Conversations to Promote Peace in Times of Fear 1/4: Intolerance, Hate Speech, and Boundaries

I had many initial reactions to the bombings in Paris.

One of them was this: I’m about to hear some very hateful speech.

There is a group of people whose views are extreme, rigid, and very intolerant. They are a minority, but in a fear-based climate, their voice becomes a roar.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about their thinking:

  • Views are rigid and do not change with new information. In fact, new information is often interpreted in a way that confirms their beliefs.
  • They hold tightly to their privilege and have a scarcity mentality. For example, they worry that helping others will mean that they have less.
  • Their language is judgmental and extreme; some of the things they say make you cringe. They may use language that most find offensive and inappropriate.
  • They tend to equate tolerance with naivety or ignorance and thus become dismissive of other points of view. Preserving the relationship is not a priority during discussions.
  • Communication has a generally angry and aggressive tone that scares people into silence. As a result, they assume that people agree, and prejudicial views are reinforced.

The goal of any conversation here would be to protect myself and others by setting boundaries. I don’t try to change this person’s views.

I often choose not to have engage in the conversation in the first place. If I do interact, it’s usually because I have some sort of relationship with the person.

Setting boundaries is something I did a bit when working with clients who said racist, homophobic, or xenophobic things. I would say, “I respect your right to your opinion even though I disagree. However, using racist language is not ok. Please choose another way of expressing yourself.”

Setting boundaries with someone who is not a client might sound like this:

  • “I am not willing to have a conversation in which [describe language] is being used.”
  • “It’s not ok for you to use that language here/ around me/ around my children.”
  • “Please choose another word.”
  • “We can talk about this when you are calm.”
  • “I’m not willing to discuss this with you.”

I try to be brief, clear, calm, and respectful because this is the sort of communication I would like from the other person. Also, that type of interaction is in line with my values.

Setting boundaries like this promotes peace in a few ways.

  • You protect yourself and others from the toxic effects of hateful speech.
  • You set a good example for others who don’t know that its “ok” to set a boundaries or don’t have the language to do so.
  • You begin to chip away at social norms around the tolerance of intolerance.
  • You avoid developing a cynical worldview where you feel that most people are intolerant.
  • You save your energy so that conversations with compassionate and open-minded people are more productive.
  • You gain self-respect and will be motivated to address other forms of everyday social injustice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you handle intolerant speech?

Further reading:

Korff, J. (2015, September 5). How to deal with racist people [web article]. Retrieved from

Yakushko, O. (2009, January 1). Xenophobia: Understanding the Roots and Consequences of Negative Attitudes toward Immigrants [pdf]. Retrieved from



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