Please read this article to know what I’m talking about (tldr; the number of hate crimes against the Muslim American community is on the rise.
This violence is a direct result of hate speech. It is not a coincidence. It is not just some people taking it too far. Continual statements from public figures that demonize all of Islam, that spread fear about people who think and look differently, that propose that an American citizen who practices Islam is anything other than an American citizen. Those statements create a hateful cloud of misinformation from which acts of violence are the lightning strikes.
Those that commit hate crimes don’t do so because they are ‘lone wolves’ and they don’t do so because they are misunderstanding what a politician is saying when he’s “telling it like it is.” Picking out a group as ‘unamerican,’ repeatedly making statements about the danger of this group, makes that group into an ‘other.’ (An ‘other’ is a nameless, faceless, straw-man diametrically opposed against everything that you are.) A group, once othered, is subhuman. They are not worthy of empathy, their lives mean less.
For example, look at the discourse surrounding the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. The victims of those crimes were likened to vermin. They were said to be the enemies of the ‘true’ people. Nurturing the othering of any human is the first step in every terrible act that the human race is capable of.
That is why I say that hate speech is the direct cause of hate crimes, not the unfortunate misunderstanding of a misguided few. It is true that not everyone who spreads hate speech commits hate crimes, but everyone that commits hate crimes believes in the hate speech. Those that perpetrate violence do so because they are acting on the necessary extension of the logic laid down by hate speech, “these people are not my people”, “these people don’t belong here”, “these people are my enemy.” They feel that their actions are legitimate because those in authority repeatedly tell them that they are under attack.The repeated message “All practicers of Islam are the same. America is at war with Islam. To be Muslim is to be against ‘true’ America*.” sinks in, people believe it is true and act as if it were true. Without hate speech constructing that dichotomy of the other and the “true American” violence would have no narrative through which to legitimize itself.
Words have power. It is with words that people create their understanding of the word and their understanding of themselves. There is no such thing as an innocuous statement, particularly from a person with power and privilege. Perhaps if we were living in a culture that valued substance over sound bites we might be better equipped to critically pull apart all that is entailed in a public statement. But until then we should recognize hate speech for what it is, a threat to peace.
* “True American” can be interpreted as “White Christian”