Human rights forum turns a spotlight on hatred

Human rights forum turns a spotlight on hatred

Mark Weitzman, a speaker at the Kean University Human Rights Conference, talks with a member of the audience about fostering civility.
Mark Weitzman, a speaker at the Kean University Human Rights Conference, talks with a member of the audience about fostering civility.

The combination of hatred and technology is the greatest threat facing mankind, Mark Weitzman told an audience at Kean University’s Wilkins Theater on Jan. 29.

“The Internet ‘globalizes’ hatred,” he said, and learning to cope with the new technology “is a challenge for all of us.”

Weitzman, director of government affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its task force against hate and terrorism, was speaking on “Cyberhate” at the Third Annual International Conference on Human Rights hosted by the Human Rights Institute of Kean University in Union.

Where the previous conferences focused on the genocide in Darfur and modern-day slavery, this one looked at the antagonism and fear that flares around differences, whether they be sexual, racial, ethnic, or even around disabilities.

The program also featured Morris Dees, the founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and Lt. David L. D’Amico, a detective with the Bias Crimes Unit in the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.

The event drew a capacity audience of around 1,100 college and high school students and teachers as well as professionals and members of the public, with another 100 watching on monitors in the university’s Little Theatre.

From his office in New York, Weitzman has done exhaustive research into the world of Internet hate groups that serve as outlets for white supremacists, homophobes, and Muslim extremists. Jewish and Latino extremist groups also sponsor websites targeting their perceived enemies. “Every group can be a target on-line; no one is exempt. And every group has its own extremists on-line,” he said.

He showed a sampling of websites that espouse hate. Their content ranged from a blatant use of swastikas and other like symbols and calls for ethnic cleansing to more subtle messages cloaked in a veil of academic respectability. Some of the most dangerous, Weitzman said, are the on-line games designed by hate groups that invite players to kill, rape, and steal in the name of their twisted ideologies.

Combating those who support the sites — for example, suing them so as to wipe out their resources — is not censorship, Weitzman said; it is a form of citizen activism.

“Look at everything on the Internet with a healthy dose of skepticism,” he told the audience, “and resist the tendency to believe that everything printed is true.”

‘Everyone is prejudiced’

In his keynote address earlier in the morning, Dees said hatred takes many forms.

“We have seen a 50 percent rise in hatred groups since 2000,” he said. His center has counted around 925 such groups, “and there are probably a lot more.” The Internet is a factor in that rise, he said, as are the election of an African-American as president, Latino immigration, and the economic crisis.

“We are the most diverse nation on earth,” he told the crowd. That is what makes the country great, and that diversity is increasing. He said, “Those changes will make a major impact on how people relate to one another. America is changing and it will not go back to what it was.”

He urged people to work with a group, “even one that you don’t necessarily agree with,” to combat prejudice, and to speak out when they witness it. “You never know who might be watching you, and see, and be inspired by the stand you take,” he said.

D’Amico showed pictures of the hideously tortured body of James Byrd, the black man dragged to his death in 1998 in Jasper, Tex., behind a truck driven by a group of whites who didn’t even know his name.

D’Amico took the audience through a rapid tour of the kind of hate crimes he has investigated in the 21 years of his career in the police force. He challenged them “to walk in the victims’ shoes for a day.” New Jersey, he said, is second only to California in the number of hate crimes reported per capita.

He said that the word “nigger” was being used far too freely in high schools, as is “gay” as a pejorative. As a gay man, he said, he faced such prejudice himself — some of it from his own colleagues in law enforcement.

“I’m confident that there’s no one in this room who hates,” he said, “though I am also 100 percent confident that everyone is prejudiced.”

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