The Big Read

Nipping hate spin in the bud

Cherian George looks at how and why regulation of "manufactured indignation" is still so inadequate in Hate Spin.
Cherian George looks at how and why regulation of "manufactured indignation" is still so inadequate in Hate Spin.PHOTO: ST FILE

Flare-ups against religious, racial and gender minorities may seem spontaneous, but journalism don Cherian George says in his new book that they are orchestrated

Nobel Peace laureates Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama are known for being frank, forthright and even-handed.

But journalism don Cherian George, a former award-winning writer of The Straits Times and its art and photo editor for three years, twice witnessed Ms Suu Kyi being, as he put it, "a study in bureaucratic evasiveness".

On both occasions, he recalls in his new book Hate Spin, the Myanmar leader was responding to questions on the beleaguered Rohingyas, a Muslim community whom her country's mostly Buddhist peoples see as a scourge.

Mr Obama, George notes further in his book, did not come off too well either in 2010, during his first term as President of the United States.

  • HATE SPIN: THE MANUFACTURE OF RELIGIOUS OFFENSE AND ITS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

  • Cherian George looks at how and why regulation of "manufactured indignation" is still so inadequate in Hate Spin.By Cherian George

    The MIT Press/Hardcover/308 pages/ $37.45 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 345.0288 GEO

That was when he did a "flip-flop" on the issue of whether a mosque should be built near New York City's Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood until its collapse after Al-Qaeda terrorists ran two planes through its twin towers on Sept 11, 2001.

The then president first commented on that in a White House speech during Ramadan 2016: "I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country... This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

But within 24 hours, he responded to fierce criticism of that statement from some of his fellow Americans by backtracking thus: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there... I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    This erudite and insightful study of how a certain self-righteousness is impeding everyone's freedom and increasing inequality everywhere should be everyone's go-to primer on what ails the 21st century and how to help the world heal.

    THE BAD

    The author distinguishes between hate speech, which he defines as extremely negative ideas about a group's, say, race, religion and sexual orientation, and critiques against a government, however "defamatory or vicious" such critiques might be. He says he makes this distinction because governments "are not historically disadvantaged groups".

    That seems like hair-splitting when you consider that the consequences of inciting hatred are summarily destructive.

In both instances, George says, even these admired leaders flinched in the face of "hate spin", which is what he calls the sort of "vilification" or "indignation" against the identities and beliefs of certain communities "manufactured" by political power brokers to seize the support of the masses.

So, he argues crisply and methodically throughout the book, the apparently spontaneous flare-ups against anyone and anything from Jews in Nazi Germany to libraries that carry controversial books - from the Harry Potter series to And Tango Makes Three - are anything but spontaneous.

George is now an associate professor in the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University, where he also serves as director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research.

His focus in Hate Spin is squarely on how and why regulation of such "manufactured indignation" is still so inadequate, how laws should instead nip incitement to hatred and violence in the bud, as well as the roles of the media and civil society in thwarting the insidious, invidious tactics of those bent on profiting from demonising and suppressing others.

He does that through the lens of religion, chiefly Islam, which is the most relevant approach for this age.

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  • Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to discuss Jonathan Tepperman's book The Fix tomorrow from 6.30pm at the Multi-Purpose Room, Central Public Library, B1 National Library Board headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

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One of the main sources for the inadequacy of laws, he points out, is the state's readiness to prosecute anyone who offends religious feelings, yet the state usually drags its feet on sanctioning anyone who incites violence against minorities "with impunity".

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 What are the signs that someone is whipping up ill will for political gains?

    2 Why are laws in much of the world so toothless against hatred of The Other?

    3 How might governments everywhere protect vulnerable communities against persecution?

    4 In what ways would scapegoating, witchhunting and demonising minorities affect everyone?

    5 How might the media and civil society best shield society from those inciting violence?

This results in a clear imbalance between society's response to offence-giving as opposed to offence-taking. Too often these days, it is the offence-takers, much like trolls online, who harness their collective outrage to hammer flies - as it were - often to death, as he shows in well-researched studies, and searing indictments of leadership, of three countries which have experienced this, namely India, Indonesia and the United States.

In India, he traced how its current Prime Minister Narendra Modi unleashed a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, often with little more than a few carefully chosen code words.

Indonesia's former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not actively incite anyone to violence, but his deep dislike for confrontation and preference for letting things be, says George, enabled the rise of Muslim conservatism in his country.

And in the US, he scrutinises the many facets of its Islamophobia, including posting anti-Muslim advertisements on public transport.

In a world teeming more than ever with diversity, there has rarely been a greater need for, as well as dearth of, what he calls "assertive pluralism".

As he writes: "Religiosity as such, is not a problem for democracy. The problem emerges only when politics becomes organised along religious lines, and when exclusive religious loyalties are converted into a political resource. At that point, matters of faith become intractably divisive and destructive."

In the end, he notes, citing the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, understanding, respect and, yes, peace begins with looking at everyone as "a full human being".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Nipping hate spin in the bud'. Print Edition | Subscribe