For researchers hate speech is part of everyday life

In the autumn of 2018, Jytte will organise a comics workshop on researchers’ experiences of hate speech, discrimination, and harassment in relation to their work. The aim is to use the experiences of the academic community in Jyväskylä as the basis for comic strip handouts that can be used to raise awareness of and intervene in such activity. We have set up an anonymous online survey for people to submit both their experiences of hate speech and their ideas on how to deal with it. The workshop on hate speech in the everyday life of researchers will take place on Saturday 6 October 2018. We would like you to both answer the survey and enrol in the workshop!

In the beginning of June 2018, the journalist Johanna Vehkoo and the comics artist Emmi Nieminen received the annual Nuori Voima literary and cultural prize for their comic book on hate speech. (1) From the academic point of view, two aspects of their work appear to be particularly important. First of all, the characters on the pages of Vihan ja inhon internet (“the internet of hatred and loathing”) include not just the targeted individuals and the trolls supporting the culture of hate speech but also researchers engaged in studying the phenomenon. On the other hand, researchers have had to encounter increasing amounts of hate speech directed at them.

Hate speech could be defined as any mode of expression arising from intolerance, violating human rights, and either instigating or justifying hatred. (3) It has often been considered as a phenomenon that thrives in online discussions and social media. It has also been considered to contain strong links to phenomena like populism. (4) As such, hate speech can be seen as symptomatic of cultural change, combining the features of online and political discussions in a harmful (toxic) way.

The connection to the post-factual era, defined as it is by the fear of the collapse of social order, might be particularly useful in explaining the hate speech encountered by researchers. According to the 2015 survey conducted by the Committee for Public Information in Finland, researchers’ encounters with hate speech have increased: the results show that more than 250 researchers have been subjected to hate speech. (2) The survey also shows that hate speech has become increasingly fierce. (2) The different forms it takes are considered to range from insults and denigration to direct threats. (7) For example, in the University of Jyväskylä’s Tiedeblogi, professor Outi Fingerroos describes how the lead researcher of an academy research project on the reunification of Somali families received a death threat after the decision on the project’s funding was made public. (5)

A personal attack is often a reaction to a researcher commenting in the media on an issue that is believed to threaten the autonomy of individuals, touch upon a socio-politically risky topic, or be sensitive in some other way. In the past, hate speech was commonly directed at researchers in fields such as genetic engineering, but research has shown that nowadays the victims are most often social scientists and humanities researchers, especially those who study gender. (6) In their work, Vehkoo and Nieminen also identify hate speech as a gendered phenomenon, as the targets are often women. (7)

For science, hate speech and the fear of it are problematic as they force researchers to consider their public appearances carefully. This increases the risk of self-censorship and through the restrictions it imposes on civic engagement, it may also reduce funding. (2) In the worst case, hate speech will lead into the avoidance of certain research topics and thereby into the flattening of the public discussion around them. (4)

In addition to posing a threat to scientific freedom, hate speech is also a problem which researchers all too often have to face alone. Although an increasing amount of police resources have been allocated to reducing online hate speech, and the Committee for Public Information and the Finnish PEN have jointly called for better acknowledgement of the phenomena threatening scientists, researchers encountering hate speech also have to encounter the lack of public discussion and structures of support. Structures do exist, but they are nowhere near well-enough known or functional. It is with this need of communication in mind that Jytte has chosen to collaborate with Researchers’ Association of the Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies to create a comics workshop and a publicity campaign that focus on the topic.

Comics workshop on hate speech and the problems of asymmetrical uses of power

In addition to hate speech, the comics workshop will deal with other problems related to asymmetrical uses of power that can be found at the university and in other research settings. The workshop will therefore enable discussions on, for example, harassment, discrimination, and bullying. Special attention will be given to these phenomena in relation to equality, racism, sexism, ableism, and language discrimination. These problems are easily left for individual researchers to deal with, especially if there is uncertainty regarding available actions. The workshop will launch a larger campaign on hate speech and asymmetrical uses of power within which Jytte aims to encourage discussion on the topic and inform researchers on available actions.

Comics are an excellent tool for handling challenging topics, as both artists and researchers have noted. In the summer of 2018, the literary researcher Anna Vuorinne talked about the unique properties of comics that make them a medium particularly well-suited for dealing with difficult experiences. (8) Although the focus of the workshop will not be on the participants’ personal experiences, we believe that it will leave enough room for them to express their experiences as they see fit. The aim of the comics workshop is to come up with ideas for handouts illustrating the actions available for researchers. These will be based on examples drawn from real life. The actual comics will be realised by the artist Sirpa Varis.

The workshop will be held on Saturday 6 October 2018 at 12-15 in Lyhty and it will be run by comics artist Emmi Nieminen. In addition to the workshop, the event will comprise a lecture on the themes of the day and a free lunch for the participants. The case studies will be collected with an online survey organised by Jytte.

We would like to ask all our members to take the anonymous survey, which will be available until the 14th of September. You can find the survey here.

Enroll in the workshop here.