Thinking critically about hate

“Hate speech” can range from offensive jokes to calls for mass murder so it is not always easy to identify it when we hear it.

Sometimes people mistakenly assume that speakers intend harm when they may simply be speaking from a lack of awareness.

On the other hand, it is also easy to overlook the cumulative effects that ignorant attitudes can have on those who are targeted. In fact, people may not realise how deeply ingrained attitudes can undermine the basic humanity of certain groups of people. While such speech may not appear ‘hateful’ at first, it nonetheless harms those it targets.

Hatred can be rooted in fear or ignorance but it can also be a consequence of prejudicial views, stereotypes, exclusionary beliefs, media misrepresentations, political manipulation or racist attitudes. Sometimes “hate speech” can dehumanise marginalised groups, potentially leading to violence against them.

The following concepts and examples can help us to think critically about the ideas we are exposed to in everyday life which might lead to inequality.

Equality is for everyone, including those who have a disability. Credit: Dima Nachawi

Stereotypes and generalisations

Stereotypes and generalisations may not always appear full of intense hate but over time they can have a cumulative, harmful effect on those who are targeted.

Such views can also influence policies and practices with extremely negative consequences for individuals, affecting their life chances.

As a result of stereotypes, people with disabilities can find it difficult to access their basic human rights, find jobs or access education. As in the illustration above, they can even face discriminatory attitudes when it comes to something as simple as going on holiday.

    • How can stereotypical views be challenged?
    • What could be done to change this situation?

Don't hate those who help. Credit: Dima Nachawi

Prejudicial views

As well as manifesting itself as “hate speech”, prejudicial, or in this case racist, views can manifest in discriminatory behaviour, such as treating someone differently because of where they are from, or discriminatory policies, such as confiscation of passports or limited access to public services.

Migrant workers, as shown in the illustration, are some of the most marginalised groups in our societies. They are often vulnerable to physical, sexual and psychological abuse by employers.

  • What is the context that leads to racial and class discrimination such as this?
  • How could this discrimination be challenged?

They're half the human race. Credit: Dima Nachawi


Traditional sayings sometimes reflect structures of power and dominance in society and contribute to the exclusion of entire groups. For example, the traditional Arabic saying “Consulting a woman leads to a year of destruction” reinforces the exclusion of women from decision-making. When phrases like this are repeated they contribute to negative and harmful views of women in society, leading to their marginalisation.

  • What other traditional sayings can you think of that marginalise a group of people?
  • How do sayings such as these affect society?

Credit: Dima Nachawi

Political manipulation

Sometimes people in power advocate hatred to manipulate people for their own political benefit. It’s possible to overcome political manipulation by thinking critically about who benefits from one group being encouraged to hate another.

Children are not born with an understanding of stereotypes or prejudiced attitudes. They learn values and beliefs from their family, peers, teachers, the media, and others around them. People learn to hold negative ideas and attitudes to other people as they interact with others. In other words, people are taught to hate.

  • Which groups are you taught to hate in your society?
  • Who benefits from making people hate each other?

Refugees aren't to blame. Credit: Dima Nachawi


One example of political manipulation is scapegoating. Political elites frequently exploit fear of others for their own personal gain. Scapegoating involves wrongly blaming a particular group, such as refugees and migrants, for problems a society faces.

For example, Beirut’s trash crisis that sparked protests in 2015 was the result of authorities’ corruption and mismanagement of tender processes. But despite this, many people held Syrian refugees responsible. In one prominent case, Al Nahar newspaper blamed Syrian refugees for the build up of pollution in Lebanon.

    • Which group in your society is frequently blamed for social problems?
    • Can you identify a political group that might benefit from scapegoating that group?

Credit: Sara Kauko


Dehumanisation is a process that strips people of their individual, human qualities to justify their differential treatment by those in positions of power. Dehumanisation seeks to create the impression, often in the minds of a majority or dominant group or their supporters, that another group, due to some common identifying characteristic, are somehow less human. Over time, narratives among the dominant group strip “the other” of their individual human qualities, treating “them” as a group only, denying each group member’s worth as individuals.

People dehumanise others through many different methods, but examples include equating a group of people that have a shared characteristic (e.g. their race or religion) with animals, vermin, or even disease. “Hate speech” can be instrumental in the process of dehumanisation.

  • Can you think of examples of dehumanisation?
  • How does dehumanisation affect the individual and society?

Media misrepresentations

People are generally averse to being violent and discriminatory towards others. By denying people their humanity, and treating them as “less human”, dehumanisation places “the other” group outside of normal moral codes and even blocks empathy towards them. This process can lead people to adopt feelings of intense hatred towards a group and beliefs that violence against is justified.

When amplified through mass media or social media as in the illustration above, dehumanisation can reach a larger audience, sow division and potentially incite people to engage in violence.

