When Hatred Becomes the Air We Breathe
What is hate speech?
Hate speech differs from any other use of language since it is used only to threaten, silence, and create fear of a group of people or of a particular individual. I do not hate you for the person you are, but for the group to which you belong, whether your belonging is self-chosen or not, or whether such a choice ever existed.
Hate speech is sadly not new. Our digital world, however, has brought hate speech to the fore and contributes to its effective spread. Today, in order to inform us, we can access news from the whole world and choose among thousands of channels. Nowadays we choose what we want to know, and not know.
Despite this development it feels as if we find ourselves on a high hill of contemporaneity, a place where possibilities have transformed into a deafening din. And in the midst of this din our discourse has become brutal and polarised, and the line between hate speech and the freedom of speech has turned opaque. A wave of control, censorship, and violence sweeps over us. In many countries authoritarian governments have exploited the fear and isolation caused by the pandemic to postpone elections or to create new laws in order to silence and control its citizens (see the previous issue of Pen/Opp Corona and the Threats to Freedom of Speech in the Name of the Pandemic).
China is strengthening its grip on Hong Kong, where the new security law is used to intimidate and imprison opponents of the regime. In Xinjiang, more than one million Uyghur are detained in concentration camps to which the world is given little insight. In Belarus, with Russia as an overhanging threat, President Lukasjenka is attempting to secure his position of power by means of police violence, torture and censorship. And in the USA, highly impacted by the Corona virus, violence and social destitution are escalating in a troublesome way. If Trump is re-elected by a dissatisfied and frustrated population, experts warn of the possibility of a continued anti-democratic development.
Our world today seems difficult to grasp and is intensely challenging. But are we really stranded on that hilltop? Are our times really so unique? What about earlier in our history, when hatred ruled and managed to get its cogwheels turning?
In this issue, in order to study different angles of contemporary hate speech, I want to raise our viewpoint. Some strong and courageous voices will here teach us more about what it is to live under daily threat; to live in countries that lack discrimination laws, or where laws are not respected; to live in countries where the government, the authorities, and the police harass their own citizens.
The LGBTI activist Melusi Simelane reports from Swaziland, one of the world’s last despotic kingdoms. He is witness to how persecution and harassment have curtailed his life space in the past few years. In Swaziland homosexual relations are forbidden according to “an old case law that regulates the crime of sodomy, a law that stems from the colonial era.”
In Sweden we have met the author and activist Betlehem Isaak. In an interview, she tells us that her in-box this summer has been filled with letters telling her she is not welcome in Sweden for the simple reason that she is brown-skinned. Letters that admonish her to stop being so visible and to stop taking up public space. “Perhaps they feel threatened because I refuse to concede to the image of a grateful assimilated immigrant to Sweden,” says Betlehem.
After the genocide in Rwanda, where the radio station RTLM used hate speech to instigate hatred of the Tutsi people in the country, a new law, the Rwanda Genocide Law, was passed with the aim of hindering a repetition of history. The Human Rights lawyer Louis Gitinywa writes how the regime today uses this vaguely formulated law to silence, threaten, and imprison journalists who are critical of society or who write about the genocide in a way that contradicts the official version. This law, which exists initially to protect its citizens from hate speech, is now exploited to silence opponents, and as Gitinywa says, “to criminalize critique.”
There are more examples of how groups employ arguments connected to the freedom of expression for their own purposes. Daniel Gorman, chairperson of English PEN, writes that we need to be vigilant of right-wing groups who aim to hitch a ride on our fear of circumscribing the freedom of expression. He writes: “Freedom of expression is vital. The right to free expression is a gateway right to many other human rights, such as the right to freedom of assembly, and the right to privacy. We are facing a significant risk, whereby the terminology around freedom of expression is being defined by those who work to undermine it.”
Language is power. The Turkish journalist and human rights activist Nurcan Baysal lives under constant threat. She has on several occasions been brutalized, arrested, and imprisoned by Turkish security forces, partly due to a tweet where she mentioned words such as Kurdistan, Newroz, and Diyarbakir — words that in turn denote a country, a city, and a traditional festivity, but that, according to the regime, are clearly “connected to terrorism.” The choice to write a tweet can thus have dire consequences such as violence, trauma, and a loss of freedom not only for Nurcan herself but also for her family, which of course leads to self-censorship.
The Indian writer Nilanjana Roy in her essay discusses the word azaadi. Azaadi means ‘freedom’ and is used by Indian feminists in movements working to combat the caste system and of separatists who demand independence for Kashmir. She analyses a viral video clip where two policemen maltreat two demonstrators so viciously that one of them later dies. One of the policemen shouts: “Do you want azaadi? Then you can have azaadi.” Then, black out. The darkness of freedom.
The Ukraine journalist Yuliana Skibitskaya writes about the journalist Katerina Sergatskova who was harassed in a viciously sexist way on Facebook by a colleague who did not appreciate her exposure of a politician with connections to the neo-Nazi movement. His post was erased over and over, and his comment was “for each update they take away I will just deliver ten new ones.” Sergatskova received so many death threats that she finally felt forced to leave the country together with her family.
Let us return briefly to Rwanda and radio RTLM that used to send programmes during the genocide that regularly exhorted the listeners to “cut down the tall trees” – a euphemism for going out and killing Tutsis.
So, what is hate speech? This issue of PEN/Opp gives us several answers to the question. Hate speech surfaces as an insidious tool that bit by bit moves the border to what we regard as ‘normal.’ It is a frightening force that slowly but surely changes and distorts our views of reality.
But this force is not unstoppable. It can be checked even by relatively small means. Sometimes it is enough for someone to draw attention to it and say stop. Or for someone to show their disgust and refuse to desist reacting with horror, or that someone refuses to let things pass that were earlier not seen as acceptable. Betlehem Isaak says that moral courage imbues her with hope. She believes in our rationality, our capacity to think independently, to follow our inner compass, and to dare step in when things become too uncomfortable.
Perhaps this kind of courage is the premier antidote to hate speech?
On a final note, here are a few lines from one of Matthew Cheng’s poems, written on the 19th of August in 2019, the day after the day when 1.7 million people demonstrated in the streets of Hong Kong:
young people in the streets disperse and run
they are called “the courageous opposition”
they will not let violence or threat hinder them
they are risking their lives
I would be
that kind of Hong Kong citizen