Thursday, 16 June 2016

Violent rhetoric and its poisonous effects

Today it seems that everywhere I look I see acts of violence fuelled by a rhetoric of hate, and I think that something must be said about that.

This blog usually concerns itself with academic tidbits, or the interaction between popular culture and aspects of my doctoral thesis, but all of my academic endeavours have focused on the question of how a society creates an internal other and then viciously, and – often murderously – seeks to oppress, control and eradicate that other. So this is an opinion piece, not my usual mini essay.

But why should you listen to my opinion on violence and hate speech? Well, I have so far completed theses on the origins of Apartheid and the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and I am now completing my doctorate on the largest single witch-hunt in early modern England. If researching and writing my Honours, Master’s and Doctorate taught me anything, it is how little empathy most of people feel for those whose are in need. This is especially true if we believe that providing for them might impinge on our own opportunities or entitlements.

There is a long history in our society of marginalising, blaming and punishing those who we perceive to be a burden on our society. Of course it is little comfort to those who are caught up in the latest crisis of empathy to realise that this is an ongoing problem (victim-blaming, for example). And hate-speech and demagoguery exploits our fears and latent dislike f that which is different, painting it as a terrible, imminent threat to us as individuals, and our society as a whole.

There is a well-known theory of English witch prosecutions that argues that a significant proportion of witch trials had their origin in the denial of charity, usually by young women to elderly impoverished widows. Although it is drawn from an incomplete body of evidence, there has also been some suggestion that rising inflation leads to rising numbers of witch trials. That our intolerance rises with our sense of insecurity shouldn’t be surprising. My doctoral thesis for example examines the largest sustained episode of witch-hunting in early modern England, which just happened to coincide with a civil war that severely strained the country’s social and religious cohesion and severely depleted its finances.

In fact the conditions prevalent during early modern European witch hunts are very similar to Genocide Watch’s stages of genocide: witches were classified as servants of the Devil; there was a physical description of the ‘old witch’ that would have been widely known; they were dehumanised as murderesses and adulteresses, who delighted in infanticide and cannibalism; in many places organised hunts were orchestrated, though in other places they were informal; lists of witches are made and updated with new names, especially during large chain reaction hunts where accused witches were tortured until they named those they knew to be witches; and then comes the hanging or burning of the accused witches (with denial replaced with more blame, either for the witch, or, occasionally, the accusers).

In order to ignore the plight of those in desperate need we often blame them for the situation they are in, and comfort ourselves that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’, and so we can avoid their fate. At the heart of that comfort is a fear, a fear that fuels dangerous and violent rhetoric aimed at those we fear in order to earn our votes.

As I listen to the news each night, which so often chooses to paint the world in simplistic narratives (us and them, good and evil, right and wrong), I often think we have not come very far at all from the society the produced the witch trials of the seventeenth-century. Then too a language of fear and atmosphere and suspicion fuelled acts of violence against innocent people.

How different are we from those villagers who helped magistrates and witchfinders tie old women to chairs, or tie their thumbs to the opposing ankle before lowering them into streams or dams to ‘swim’ them? How many of us could be certain we wouldn’t have helped? How can we know if that same hatred might not turn on us?

This week a man in Orlando, America murdered 49 people he presumed to be homosexual, a teenager was arrested in Sydney, Australia on terrorism charges, and yesterday a man shot a British politician. I wish I could think these events occurred in isolation, but they don’t. They are fuelled by intolerance, and a rhetoric of hate working upon disturbed minds. No one thinks all Norwegians or all right-wing Norwegians are violent killers because of Anders Breivik, why should we think it of any other race, creed or political idea that produces other perpetrators of violence?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Some say that words are just words, and rhetoric won’t do any harm. But it does, it is the first step in a slippery slope, and letting it slide by because it isn’t aimed at us is the worst kind of cowardice. I am reminded of the famous words of Martin Niemöller:
“Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,    When the Nazis came for the communists,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                 
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.                        
I was not a communist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
When they locked up the social democrats,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.                  I was not a social democrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,            
When they came for the trade unionists,
habe ich nicht protestiert;                          
I did not speak out;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.                
I was not a trade unionist.

Als sie die Juden holten,                               
When they came for the Jews,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                 
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Jude.                                     
I wasn't a Jew.

Als sie mich holten,                                         
When they came for me,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte
.”  there was no one left to speak out.

I don’t believe history should be treated as a guide to the present and future, but it does show us what happens when we let the language of hate become an accepted part of our civil discourse. It gives rise to violence, which in turn creates more hate and fear, which become more acts of violence. We must stop legitimising the rhetoric of hate it must stop being the best drawcard for the media’s attention, and politicians who use it should be shunned by their own parties.

I recently posted on Facebook Beatrice Evelyn Hall’s oft quoted distillation of Voltaire’s views on free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And I hold to that where difference of opinion is the crux of the issue, but there is something beyond disagreement. The use of violent speech “they are coming to kill your children and rape your daughters”, “kill the cockroaches”, “it’s us or them” is often appealing to those who want to grab the attention of the news media. The media is drawn to those whose speech is vicious, is violent, and to which many people experience a visceral reaction – the ultimate form of clickbait.

When those in positions of power begin to denigrate one group of human beings for political advantage we should all be wary. When they wish to lock up those who have committed no crime, we should be concerned. When we are told our society will suffer if we allow in those who are different from ourselves (Afrikaner Nationalists worried about gelijkstelling), we should be worried.

We know that in the past millions of innocent people have paid in blood when the majority of those around them were content to allow others to be sacrificed because it was not in their personal interest to intervene. If we are not wary, if we do not voice our concern and do nothing, then like Martin Niemöller, we may eventually find ourselves on one of those lists of undesirables, and who will be left to speak for us? 

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