Instead of fighting against, let’s fight for

A boomerang of good stories is what we need in our unhealthy culture.

Ekaterina Kuznetsova
29 January 2016

The 2015 WFD Freedom vs Control event in the Strasbourg youth centre last November.

The 2015 WFD Freedom vs Control event in the Strasbourg youth centre last November.

The 2015 WFD Labs included Anti-Hate Responses, hosted by the No Hate Parliamentary Alliance. Hate speech often targets diversity and represents a powerful obstacle to social cohesion. This lab, which the author attended, showcased innovative initiatives to prevent hate speech and prejudice in diverse societies ( look out for our forthcoming audio excerpts).The project, Young People Combating Hate Speech Online, run by the Council of Europe’s youth sector between 2012 and 2014, combatted racism and discrimination expressed online as hate speech, by mobilizing young people and youth organisations to recognise and act against such human rights violations.

My name is Ekaterina Kuznetsova, I am 24 years old and I come from Russia. Participating in the World Forum for Democracy event in Strasbourg organized by the Council of Europe taught me one important thing - despite all the hate speech and negativity that exists, it is possible to fight it. But instead of fighting against something, let's fight for. 

Let's support the diversity, which stands for human rights, animals rights, gay rights and rights of all the minors. Let's fight for the power of dissent - the ability to speak up, stand for the cause without fear of being punished for what you think or say. Let's fight for the storytelling.

We do not just tell the stories, we ARE the stories. We become the stories and through them we feel compassion. Sometimes even one story can become a powerful tool in combating hate speech. 

Being a journalist I am a strong believer in word power. This power can be used for good but it can also be destructive. Back in the fifties the famous novel 1984 by George Orwell examined such power and how the simplification of the language can be merely destructive for society, turning people into helpless non-thinking masses who can be easily controlled.

Contrast with this what the writer Valeria Luisell underlines regarding the positive power that words and stories have on the reader: "Words arranged in the right order produce an afterglow. When you read something beautiful, or something poignant, a powerful but fleeting emotion ensues. Then comes a need to possess that beautiful thing, and to hold on to that emotion. You reread, underline, and maybe copy down the line that produced that sudden rapture. And then it’s all gone. Retracing my steps as a reader and a storyteller when I write is a way of recovering and extending the afterglow."

I would argue that it is words that determine our actions. If we live in a world where hate speech not only exists but often prevails over kind words - what kind of actions does this hate speech lead to? And what further patterns do these actions develop?

As rhetorical as these questions might sound — words created the realities we live in. Most of the history books were written by middle class white men, creating the history that we grew up to believe in. This history goes further and builds up an education system based only on the knowledge of white middle aged men.

But doesn't diversity require a range of opinions and the representation of more than just one group of people? It certainly does. However, historically it happened to be the white males who wrote the whole history of civilization and determined its courses of action. In our current reality, history tends to repeat itself. The role of the ‘storyteller’ is still largely secured by a white man.  

The Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the book Middlesex, shares the following wish with us:

"Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ I’d like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I’d like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.”

So let me do the same. I live in Russia – a patriarchal country that had a very difficult historic past that still echoes through my life in 2016. Feminism is considered a dirty word in Russia. Recently I realised that we do not have the word ‘bullying’ in the Russian language (the closest equivalent I could think of was ‘trolling’, yet it is not the same). Sadly the bullying itself exists, we just don't have a word for it.

Our political regime is called a ‘democracy’, which usually grants people freedom of expression, yet being a journalist in Russia is a life-threatening profession. Freedom of expression is highly limited - there are unspoken rules to what you can and cannot publish. Dissent therefore is highly unrecommended. Dissent is highly un- recommended.

An official investigation from Reporters without borders in 2015 reveals that “pressure on independent media continued to intensify in Russia”, and my country was ranked 152nd in the media freedom table.

At the World Forum for Democracy a lot of experts paid special attention to the role of media. Yet in order to combat hate speech and guarantee the freedom of the press - protection is an important mechanism that needs to be in place for all journalists.

There are big organizations like the UN or the Committee to Protect Journalists, which are certainly helpful but do they protect journalists at the local level? Why then do the lists of media professionals who are being killed grow bigger every year?

The role of media representation is crucial in shaping a more inclusive and diverse world. Stories are being narrated to many people every day, but only a few stories have the privilege of being shared with wider audiences thanks to the media. Unfortunately, instead of acting as an effective tool to promote and enhance democracy, very often the media is itself responsible for the promotion of hate speech.

Media choose to focus on negative perspectives, for example portraying the LGBTI community as potentially ‘destructive’ for the Russian population as a whole. Recent examples of this include a Russian newspaper that tried to fabricate this letter. There are more examples and even fake statistics that were created to endorse the policies of the powerful. Ordinary people whose lives have become struggles for survival of an economic crisis that escalates rapidly simply do not have the energy to fight for or against the cause.

No hate at 2015 WFD.

No hate at 2015 WFD.The pressure is felt not only if you are a journalist. Returning to the example provided above - LGBTI law in Russia or so-called ‘anti-gay’ law, as it was famously referred to by the media, is still in place, enforced and supported by the government. Media keep ‘feeding’ Russian people with information on how detrimental LGBTI can be for society. Being a citizen of Russia and knowing how many problems we really have with our healthcare system, pensions, education and many other aspects (the list goes on and on), it seems ridiculous that being a gay person can be considered a problem.

After attending the WFD where four stories from four different people were told, I came back to Russia inspired and motivated to tell these stories to other people. What I did not realise is that some stories are unfolding on their own - without me being part of them. The other day I met with a friend who never supported the LGBTI community. She told me that she found out that her very close friend revealed he was gay and through listening to his story she realised how unimportant his sexual orientation was to her. She loved the person and his story did not matter. My other friend who held the same opinion and believed in the concept of ‘gay propaganda’ changed her mind after falling in love with the gay character from the popular series Glee. "I was watching the show and suddenly understood that two characters were in love and I did not care what kind of love, I just felt they had a real feeling going on" - she told me. Isolation is the tool that enforces hate speech the most.

We don't just tell or listen to the stories. We become the stories. We ARE the stories. And this power is among the strongest humanistic powers we have and can use for the good. Diversity is a natural outcome of different nations, genders, values, traditions blended together. Instead of celebrating this beautiful mix of uniqueness, hate speech chooses to divide people. Instead of celebrating the dissent and power of every individual to speak up, people are being punished for having their opinions.

My story of Russia is not the happiest one, yet I see acts of kindness and good people in our community who work on combating hate speech. I am proud of being born Russian and I will keep fighting for the stories to be told, because isolation is the tool that enforces hate speech the most.

Despite the politics and the actions of the government that we cannot control, we can still focus on telling important stories. Words are powerful, words make the stories and then turn US into these stories. Stories have to be told wisely. Sometimes these stories choose to live on their own, but when they are being shared, their beauty lights up someone else's life, creating the multiplier effect. A boomerang of good stories is what we need in our unhealthy culture. We need ‘to pay forward’ with honesty and sincerity, one to the other, in order to eradicate hate speech once and for all.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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