Why We Need Humane Education: Survey Shows Young People Perceive Online Slurs as "Just Joking"

Image courtesy of  txmx2 via Creative Commons.
We all know that greater anonymity and distance are usually paired with a feeling of greater freedom in speaking our mind without thought to the impact of our words. Blog post and news story comments are a prime example of how free many people feel to spew hate, vitriol, hyperbole, and even misleading information. Our growing attachment to online communication has seeded a culture that condones (largely through silence) this heightened perception of a no-holds-barred environment that allows, if not encourages, us to speak unkindly. We perceive such an environment as giving us permission to leave our best selves behind. And unfortunately we're passing on that legacy to our youth.

A recent AP poll discovered that almost 75% of young people are more likely to use slurs and offensive name-calling online than they would in person.  The poll notes that most young people aren't bothered by this kind of language use. Many (about 54%)  say that they use it with their friends because "I know we don't mean it" and other teens say it's just the way teens talk to each other.
The percentage of young people who find a particular slur offensive increases significantly, though, if the slur is directed at them, or a group with which they feel connected.

Most slurs tend to be against women (about 75% "think slurs against women are generally meant to be funny") and those who are overweight (47% say such comments are meant to be hurtful). However, there are plenty of other targeted groups, from people of color and different religious backgrounds (especially Muslims), to young people who are gay or mentally challenged.
One student said that constantly seeing ugly words used online has deeply influenced what young people find acceptable: "It's caused people to loosen their boundaries on what's not acceptable." Another said, "People have that false sense of security that they can say whatever they want online."

Read the AP story here.

We know that words hurt. There is a skyrocketing suicide rate among bullied teens to help prove it. If we have a culture that condones and ignores hurtful, discriminatory, inflammatory language and behavior -- whether it's meant as a "joke" or not -- then that environment of acceptance ripples out to more and more people, including our youth, who are looking for signals about who and how to be.
That's another important reason we need humane education integrated into all our systems, from education to journalism to politics to culture, so that young people get the signals early and often that creating a just, compassionate, healthy world for all means always striving to bring our best selves to thought, word, and deed, and to model a message that is aligned with our deepest values. In such a world there's no place for slurs, "jokes" or not.

~ Marsha

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