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Canada Concordia University pilot program has unique take on hateful speech

Vivek Venkatesh has been leading a project partly funded by Public Safety Canada that aims to combat radicalization by asking students and educators to talk freely about their thoughts on religion, politics or ethnicity.

Thomas Mazerolles​/Thomas Mazerolles​

As a prescription to counter hate speech, a new strategy being led by a Concordia University researcher runs counter to most mainstream approaches, including this week's motion condemning Islamophobia in the House of Commons. Rather than denounce hateful remarks, the Someone Project teaches students and community members to listen to each other's offensive, even hurtful, words.

That may be the only way to build resilience to radicalization among new generations, one of the initiative's principal researchers says.

"What we want to do is to begin conversations between groups of people who may not agree with one another on issues of political and social import," said Vivek Venkatesh, an associate professor in education at Concordia. "We need to learn how to hate in a pluralistic society – this is something that our project is trying to allow multicultural societies to express," he said.

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For the past year, a team of researchers – including professors and graduate students from Brock University in Ontario and the University of Alberta, among others – has been working to design and showcase tools and classroom experiments that help students talk about hate in a diverse society.

The goal is to combat radicalization, not by censoring hateful speech, but uncovering its sources.

In the months since the project began, the initiative has only become more timely. This week, Conservative MPs largely opposed a Liberal motion to condemn Islamophobia, sparking a heated debate.

The Someone Project is trying to offer an alternative to precisely that kind of high-profile, polarized debate, Dr. Venkatesh suggested.

"This has really become a binary debate. Anyone who opposes that motion is being painted as someone who is insensitive to a community that is hurting."

While Canada must send a message that everyone is accountable for speech that is discriminatory, shutting down those who say they want to protect free speech is not the right balance, Dr. Venkatesh said. In fact, one of the goals of the Someone Project is to encourage discussion about where to draw the line between words and actions.

Among the academics collaborating on the project, there is little consensus on when speech should be censored. In a video on the Someone site, many researchers say they don't believe that hate speech can ever be justified. But others try to find a place for hateful remarks.

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"There is room for hateful thoughts … and you can express different opinions. Where it becomes problematic is where you act on those, or incite others to act," says Dr. Tieja Thomas, who studied discussions on the Reddit online forum about Quebec's charter of values. The charter, which proposed limiting religious symbols in public, has been blamed for raising tensions in the province.

One of the most daring initiatives highlighted on the site is the Learning to Hate comic-book project, in which high-school students in Edmonton drew comics showing their experience of hateful speech. In poignant panels, the teens write about being teased for being red-haired, or facing prejudices about their age or race. One student explores his or her own feelings of hate. "So what if I love to hate?" the drawing says.

"There are complex issues of human emotions at play. We need to allow these multiple perspectives to co-exist," Dr. Venkatesh said.

The open approach may seem controversial, he says, but it's not new. Theories of radical democracy advocate free speech as a way to counter the very limited political participation offered by voting.

"Radical democracy doesn't say, 'Oh, let's agree to disagree.' It says, 'Let's not look at building consensus at all times,'" Dr. Venkatesh said.

Originally funded through Public Safety Canada's Kanishka Project, a $10-million, five-year initiative from the former Conservative government, the project has now been extended through a new fund aimed at strengthening community resilience.

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With the new money has come more outreach to the community.

On Friday morning, Dr. Venkatesh led a conversation with older seniors in Montreal's Mercier-Est neighbourhood, one of many such local discussions he has organized over the winter.

The aim was to allow participants to express their mixed feelings about diversity and to develop understanding and empathy for those who are different.

"We show photographs and ask people what the photos mean to them," Dr. Venkatesh said. A photo of two Muslim women wearing hijabs, for example, elicited a range of reactions, from remarks about the women's beauty to debate about whether Islam oppresses women.

"People felt they could voice their opinions and could say 'these are prejudices I do hold.'"

By the end of the session, however, there had been a shift, Dr. Venkatesh explained. "They said, 'I am willing to reconsider my prejudices.'"

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