Hate crimes, a crime motivated by a prejudice against the victim, are nothing new. Such actions have been around since differences between people have been defined, and they have been a particularly large part of American history. America has come a long way since the public lynchings of the early 1900s. However, recently hate crimes have been on the rise.
According to the FBI, hate crimes at K-12 schools and colleges rose by 25 percent last year. This is the second straight year in which the number of hate crimes has risen.
So why the sudden uptick?
Most progressives tend to lay the blame at President Donald Trump’s feet. His controversial campaign and rhetoric were deemed by many to be problematic. Indeed, some studies have even found a relationship between his tweets and hate crimes.
However, it’s deeper than Trump. Just as a hurricane doesn’t create the atmosphere and ocean conditions that spawn it, Trump didn’t create the political climate in which he thrives. After all, Trump is very much the same person in 2016 as he was in 2012, and back then, his political ideals an aspirations were not taken seriously. So, what has changed?
The standard of socially acceptable behavior.
Overall, America has taken a step in the wrong direction in regards to hate. The social cost of saying and doing things that many Americans find offensive has shrunk dramatically. Political gaffes about race that used to doom campaigns can now actually propel you to victory in a primary. Jibes about religion that people wouldn’t have whispered in years past are all of the sudden fair game for dinner conversation.
Three things have contributed to this overall shift. The first is the growing “anti-political” correctness sentiment has gotten people to actively challenge social norms around respecting differences. The second is social media. It has allowed people who shared views that were not socially acceptable to find each other online and spread their message. Finally, public figures have taken advantage of the changing sentiment to push the boundaries on publicly acceptable speech which influences social norms. (This is where Trump comes in.)
All of these actions combined to push back the boundaries on socially acceptable behavior, and that is what set the stage for a rise in hate crimes. The truth about boundaries is that a certain number of people will always cross them. This is especially true when it comes to students.
As a teacher, it is hard to tell students they can’t make fun someone’s ethnic or national background when they see the President do it on Twitter. I’ve seen first-hand how students flirt with making offensive remarks in class and graduate to vandalism and bullying. Throughout history, most genocides have started with speech. That’s not to say all objectionable speech turns to ethnic cleansing, but that is how it usually starts.
Any first-year educator knows that if you want your students to obey the big rules you have to enforce the little ones. We as a country have not done a good job of enforcing the little ones. We are blessed to have free speech in this country, but we have not done a good job of condemning speech and behavior that is detrimental to society. Yes, people are allowed to say and do whatever they want, but when they want to stoke and agitate ethnic, or religious tensions, then we need to use our own speech to let people know that’s not who we are.