“We are not saying that every time that someone tells a joke it’s going to end in genocide, but we do believe that where there’s genocide, that started with the foundation of attitudes of bias.” – Melissa Licali
On October 27, Robert Gregory Bowers, a 46-year-old white male, allegedly entered the Tree of Life Synagogue – or L’Simcha Congregation, – called out loudly, “All Jews must die,” and opened fire. By the time he stopped and was arrested, Bowers had killed 11 people.
No matter how many times America experiences a mass shooting, it’s never normal. Unfortunately, it’s become a regular part of our national conversation. Mass shootings in an age of social media have often come back to those who engage in hate speech. Although there are different reasons for violent acts, the connection to online activity is becoming more and more common. Bowers regularly posted online about his hatred for Jews. Last Friday at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center (JCC), Melissa Licali, the Education Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and also a Bully Prevention Specialist on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, conducted the Empowering Young People in the Aftermath of Hate Workshop, an event to help educate teachers in ways to prevent hate speech. Covering everything from childish taunts to genocide, Licali led a reasoned, but impassioned, discussion on how to better prepare children for the modern “Alt-Right” world.
About her workshop, Licali says, “We teach both educators and parents of students how to process and talk about what happened this past weekend (the shooting), and other incidents of hate that we see happening around us.” Later, she added, “We provide activities and discussion questions, and a platform for people to talk about their own feelings, their own thoughts, in what we like to call a safe or a brave space.”
Danitra Wansley concurs. She is an educator who attended the workshop. Performing various exercises together, she shows me how this can help engage students. “What I gained from this conversation is a space for educators for parents and family members to come together to discuss how to support our young people as they’re processing recent events that have demonstrated hate, and also how to move beyond that, and to show some light in the midst of darkness.”
The workshop focused on a Pyramid of Hate. “We at ADL use the Pyramid of Hate as a visual, so people can see exactly the escalation of hate, how it doesn’t just start maybe at genocide or the annihilation of a people. It actually starts at the foundation, with bias-based attitudes.”
Looking at the bottom of the Pyramid, biased attitudes start as innocuous; as stereotyping or insensitive remarks. But soon these easily lead to “acts of bias.” According to Licali, “Those can sometimes appear on the platform in the form of jokes and slurs, and then it goes up from there.” She explains, “’attitudes of bias’ can turn into prejudice, which turns into discrimination, which turns into acts of violence, which ultimately turn into genocide.”
From biased attitudes to biased acts is an easy jump. Small, but easy jumps up the Pyramid, which can go unnoticed until it’s too late. Robert Bowers didn’t wake up one day and immediately decide he was going to kill Jews. It was a process. Licali says, “It’s not a great jump from one thing to the next. We see it in discrimination. We see it in housing and other areas. But it starts as a foundation with just slurs and jokes.”
“Now, we’re not saying that every time that someone tells a joke it’s going to end in genocide, but we do believe that where there’s genocide, that started with the foundation of attitudes of bias.”
The Pyramid of Hate is only one tool in this process of helping students become more informed. “We also add the Pyramid of Ally-ship,” she says.
“We come up with ideas, and tangible things that we can take with us, to combat and to challenge those attitudes: the discrimination, the prejudice; so maybe it might be at the bottom level, interrupting a joke or a slur. Maybe it might be for discrimination, rallying with someone against housing discrimination, or some other form of discrimination. When it’s genocide, maybe it’s donating money to an organization that helps with these things. So there are things that we can do, and we want our participants to leave with an action plan that they can take with them.”
After nearly two hours, the event concluded, the speaker sat down to talk with me, and most of the people left, but a question hovered in the air: Would this workshop make a difference?
Attendee and educator Wansley believes that it does.
“This workshop is important and remains more critical than ever, as we continue to see events that are rooted in bias, as we move up to bigger, more harmful incidents, it’s even more important to have these conversations with young people.”
Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.