Historians, sociologists and psychologists have identified dehumanisation as a key step towards extreme violence and genocide.

We are exposed to these kinds of ideas all the time and they are common across all cultures and societies.

Prejudicial views, harmful stereotypes, processes of dehumanisation, discriminatory policies or behaviour or politically motivated scapegoating excludes entire groups of people and makes it harder for them to claim their rights or make their voices heard.

We all have the capacity to reflect on our own biases and how these may manifest in our expression and actions. Doing this can enable us to be more effective in challenging others’ prejudices, and make us more persuasive in speaking out to defend the rights of all people.

Can we stop “hate speech” through censorship?

It’s tempting to think that discrimination could be reduced if we simply banned or censored all “hate speech”.

But simply censoring all “hate speech” won’t deal with the root causes of hatred and discrimination. More importantly, censorship does not engage individuals who propagate hate, but shuts down debate and denies opportunities for exchange of ideas and experiences.

Moreover, broad laws to censor “hate speech” are frequently abused by people in positions in power, often to criminalise expression by marginalised and vulnerable groups who the law supposedly exists to protect.

If the root causes of hate arise from ignorance, we need education, debate and better media representation.

However, if the intent is to maintain systems of unequal power over other groups or to further a political agenda then we need to limit or protest against such speech accordingly.

Hate Speech quiz

Question 1
Which of the following statements is true? Check all that apply.
There is no uniform definition of ’hate speech’ under international human rights law, rather, it is a broad concept which captures a wide range of expression.
Speech that criticises the government, the nation or the flag is hate speech.
Hate speech is not just spoken. It can be written or visual and we might see or hear it in print, on TV, on the radio or on the internet.
Hate speech targets people because of who they are. This includes but isn't limited to their race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, migrant or refugee status, language or sexual orientation.
Question 1 Explanation: 
Speech that targets ideas, governments, nations, flags or religions is not hate speech. Hate speech targets people because of who they are.
Question 2
Why must we protect expression that is unpopular, offensive or even discriminatory?
Such expression does not necessarily or automatically amount to hate speech. Prohibiting such expression prevents people from exchanging ideas and learning from each other.
We should never protect unpopular, offensive or discriminatory speech. We need to ban or censor this.
Speech against the nation, questioning religious ideas or criticising the government is not hate speech even if it is unpopular or offensive to some. Such speech is extremely important because it allows us to hold those in power accountable.
Unpopular views may come from marginalised or vulnerable groups. Too readily restricting such views can curb marginalised groups' right to free expression.
Question 2 Explanation: 
Simply banning hate speech does not address why people use it. All responses must be rooted in tackling the bias, prejudice or intolerance behind such speech. Broad or vague bans on expression can also sweep up dissent or criticism of those in power. We need to be careful that legitimate speech is not banned.
Question 3
How do we identify ’hate speech’ that can be restricted? Check all that apply
Religions, governments and flags cannot be harmed, only people can. We need to distinguish between speech that targets ideas and speech that targets people.
Discriminatory hate speech that incites others to violence can cause exceptional harm. Such speech is unacceptable and must be prohibited.
Speech that questions public morals or public decency must be prohibited.
Speech that calls for genocide, incites hostility or any form of violence to other people must be restricted.
Question 3 Explanation: 
Concepts of “public morals” or "public decency" are often over-broad and may disproportionately discriminate against people on the grounds of sex, gender, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic.
Question 4
Which of the following responses to hate speech can help us challenge hate speech and also allow people to express their views?
We must ban all speech that is unpopular, offensive and discriminatory. Hate speech is unacceptable.
Freedom of Expression is a human right. So everyone must be allowed to say whatever they want.
Open discussions let people question, challenge and learn about different ideas, religions, races and cultures. We may be different but we're all human. Mutual respect for our shared humanity can help us understand each other better.
Question 4 Explanation: 
Unpopular, offensive or intolerant speech is a challenge but overly prohibiting this is excessive. At the same time, freedom of expression is not absolute and can be restricted when it denies another person's right to be free from violence and discrimination. We need a balance. Responses must be rooted in challenging prejudice and intolerance behind hate speech.
Question 5
How do we best challenge hate speech? Check all that apply.
We must ban, censor, limit or restrict all speech that is hateful or offensive.
All responses to hate speech must be rooted in challenging the prejudice and intolerance behind such speech.
Intolerant or hateful speech is divisive and a major concern for us all. We can only challenge hate speech with more speech.
Solutions to counter hate speech need to be holistic and include legal, policy and voluntary measures.
Question 5 Explanation: 
We can only counter hate speech with holistic solutions that are grounded in the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Excessive control over our right to seek, receive and impart information reduces our ability to learn from each other, share knowledge and find solutions to our problems.
There are 5 questions to complete.
Shaded items are complete.