‘Flower Speech’ to combat Hate Speech

Article by Trevor Watson • Image Credit

Trolling or engaging in hate speech and incitement to violence on social media is a growing problem. Many users of social media hide behind pseudonyms and feel free to indulge in abusive language against people they don’t like, and sometimes don’t even know. It can be used to whip up hostility against an individual or a group on the basis of gender, religion, race, or some other pretext. The usual advice for victims of abuse on social media is to ignore it or to block the other user(s). However, how can we counter such speech in a more powerful way? Human Rights activists in Burma who started the ‘Panzagar’ (flower speech) campaign are doing just this through their innovative campaign.

Freedom of Speech?

We all have a right to our opinions and we all have a right to express our opinions and social media can be a good vehicle for this; but we don’t have a right to be abusive or to verbally attack other people, or to spread lies and misinformation. Freedom of speech does not include freedom to deliberately abuse others; hate speech is, by its very nature, abusive, and often intended to stir up hostility. Inter-communal violence is rife in several parts of the world, including South and East Asia, and it is often generated or spurred on by hate speech, either in the press or in the social media.

Conflicting Rights!

There are two conflicting “rights” here. There is the so called “right” to cause offence, which the supporters of Charlie Hebdo assert in their support of free speech. On the other hand, there is the “right” to take offence and to retaliate accordingly. Whilst we all have a responsibility to speak the truth, even if it causes offence, nobody has the right to be abusive or to cause gratuitous offence. On the other hand, I don’t believe we have a right to retaliate (other than as provided by the law) when we (or something we believe in) have been offended. That is a recipe for anarchy.

The “Panzagar” Campaign

This is why well-known Burmese blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt’s “Panzager" campaign is so worth-while. Burma has witnessed serious communal violence since 2012, giving rise to strong anti-Muslim rhetoric among some Facebook users. Hate speech has also been used to put pressure on humanitarian groups, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, who provide aid to the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The campaign he founded is named “Panzagar” (“Flower Speech”) and is primarily intended to combat Burmese nationalist and anti-Muslim propaganda, which have spread quickly over the internet, much of it focused on the subject of communal violence in Arakan State and the status of that region’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but it does have a wider application.

Whilst, the Burmese government estimates that only 700,000 of its citizens are online, social media platforms, such as Facebook, are becoming very popular and serving as a platform for political debate which, in some cases, can become very acrimonious.
The main thrust of Nay Phone Latt’s campaign is to hand out pamphlets in the street and public places such as the Rangoon Central Station, and amongst the crowds during festivals—and they have produced a song to go with the campaign.
Pamphlets feature the campaign logo of lips clasping a flower branch, together with the slogan: “Let’s moderate our speech to prevent hatred among human beings.” With regard to social media, the campaign asks “netizens” to create and post images and photos of lips clasping a flower branch to accentuate the need for online tolerance. The aim of the campaign is not only to get people to practice ‘flower speech’ on the Internet, but also in their day-to-day lives, so as to reduce conflict and promote tolerance, particularly among different communities in the country.
As one of Nay Phone Latt’s supporter’s says: “We want to prevent conflicts in society as well as moderate the way people talk about these conflicts—we see that everyone should engage in “flower speech” as a way to promote an equal consideration for both sides of a conflict.”

Will it work?

An old cynic like me might say: “What good will a campaign like this do? It won’t stop malicious characters posting their vitriolic comments on social media, will it?” No, of course it won’t! But it could change the attitude of society. A lot of people go onto Facebook or Twitter when they are feeling bored or tired and looking for something to do, and they join in conversations, which they would be better avoiding, and adding their voice to that of the “crowd”. What is needed is people who are willing to be proactive and speak peace and moderation into these conversations. I am reminded of the BBC’s coat of arms and motto: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. It is important that people of peace are willing to open themselves to abuse, if necessary, for stepping out from the crowd and being different: to engage in “flower speech”. Anti smoking campaigns have not stopped the hardened smoker from smoking, but they have changed the attitude of society and resulted in smoking being regarded as anti-social. Let’s hope and pray that this campaign will spread far beyond the boundaries of Burma and lead to other campaigns elsewhere, so that bloggers, tweeters and Facebook users realise that abusive comments and hate speech on social media are as “anti-social” as smoking, if not more so, and seek to promote peace and tolerance and a desire to see the good in other people, even if they are of a different ethnicity or religion.

Even if, like me, you don’t use social media, we still have a part to play. Let’s put an end to all forms of malicious gossip, whether it is on-line or not, and learn to respect one another and live together in peace and harmony.


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