Can a person learn how to respond to an offensive or hateful situation? Can adults help 21st Century young people master the skills? Earlier this fall I wrote a post, Is Hate Speech Here to Stay?, wondering if up-front, in-your-face hate and offensive speech will be a continuing problem in our connected world.
Recently a New York Times article, Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech, described the challenges and awkwardness that individuals experience when they happen to hear or see a person engaging in offensive activity. The piece highlighted research about what occurs when people challenge offensive speech, and it suggests concrete steps that a person can take when confronted by offensive behavior or speech. The authors, Benedict Carey and Jan Hoffman, point out that researchers have consistently found that a person who makes the awful comments will often curb behavior when another expresses reservations or reacts in a more indirect way.
Offensive speech is not new in the 2016 election cycle, but somehow it’s feeling worse now. Hurtful, hateful, prejudicial, and just plain wrong comments have been around a long time in the lives of children and adults, and they can be delivered via political activities, digital interactions, and spoken or written words. Offensive speech and actions, like bullying, create bystanders — people who do not respond at all. Nonetheless, the challenge for individuals (and this can be awkward) is figuring out how to respond to, or sometimes even to confront, the person saying or doing something offensive, while at the same time maintaining a bit of personal protection.
Benedict and Cary, after consulting with experts, write about how people can make comments that diffuse the “noxious conversation,” distract the commenter, or even change the subject. In some situations humor, they write, can actually work. Children watch everything that’s happening in the adult world, noting what we do and what we don’t do, and we can help them figure out how to respond to similar situations that occur in their lives.
Many times I’ve spoken privately with students — children who’ve asked for help — about how to respond or extricate themselves from troubling or offensive, often digital, situations. A child might have been at another child’s house and activities on the computer or the iPad moved into an uncomfortable realm. An online conversation might veer into bullying. A teammate might comment derogatorily about another player. In these conversations, most children can, with adult support, come up with their own ideas about how to handle problematic, mostly online situations. So in these conversations we worked together at coming up with ideas to use to redirect or defuse the activity.
Five Suggestions from Fifth Graders — To Use When Digital Activities Become Uncomfortable
- Look at the time somewhere and say suddenly, “Oh no, I promised to check in at home.”
- Point out that a person in your family (a cousin, perhaps.) has experienced nasty online comments so you are uncomfortable writing anything about others.
- Yawn and suggest another activity. Say something like “I’ve been on the computer all day, I’d really rather sit around and read (or play a game, go outside, play soccer).
- Say you are hungry and ask for a snack.
- Jump up and say you have to go to the bathroom.
Yes, some of the suggestions on this list are fifth-graderish, but interestingly, kids reported that all of their ideas halted or changed the activity, mainly acting as conversation stoppers.