Sociologist Georgette Bennett on Why We Must Deflect and Debunk Hate Speech

People gather at makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Georgette Bennett is a sociologist who has been involved in interreligious relations internationally for the past 27 years.


Until the deadly shootings over the weekend, national headlines had been dominated by attacks denigrating the vibrant and diverse city of Baltimore. The two stories have more in common than you might think.

The depiction of Baltimore as a “rat and rodent-infested mess” is a form of hate speech. In his tweets about Baltimore, as in so many of his pronouncements, our president seems to have forgotten the inexorable link between verbal and physical violence. It starts with dehumanizing the “other” with words: rapist, swine; towel head; vermin, filth; ape; parasite; fag.  Words such as these empty others of their humanity and reduce them to caricatures that evoke contempt.

It then becomes a small thing to move from these caricatures of contempt to walking into a Walmart with a rifle to shoot at them, or seeing them swing from a lynching tree or to shove them into the fires of a Nazi oven.

For me there is another more personal connection between combating hate speech and the city of Baltimore: I am the widow of the “human rights rabbi” Marc Tanenbaum, one of Baltimore’s proudest sons and the subject of a recently published biography, “Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice and Religious Reconciliation.”

Before his death in 1992, Marc’s unique take on Judaism compelled him to be a universalist, not a particularist; outward-facing, not insular.

Indeed, the rabbinic techniques he honed last century are completely relevant for the toxic environment in which we live today. He formed multi-faith coalitions. He called out the politics of purity. He debunked myths. He mobilized the moral authority of clergy. He challenged politicians’ claims of piety. He listened deeply to the fear that underlies hate.

The lessons of Marc’s legacy apply equally to defending individuals or an entire American city: It is important to deflect and debunk hate speech as it happens. That means counter-messaging with the same sophisticated tools employed by those who foment hate and violence.

Marc preached — loudly and often — that these very tools need to be hijacked by those who wish to replace hate with deep listening and mutual respect.

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Source: Religion News Service