Challenging versus transforming hateful speech and/or behaviour
We live in a world where sexist jokes among friends, xenophobic graffiti and racist speech by politicians has become an everyday experience. Too often, we do not even register it, as long as it does not target us directly. This is no different for youth workers*.
As educational youth work practitioners we are part of our families, circles of friends, communities, the political realm…; hence we need to unlearn the “normality” of hate speech and/or hateful behaviour ourselves first, in order to be able to recognise and tackle it with the young people and the youth groups we work with. This Manual aims to support the youth worker in recognising and tackling situations where hate speech occurs within a youth setting and has the ambition to support the youth worker’s practice to become transformative.
It is important to recognise that this Practice Manual focuses on working with young people who express hate through hate speech and/or hateful behaviour. The approaches presented in this Manual are therefore NOT focused on supporting the victims/targets of hate speech and/or hateful behaviour. We do not deny the needs of young people who experience hate and who we believe require the support of youth workers and the safety and protection that youth work provides to them – to protect them from hate and/or help rebuild their confidence and trust after being targeted by hate. However, we believe our approach is bringing long term change and in so doing may not offer immediate relief to the targeted person/s. There are extremely necessary and useful approaches that need to be used simultaneously to support and protect persons experiencing hate. This Manual, however, focusses on working with the person causing the harm.
To address hateful speech and/or behaviours directed at minorities and marginalised groups, youth workers are often asked to directly challenge young people every time they use hate speech. This frequently results in a one-on-one dispute or the young person being reprimanded or punished for their behaviour and in some cases being told to leave the youth work space. On the other hand, youth workers might not feel confident enough to tackle the hate speech effectively and as a result, they ignore it.
Most youth work / pedagogical approaches presume that the behaviour of the young person causing the harm is learned, misinformed (ignorance) or that they are fearful of the unknown. These approaches assume that interventions, such as education and familiarising the young person with people from minority or marginalised groups, will diminish this fear and associated hateful attitudes.
Many take the approach that challenging them on their behaviour will allow the young person to think about what they are doing and to stop doing it.
However, those who work with young people who use hate speech have observed that this approach is too often not effective. The young person learns what is acceptable in the youth group but they don’t necessarily change their attitude and they will still use hate speech outside of the youth setting. Youth workers are looking for more effective solutions. Similarly, those who support the young people who are the target of hate, have expressed a need to understand and engage with those that cause the harm in order to effect real change.
*We use the generic term “youth worker” for any person working with young people or youth groups through a pedagogical/educational approach.
Paramount to this discussion is the understanding that hate speech, in the context of our Outside In project and this Manual, is a particular type of hate. This hate is targeted toward people from minority ethnic and religious backgrounds, LGBTIQ+ people, persons with different abilities, and gender based hate. In these situations transforming hate is not only about challenging a young person’s attitudes but also understanding that their behaviour is embedded in wider systems of oppression and power structures, of which they are most likely unaware.
The approach used in this Manual goes one step further. We argue that incidences of hateful speech or behaviours can also be triggered by other factors; such as a young person’s struggles around identity, or feelings of being marginalised and isolated – especially when they feel that everything is stacked up against them socially, educationally, politically etc. – and no one is fighting for them. They may then look for a scapegoat or someone who they see as vulnerable and direct hate towards them.
While the causes of hate are complex and interconnected, and clearly bound up in systems of oppression that prevail in society, we also take the radical view that acts of hateful speech or behaviour are triggered when young people’s needs are not being met.
We believe that in order to challenge the young people causing harm we need to take a transformative approach and explore with the young person how we can address together what is going on for them and the impact their behaviours have on others.
Transformative practice takes time and a trusting relationship with young people but the seeds of transformation can be sown in all encounters with young people by striving to connect in a compassionate manner with the young person, through empathic listening and taking a needs based approach. Transformative Practice is therefore, first and foremost about the practice of the person engaging with the young people.
Transformative practice, in being about ourselves first, is equally about the influence we make in the environments in which we have control. It is about creating spaces that are as safe and supportive as possible for all. It is about putting value on building and sustaining relationships and on connecting with others through compassion.
Compassion for us is the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it. It is not about justifying, excusing or accepting the hateful behaviour but rather to understand that hate can be a symptom of deeply rooted needs. Consequently, by committing to a compassionate practice, we commit to respond rather than react, we commit to transform the situation rather than try to fix it.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
James Baldwin (1964)
By committing to a transformative practice a youth worker commits to:
- Being self-aware and knowing what they are bringing with them when engaging with young people.
- Reflecting on and developing their ability to recognise what is happening in their youth settings – from the wider social contexts to the context within the room for each young person.
- Learning how to create safer spaces for all their young people, with a focus on developing and using an empathic and compassionate way of communicating and listening.
- Taking a needs based approach – exploring with the young people what is going on for them as individuals.
- Exploring transformative methodologies such as Restorative Practice[i] and Non-Violent Communication[ii]
[i] For an overview on Restorative Practice. See www.iirp.edu/news-from-iirp/time-to-think-using-restorative-questions; www.iirp.edu/defining-restorative/history; https://charterforcompassion.org/restorative-justice/restorative-justice-some-facts-and-history
[ii] Developed by Marshall Rosenberg, NVC focuses on relationship building especially in situations of conflict or potential conflict, See www.cnvc.org. Also Rosenburg, Marshall B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication A language of Life. Encitas: Puddle Dancer Press.