Hi everyone, we're taking a short detour from premodern queer history to talk about an important new book, recent history, and current events. CW: this article contains a brief description of a hate crime.
On a hot summer day in the late 1990s, Matthew Williams stood outside of a bar on Tottenham Court Road in London. The recent university graduate was celebrating with his friends before venturing off to pursue a postdoc in journalism. Williams had stepped out of the bar for some fresh air when a stranger approached him asking for a light. Before he knew it, two other men jumped in, pinning him to the ground, and hitting him repeatedly. The attack had been premeditated. His assailants laughed and called out homophobic slurs as they left him bruised and bloodied on the asphalt. “In an instant,” he recounts, “I knew I was a victim of a hate crime.”
The attack left a permanent impact on Williams. “It reshaped me,” he explains. “I still don’t hold my partner's hand in public. [...] I lost something that day, and it still feels like I will never get it back.” After the attack, he abandoned journalism to pursue a degree in criminology instead. “The questions I had about my attack preoccupied me,” he writes, “and science was the place to find the answers.” After a lifetime of research into hate crimes, Williams published his findings in The Science of Hate: How Prejudice Becomes Hate and What We Can Do to Stop it.
In his book, Williams explains the difference between prejudice and hate. “Prejudice is an internal set of thought processes, developed through learning, that either predisposes a person to favouring or disfavouring another person because of a group they belong to,” he writes. It can be conscious or unconscious, positive or negative. Hate, however, is completely negative, an attitude with a unique moral dimension. “It is usually the perceived transgression of morals or values held sacred that can see a prejudice turn into hatred,” he explains. “The haters feel the need to correct transgressions, sometimes via violent means.”
The origins of prejudice can be found in our evolution. A social species, humans have learned to group together in order to survive. Generally, it was easier to trust a familiar face over a stranger, so over millions of years, our brains developed the ability to create a distinction between “us” and “them.” “What ‘us’ and ‘them’ manifested as was irrelevant,” Williams explains. “Back in hunter-gather times it was unlikely to manifest in terms of race given the limits of migration, but this predisposed preference for people like ourselves has stayed with us.”
In the past few decades, the internet and social media have provided new platforms to express prejudice and hatred. Though these hate crimes are virtual, their effects on targets are no less harmful. In some cases, online hatred can be even more debilitating since the anonymity of the internet allows offenders to produce hate speech more often, and with greater severity, due to the lack of consequence or inhibition.
As a result, “hate has become a 24/7 phenomenon,” says Williams. “For many, especially young people, communicating with others online is now a routine part of everyday life, and simply turning off the computer or mobile phone is not an option. Online hate speech then has the insidious power to enter the traditional safe haven of the home, generating a cycle of victimization that is difficult to break.”
Instead of promoting verified sources and diverse points of view, algorithms are designed to prioritize increasingly polarized content. Plus, filter bubbles have created virtual echo chambers for online networks of like-minded people to share partisan information without opposition, and bots or fake accounts have influenced elections and spread divisive content. This increasing polarization of information has made virtual networks a breeding ground for stereotyping and online hatred.
Hate online also has a dramatic effect on physical hate crimes and vice versa. “Social media posts by right-wing politicians that target minority groups have been found to cause increases in hate on the streets,” explains Williams. “Scientists found that anti-refugee posts on the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) Facebook page triggered offline violent crime against immigrants in Germany. [They] also found a strong statistical association between President Donald Trump’s tweets about Islam and anti-Muslim hate in US counties.”
Even genocide, the most extreme form of hate, has had links to social media. This phenomenon became apparent most recently in the 2016 human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. After the government relaxed business laws in 2011, over 40 percent of the Burmese population came online for the first time, flocking to Facebook. Radical extremists flooded their pages with thousands of posts dehumanizing the Rohingya Muslims, amassing 12 million followers in a short time. Facebook had no idea how to police content in developing countries, and only a handful of content moderators spoke the local language.
As a result, Facebook in Mynamar was left unregulated, making it an effective tool for exacerbating ethnic conflict. “It was weaponized,” Williams explains. “It took a Reuters investigation to convince Facebook to delete posts and accounts. The United Nations came to the conclusion that Facebook had a ‘determining role’ in stirring up hate against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in the 2016–17 genocide. Eventually, Facebook acknowledged its role and apologized, admitting to being too slow to address the hate speech posted on its platform in the region.”
Historically, the biggest triumphs over hatred have manifested in political progress. Social movements, from Black Lives Matter to queer liberation, have made it socially unacceptable to express prejudiced attitudes. “This has been called the ‘civilizing process,’” Williams explains, “and we are seeing it unfold right now in relation to the struggle for trans rights.”
I concluded our interview by asking Williams how we can mitigate hate and prejudice in ourselves, and he provided the following advice:
We must recognize false alarms when our threat detecting mechanism is triggered: When we are told by politicians and the media that life is bad because of people different from us, we must always question their motives and stand down red alert when we spot mis/disinformation.
We must question our prejudgements of others different from us: Though our brains are great at many things, they are flawed in a few important areas. Instincts are useful in certain situations, but they can lead to discrimination when used to make decisions regarding people different from us. We should never act on first impressions and must always give someone a chance to prove us wrong.
We should not shy away from engaging in contact with others different from us: Since the 1950s, over five hundred studies including more than 250,000 people across thirty-eight countries have shown that positive contact under the right conditions reduces prejudice and hate. Contact seems to work particularly well for reducing anti-gay prejudice, followed by prejudice motivated by physical impairment, race, mental impairment, and age.
We must take the time to put ourselves in the shoes of ‘others’: In the lab, exercises in imagining others’ perspectives and experiences have been shown to promote what psychologists call decategorisation, which means we come to see ‘others’ as individuals, and less as a part of a separate group.
We must not allow divisive events to get the better of us: When a divisive event unfolds we must ask ourselves if those groups depicted as being at its center are really to blame. We must question the motives of those pointing the finger and seek out a range of opinions from across the spectrum of viewpoints before we decide on how to feel and how to behave.
We must burst our filter bubbles: Most of us either actively avoid or are guided by algorithms away from, groups and information that do not match our preferences. Break the cycle.
We must all become hate incident first responders: When we see hate, we must call it out, while ensuring personal and collective safety. The limited research on those witnessing prejudice and hate shows that fewer than half actually do something in the moment either to help the victim or admonish the perpetrator.