of hate speech, especially when it results in or promotes aggression, bloodshed, and death. But as authorities prepare to introduce legislation and call for media restraint, one must wonder if this strategy suffers from the same Hobbesian myopia that governments struggle with repeatedly, especially during times of racial and ethic conflict.
Here in the United States, Washington and Oregon were the first states to enact hate crime laws (1981), and hate-crime statutes are in forty-nine states today. The four categories the FBI uses to classify hate-crimes are Thrill seeking, Defensive, Retaliatory, and Mission, with the first accounting for the majority of cases. FBI crime data recorded 8,063 single-bias hate crime incidents in 2000. Anti-black bias accounted for 65.5 percent of the victims of racial bias and 74.7 percent of all religious bias victims were Jewish. In 2010, 6,624 single-bias incidents were committed with 2,201 being anti-black. Of the 1,322 religious-bias incidents, anti-Jewish incidents outpaced all others at 882. Anti-Islamic bias came in second place at 160. More recently, the 2016 FBI Hate Crimes Report found that single-bias- criminal incidents totaled 6, 063 of which 58.9 percent were targeted because of race or ethnicity.
I use the above statistics to show that hate crimes in the United States are prevalent, and African Americans remain the largest demographic group for being the victims of hate crimes. Should Nigeria adopt similarly, common sense says that hate speech and hate crimes should decline, but that does not mean that hate is no longer a problem. To the contrary, many believe a vast majority of hate crimes go unreported by their victims because of fear, shame, or other social-psychological factors. Moreover, it is likely that when hate crimes decline, the manifestations of hate change from explicit physical violence to classic bigotry, discrimination, and verbal aggression.
Laws and policies against hate crimes are necessary and important, particularly when existing laws prove ineffective. The above data shows, however, that hate crime laws are hardly transformational. Such laws simply fail to change core beliefs and attitudes about race, ethnicity, and religion, because "the will" to hate remains intact and unchallenged by legal norms. On the other hand, the "spirit of hate" is driven out by a spirit transformed from a will to do evil to one that embraces and is renewed by moral responsibility, civility, community, and compassion. Consider Daryl Davis, whose story is remarkable, refreshing, and compelling.
As an African American and committed Christian, Mr. Davis befriended and converted over 200 KKK members from racial hatred to racial reconciliation. In an NPR segment that aired August 20, 2017 and was titled How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members to Give Up Their Robes, Davis demonstrated true integrity in the face of racial hatred and hostility to show that laws are limited when it comes to healing and social transformation.
In Davis, we see that Integrity is fearless, and Davis best captures this in the following:
"....because when two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn't have to be about race, it could be about anything...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you're forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you're forming a friendship. That's what would happen. I didn't convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves."
Real transformation and social movements are inspired by people of integrity, conscience, and moral purpose. In the end, integrity overcomes inhumanity and the spirit of hate every time and in ways that the legislative state, zero-tolerance policies, and retribution simply can't match. Admittedly, I'm no expert on Africa, its economy, nor governance throughout the continent. That said, Nigeria needs laws, and Nigeria must elevate integrity in the hearts and minds of its people to achieve lasting victory over the spirit of hate. Nigeria also must re-evaluate the fervor and support for extreme measures like death-by-hanging policies for hate speech. Such heavy-handed approaches by the State are generally counterproductive and send the wrong message about human life, excessive force, and the failures of brutality and social dysfunction.