schools | classrooms | hate speech | discrimination | racism | United Nations | policy-makers

A volunteer from St. Xavier's College teaching calligraphy to students of Shree Sahid Smriti Awasiya Secondary School, Jiri | Photo by: Bikash Kumar Dwivedi
A volunteer from St. Xavier's College teaching calligraphy to students of Shree Sahid Smriti Awasiya Secondary School, Jiri | Photo by: Bikash Kumar Dwivedi

Op-ed

Betting on schools to counter hate speech and discrimination

Can schools offer the best remedies against hatred speech, intolerance and racism?

By Simone Galimberti |

Hate speech, or hatred speech as I refer to it further, is emerging as a worrisome phenomenon in Nepal.

While Nepal is not yet at risk of metastasizing in the heart of her democratic tenants as many Western societies, no doubt that hatred speech is becoming a problem here too. Especially as youths spend a disproportionate amount of time online where it most of the time occurs.

Indeed, according to Nepal Police Cyber Bureau, as reported by The Himalayan Times, as many as 4,344 cases related to online gender-based violence, which includes slurs, explicit and hateful comments, have been registered from June last year to March this year.

At the same time, we should not forget that there are connections between hatred speech and phenomena like caste and gender discrimination that, as we know, are well rooted in Nepali society.

Only a few days ago, a Dalit’s house was set on fire in Jumla because an intercaste young couple — a Dalit boy and a so-called “upper caste” girl, had decided to elope.

Hatred speech and caste discrimination, while different, both come from a stereotyped, distorted view of those who they feel are different from them.

Though it seems pretty straightforward to understand the dynamics behind these forms of intolerance that engender divisions towards others, at the international level, no official definition of hatred speech is available.

According to the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, “the term hate speech is understood to refer to any kind of spoken or written communication or behaviour that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language about a person or group on the basis of who they are — particularly historically vulnerable, ‘minoritized’ groups targeted because of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, ancestry, gender or other forms of identity”.

Can schools offer the best remedies against hatred speech, intolerance, and racism?

Schools could certainly begin doing so by embracing a culture of openness towards diversity and positive curiosity towards those who are different from us.

But educators also need to get deeper into the underlying issues around hatred speech and discrimination even if it can create some discomfort among themselves because such efforts might clash with some of their well-entrenched, subconscious hidden values.

Still, education together with better parenting can offer the only long-term antidotes against hatred and discrimination.

The UN is betting strongly on the role schools can play in countering these phenomena and there is potential for Nepal to become a model for the rest of the Asia Pacific region.

While discrimination against Dalits is still deep and ingrained in the society (and not only in the rural areas and most remote districts), the nation is an example of an emerging multiculturalism that, at least on paper, is based on the inclusion of different cultures and traditions.

Certainly, there is still a long way to equal opportunities and sharing of power among the different communities.

Stronger legislation to create chances of achieving a level playing field is necessary together with more self-awareness among the members of the so-called “upper class” about doing more to enable minorities to climb the social and economic ladder.

Still, even if the quest for equity remains a long and bumpy road ahead, Nepal’s overall cohesion and national harmony make it best-suited to become the model nation.

The UN sees Nepal's potential too and it is why the UN is betting on Nepal choosing it for a sub-regional event on the occasion of the International Day for Countering Hate Speech commemorated every year on June 18.

Held on June 22, the international workshop with participants coming from the whole of South Asia saw the official launch of a new policy toolkit by UNESCO, a UN agency mandated to take the lead against hatred, discrimination, and racism.

Addressing hate speech through education: A guide for policymakers” offers practical ideas on how schools can truly become fortresses against the venoms stemming from divisions caused by these phenomena.

There is not a single set of recommendations but rather a variety of multiple formulas on how learning environments can become effective counter tools against biases and stereotypes — that already exist within the society and are now magnified by social media, where youths in Nepal and elsewhere spend hours and hours on a daily basis.

First of all, according to the blueprint, policymakers should prioritise the issue.

This means making it a priority not only to the national educational goals but also, as the report explains, “establish the issue as a matter of national and global priority”.

It is easy to understand, as I tried to explain at the beginning, the rationale of this, the fact that a whole nation’s system might fracture because of hate discourses permeating the society.

That’s why classrooms should tackle hate speech ‘head on’ with truly a national undertaking and the efforts should become a central pillar of a renewed national curriculum.

This can happen with the introduction of specific subjects but also by fostering and mainstreaming critical thinking across the entire learning experience.

The capacity to differentiate truth from falsehood, and the willingness to be open to learning even if such learning goes against a person’s own beliefs, are essential.

It is also paramount to come up with some guidelines on the use of social media, a topic itself that surely would fulfil a debate that risks being controversial.

Schools should be able to instil inquisitiveness or in simpler terms, positive curiosity. It is something that stems from the openness to understand more in-depth the distinctive aspects of a person’s own community, highlighting the commonalities and the differences as well.

Students posing for a photograph | Shree Sahid Smriti Awasiya Secondary School, Jiri | Photo by: Divya Pradhan

Essential remains the creation of conditions for students to be adept at social-emotional learning that spans from self-awareness to self-control to the ability to show empathy and the capacity to build positive relationships.

These are the key elements that make a young person’s character, whose traits, in the long term, are going to make the difference in a life’s trajectory.

Turning around the national education system to make it more quality focused and inclusive is already daunting, a challenge that the government in Nepal has fundamentally failed at.

Certainly, classrooms in community public schools may have been able to enrol a relatively larger number of kids from vulnerable communities that, only a generation ago, might not have been able to ensure their children the right to education.

School feeding programs and scholarships, though far from being implemented across the board according to international standards, are making a difference in this quest for inclusiveness.

Yet quality education in such schools is still a long goal to be achieved.

In such a context, the challenge is how to promote human rights and civic education and with them discussions against hate speech without overburdening the already struggling system.  

The key, as this report clarifies too, is not to see these much-needed preventive efforts but also counteroffensive ones as “add-ons”.

Rather they should be seen as truly complementary and fully aligned with the national educational goals.

The role of teachers is essential to fight hate speech, discrimination and racism.

How can we find the right ways, the appropriate balance to truly involve them, getting their indispensable “buy-in” and letting them understand how important their contributions are going to be?

Countering hate speech and discrimination starts with honouring teachers as civic leaders.

Yet will they be willing to step in?

Simone Galimberti is the pro bono co-founder of ENGAGE and pro-bono co-initiator of Good Leadership.

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