COMMENT:

The pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword. The pen – or in this day and age, the keyboard – is one of the deadliest weapons humanity possesses. Words are the powerful tools that we turn to when we express love, hate and everything in between. As such, they must be wielded with extreme care.

Words can often portend violence. Last week in Christchurch, we saw the heinous devastation that words can ultimately wreak. The loathing in the heart of the pathetic excuse for a human being who turned our country upside down wasn't some kind of genetic mutation. It didn't manifest in a vacuum. It's been swirling - first in whispers and anonymous social media posts, then in soundbites and recently in rally speeches – for some time now.

Globally, the dark clouds of hate and division have been gathering ominously for years. Rhetoric that would've been condemned as repugnant just a few decades ago appears on Donald Trump's Twitter feed seemingly every few days. Right wing extremists write best-selling books and travel the world on sold-out speaking tours. Trolls defecate their most revolting inner musings on to social media every second of every day.

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In 2016, when Trump was elected president, I wrote in this column: "If there's one thing we must learn from Brexit and Trumpism it is that no one is immune – not even the most developed liberal democracies on the planet." Since then, Trump has implemented a Muslim travel ban, refused to condemn white supremacy in the face of a white supremacist attack, and separated children from their parents at the Mexico border, among other highlights – all to a chorus of fervent adulation from not only his domestic base, but also from his many fans around the world.

The undeniable truth is that hatred has become fashionable again. It seems we've forgotten the lessons we were supposed to have learnt from the Holocaust. Hatred wins elections now. Hatred divides and conquers, delivering victories and profits to those who seek to weaponise it for their own gain. Hatred is the wolf in free speech's clothing, and indeed the cry of "free speech" has become its most impenetrable shield.

Speech may be free, but it can be excruciatingly expensive. It cost 50 lives last week. While speech is supposed to separate us from the beasts, the nature of our public discourse as a society has recently emphasised all of our most beastly instincts. While none of us are directly responsible for the atrocity in Christchurch, we have allowed hate-mongers to say reprehensible things and defended their right to do it. Whether through inaction or the broad-strokes idea that everyone has the right to an opinion, we have allowed the kind of speech that radicalises and divides to flourish.

As an opinion columnist, I am a staunch defender of the right to express an opinion, but what happens when that opinion is that a certain group of people are less deserving of human rights than another? What happens when that opinion suggests that a certain group of people is somehow less human, less valuable, or less welcome than another?

I have seen countless examples of those kinds of opinions voiced over the past few years, most on social media, but some in the pages of major media publications.

These kinds of views are protected under the umbrella of the freedom of expression. But should they be? Should we be protecting words of division and discrimination when we can't protect innocent children from the deadly hatred they foment?

The Christchurch attacks didn't happen in a void, and it's an insult to the victims to suggest this is just some lone-wolf attack, perpetrated by a nutter, nothing bigger to see here. Commentators, public figures, media, and political organisations particularly; we all have to wake up to the fact that our words may be the thousand tiny cuts that push fearful, ignorant, abhorrent people to the point where they maim and kill. We must champion respectful discourse, and utterly reject intolerance, bigotry and discrimination.

We must also demand that the hatemongers have their megaphones shut off. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan, 8Chan, Reddit and their ilk have for too long abdicated responsibility for content that leads to massacres like that in Christchurch. Enough. If the livestreaming of the Christchurch shootings wasn't enough to force the digital giants to take action against hatred and extremism, then they never will. Until they do, as a sovereign nation, we should take the strongest possible steps legally available to encourage them to do the right thing. Funnily enough, I imagine they'd move quite quickly to improve their systems if multimillion-dollar fines for disseminating hateful content were in the offing.

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It's time for us all to take responsibility, whether you have a social media account with five followers or a television audience of thousands. Every little comment that marginalises groups of human beings played its part in the Christchurch attacks. In this alarming time, when hate is on the perpetual rise, no one who has engaged in xenophobia, racism or other bigotry is innocent.

The flipside of all this is that our words are imbued not only with terrible, but also beautiful power - should we choose to use it. Let's use our freedom of speech to speak powerful words of love. And let's never forget that with great power comes great responsibility.