Hate speech is never “just a joke”

By Dr Breann Fallon, Manager of Student Learning and Research 

The racist slur slipped into the dinner conversation.
It was said by a friend.
At my own dinner table.
I sat there in silence.
One brave soul put down their glass and called it out.
The friend chuckled. It was “just a joke” they said.

I am not proud that I sat there. Perhaps I was in shock, maybe I was scared. Either way, I often think about how I failed at that moment. So when I awoke to the pejorative, contemptuous and discriminatory comments made by Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) I knew it was important to not be silent. At first I did not know what to say, I was just too overwhelmed by his words. So as a sort of pre-blog research, I went to the site of the original comments – Twitter. 

The reflective wall in the Human Rights exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

And down the twitter rabbit-hole I went. 

I was bolstered by the many tweets who were clear in their stance and called out the hate speech. Both individuals and organisations standing up for change and a better world. Mensches from across the globe. I expected (or at least hoped) I would find tweets like these. 

There were also many tweets on the opposite end of the spectrum, openly supportive of Ye’s hate-speech and conspiracy theories. Sadly, the recurrence of age-old hatred’s and the rise of contemporary bigotry is worryingly present in both the digital and physical realms of our existence. So, I also expected I would find tweets like these. 

What I did not expect to see so frequently were tweets that took me straight back to that conversation at my dinner table. The tweets that tried to brush it off because “he doesn’t mean it” or because he is being “purposefully controversial” or it was “just a joke.”  There it was, again, this casual attitude dismissing hate-speech. 

How many times have you heard a racist remark or discriminatory quip dismissed as “just a joke”? Perhaps for you it was at a conference room table rather than a dinner table. Maybe it was in the schoolyard or on the sports field. With every quip that is brushed off, every joke that is let go, every slur that is ignored we do something very powerful – we give permission. 

It doesn’t matter who says it, where it is said or how the utterer might try to justify it. Hate-speech is never “just a joke.” It is dangerous. Why? Because words are the seeds from which actions grow. 

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