Speech, speech and more speech
One of the most interesting discussions at the conference (that happened in several sessions) was discussing user generated content, and the scary moment of putting your collections, your materials, your creations, online for all to see, use and comment on. Many of the participants deal with sensitive material, and that material has elicited some disturbing comments in the past, comments filled with hatred, racism, or just plain anger. Is it appropriate to put that content online, leaving those associated with the content vulnerable to attack? It’s a difficult question to answer, especially when the content in question may be photos of Holocaust survivors, but an important one, with many First Amendment implications.
In the course of our discussions about the topic, the old adage “The way to combat bad speech isn’t less speech, it’s more speech” was invoked, and seems very appropriate. Taking away resources and limiting the public’s access to valid and appropriate content because we’re afraid of hate speech only strengthens the power of hate speech overall. As one participant pointed out, showing the general public that hate speech still exists – and in some arenas, flourishes – goes farther in showing the need for institutions of tolerance than any prepared statement ever could. Institutions and organizations of conscience need to shine a light on intolerance and hatred in order to show the world how ugly and real it is, not limit how much we show due to fear and hope to keep things sanitized. Hate speech goes on with our without our posted content, and if we can use that speech for good, to make people more aware of the appalling nature of hate speech, and hopefully inspire them to do something to create more tolerance, we’ve beaten the hate-speechers at their own game. As a comment I made (that was tweeted by none other than Craig of Craigslist himself) succinctly puts it “Without freedom of speech, how will we know who the $#@!holes are?”
Of course, this is an easy thing to say in theory, but a very difficult thing to do when you have the feelings of real people, people who have survived a horrifying event and confronted more hatred than most of us could ever imagine, to take into account. That’s why another initiative the Freedom Project is taking on in 2010 is also very important – media literacy. If we can help people distinguish between valid voices and information, and those just hatemongering, we’ve taken away a critical tool of people who use intolerance to incite violence and more hatred. Knowing who to trust, and where to go if you’re not sure if you should trust someone, is as important in our media adventures as they were when we were going on our first dates, going to college, or renting an apartment for the first time. People need the tools to weed out the unreliable voices or to refute them. Combined with the power of free speech, media literacy will go far in using hate speech for exactly the purposes it was not intended for – education, inclusion and tolerance.
To find out more about the Conscience Un-Conference, visit the official blog at http://www.ushmm.org/social/blog, or search for #conconf on Twitter to see live tweets during the sessions.