Abbe Depretis created a class in response to the language of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I think that we’re surrounded by a lot of hateful rhetoric every day,” said Depretis, a communication and social influence professor. “Being able to kind of unpack it in class I think is a really useful tool.”
This semester, Depretis is teaching a new course: Rhetoric of Hate and Violence. The class will examine the rhetoric, or how language is used in a persuasive manner, of topics like terrorism, campus hate speech and violence.
In addition to the issue of hate speech, Depretis said the class will explore violent rhetoric and acts in social movements, which are often ignored.
When thinking of the civil rights movement today, Depretis said some people forget about violent incidents, like shootouts between members of the Black Panther Party — a national anti-racist and socialist organization — and the police. Malcolm X, a radical Black activist protesting in the 1950s and early 1960s, also supported the use of violence in self-defense against oppression.
“I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence,” he said during a speech in December 1964.
“Social change doesn’t always come about through nonviolence,” Depretis said. “We kind of pretend that it does, or we act like it does, that only nonviolence actually affects change, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
One of the textbooks for the class, “In the Wake of Violence: Image and Social Reform,” argues that more radical Black activists, like the Black Panthers, helped soften the sentiments of moderate civil rights leaders for many white Americans, Depretis said. As a result, people initially opposed to the ideas of a person, like Martin Luther King Jr., eventually agreed with them.
“What [author Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp] argues in that book is that there is a place for violence in social movements,” Depretis said. “She’s not saying that social movements should be violent, but what she ultimately finds in her study is that the violence of social movements…ultimately make moderates in social movements palatable to the mainstream.”
“So essentially what happens is Martin Luther King [Jr.] comes along and people say, ‘He’s too radical,’” Depretis added. “And then Malcolm X comes along, and people say, ‘Where’s that Martin Luther King [Jr.]? He seemed reasonable.’”
One of Depretis’ students, Summer Nelson, said she’s always been intrigued by how language can inspire hatred.
While Nelson, a senior communication and social influence major, acknowledged that Trump’s behavior has prompted many people to perceive a rise in hate speech, she said she believes he has mostly amplified bigotry that has always existed in the United States.
In 2017, hate crimes in the five largest cities in the U.S. increased by 8 percent from 2016, according to police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.
“Before [the Trump administration], people were able to frame hate or violence in ways of law and order,” Nelson added.
For their final projects, students will write a paper examining an idiograph, a word that represents an ideology, that’s related to violence or hate. In future sections of the class, Depretis said she plans to direct students to create anti-hate speech campaigns as their project.
When her students complete the course, Depretis hopes they will have developed a greater vocabulary to understand and discuss contemporary issues of violence.
By looking at the current genocide in Myanmar, she said students can dissect the dehumanizing language officials use to support the genocide of the Rohingya people, a stateless Muslim minority formerly living in the country. More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled from violence in Myanmar since August 2017.
An example of this language is Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current head of the country’s armed forces, attempt to justifying the persecution of the Rohingya people by writing they have never been “an ethnic group in Myanmar” on social media in September.
“From what we know from this class, these words are common veiled words for how others have talked about ethnic cleansing in other situations,” Depretis said.
As one of Depretis’ students, this class is an example of how hateful language has been at the root of some political discourse for decades.
“Rhetoric of hate and violence has been all of American history, not just current politics,” Nelson said. “People like to think that nowadays it’s so crazy, nowadays all these things are happening, [but] things have been happening for decades, for centuries that surround American culture about hate and violence.”