The solution to hate speech is not to lecture people about it
What you need to know:
- The effective policy choice is not to strengthen penal sanctions in order to reduce the supply of incendiary commentary and statements by the uncouth.
- To my mind, most statements to which people take exception are more a demonstration of a puerile mind than a show of sophisticated thinking.
- The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) should understand that its work is not to preach that hate speech is bad, but to demonstrate that purveyors of hate speech are wrong, and often simple-minded.
Let's take another detour from discourse on economic affairs, into a related issue of rights and the place of free speech involving uninformed and hurtful messaging, in which some prominent Kenyans have established expertise.
Right off the bat, I consider that there is a very definite, low threshold to what government can ensure people say in public or private. For that reason, any policy around expressions that offend groups of people, whether religious, ethnic, racial or other amorphous collectives ought to be managed with intelligence.
Therefore, the effective policy choice is not to strengthen penal sanctions in order to reduce the supply of incendiary commentary and statements by the uncouth.
I am cautious about the application of penal sanctions as a response to “irresponsible” statements for a variety of reasons.
First, Kenyans take for granted that there are primordial differences between groups, an idea which finds expression in stereotypes used in entertainment and political communication.
One hears that certain different groups or ethnic collectives are primordially engineered to be entrepreneurial, lazy, ostentatious, garrulous and other things. There is no harm in anyone believing the stereotypes of their superiority, either those about the Kenyan nation or the ones about the special endowments of groups. What this tells me, though, is that these stereotypes will only find traction where scientific literacy is low.
In other words, the problem with stereotypes is often one of poor understanding of science. It is puerile to respond to demonstrated ignorance and unpopular ideas through jail sentences.
A second assumption is that the public declamation demonstrates that everyone who hears a harsh opinion expressed about himself or herself has a fragile ego and will take offence. I disagree.
To my mind, most statements to which people take exception are more a demonstration of a puerile mind than a show of sophisticated thinking. Being offended by them is evidence of a low threshold for offense and the inability to respond with a rebuttal. Thus any commentary that is intended to emotionally injure a person, population, or express hatred towards an individual should be subjected to the check of reasonableness.
STRENGTHEN ALL KENYANS
Most individuals who have cultivated the habit of insulting others, whether on social media or in public places, rely on the knowledge that they will not be challenged to justify those claims.
Judging from the surfeit of articles from editors and contributors to the press in Kenya, it’s clear that some media houses are infected with concern about hostile communication among Kenyans. This tired thinking that they should continue to lecture their readers about the crassness of what is known as “hate speech” shows the poverty in solutions.
What media and publicly funded bodies like the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) fail to understand is that there is now so much information that hushing rude speech and sending people to jail for it will not stop the supply.
To be clear, the Kenyans who are known to tell obvious lies and slander groups that they dislike are not amenable to a supply-side intervention. Their response should be to strengthen those targets of outright lies and slander.
It means that the NCIC, considered among Kenya’s most ineffective institutions, would be much wiser to concentrate on strengthening all Kenyans to recognise and ignore the purveyors of unsavory language.
This will have to be done by the NCIC ceasing its lamentable pleas for intolerant people to behave better. NCIC must demonstrate to Kenya that intolerance is a sign of low intelligence and bad manners.
I suggest that the NCIC take up its role in public information more seriously. It should deploy research assistants to track the most nefarious utterances by the merchants of hatred and classify them intelligently. Thereafter, it should use its scarce resources to publish a fact-based rebuttal to the claims, naming the authors, the statements made and the date and time of publication of these utterances.
This accomplishment would ensure that merchants of these claims would be lampooned in public when their statements are published and demolished using facts available to any informed Kenyan.
In short, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) should understand that its work is not to preach that hate speech is bad but to demonstrate that purveyors of hate speech are wrong, and often simple-minded.
That they have not done this shows that the purveyors of hate speech are ahead of them, and that the NCIC has failed to justify the public expenditure it takes. If the simpletons are ahead of a commission spending hundreds of millions of tax shillings, then the NCIC should close shop.
Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame