Genocides begin in language

Hate speech and propaganda construct identities that then become the embodied real in the form of living victims for further action

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 25th Jan 2018   12:08 am

The debates over hate speech and propaganda — right or left, this wing or that wing — have often been centered around the issue of ‘freedom of expression’. Acts in language may not be violent acts in and of themselves — though they can be — they enable violence from elsewhere.
But why should we be concerned that some communities, groups and peoples are suddenly being classified as ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’? These are after all just names, right? No.
Labelling and directed linguistic acts of marginalisation and dehumanisation in hate speech and propaganda (HSPs, for ‘convenience’) are constitutive of something larger: the making of a genocide continuum. HSPs are the language of genocide.

Origin of Others

Genocides in history are not the beginning of a humanitarian catastrophe — they are its climactic moment. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes postulates a ‘genocide continuum’, which she defines as ‘the human capacity to reduce others to nonpersons, to monsters, or to things, that give structure, meaning, and rationale to everyday practices of violence’. This, for her, ‘include[s] all expressions of social exclusion, dehumanisation, depersonalisation, pseudo-speciation, and reification that normalise atrocious behaviour and violence toward others’.

The key words here are expressions, normalise and everyday practices. Nobel laureate author Toni Morrison sees this normalisation as the foundation for ‘the origins of Others’, wherein specific communities, ethnic identities and groups become the subject of expressions of contempt, criticism, anger and hatred.

The Other is the not-I, the different, my cultural and ideological opposite, or opponent. The Other is what my community and I are afraid of. ‘Difference’ becomes recoded as ‘threat’ in the linguistic frames of the HSPs.

Dangerous Descriptions

Hate speech and rumours, we are told, circulated on the radio for weeks before the Rwandan massacre of 1999. Scapegoating and pointing fingers were part of the radio programmes and even the news (Boubacar Diop’s novel, Murambi, the Book of Bones uses some of these speeches). This initiates the genocide continuum where a community is identified, with little rationale or rather a hyped-up, mythic rationale, through a discriminatory and accusatory language.

One could argue that language cannot be that dangerous. But there is no genocide continuum that has not been preceded and accompanied by accusatory and inflammatory speeches, tracts and even parliamentary debates. Language does not always discern, it frequently discriminates, as the victims in any genocidal context have discovered.

‘The Jews are a form of life, but not human’, with which Adolf Hitler enabled the massacre of millions, or ‘not prisoners of war, but enemy combatants’, a re-naming by American lawyers that facilitated the Abu Ghraib-Gitmo tortures (because ‘enemy combatants’ was not a category to which the Geneva Conventions apply) were both acts in language that directly manifest as acts on bodies.

Contagious Virus

Labels and stereotypes that we see proliferating in contemporary India are linguistic acts that carry enormous political baggage. They classify, they differentiate, and they isolate. HSPs construct identities that then become the embodied real in the form of living victims for further action. The classification of communities as non-persons, historical villains, myths with no empirical or verifiable truth — but now we need only ‘emotional truths’ — are all constituents of the moments before the genocide begins.

Being ‘identified’ as alien, foreigner, stranger or outsider serves the purpose of recasting the arriving human as a secondary human, and a potential threat. What is worse is that citizens, neighbours and those with a shared history are also re-classified as foreigners or outsiders, and are then invited to leave or stay and be massacred.

HSPs provide a certain dangerous social cohesion: us versus them. It unites those generating the HSPs against the targets of HSPs. But their greatest danger is the ability to spread, like a contagion. If language is a virus, as linguists pronounce, HSPs-as-language is a particularly dangerous form. They come into the host as a simple linguistic act.

Indeterminate Meaning

Eventually, incorporated into the host cell and assumed by the host cell as its own DNA, the virus is multiplied by the host through the host’s own mechanisms. HSPs, therefore, become the host as part of the latter’s identity.

In other words, the host defines itself in terms of the horrific linguistic acts, descriptors and names: we are not them. Whether at this point it is the host body – let us call it, now, the community or ethnic group or body politic – speaking or the HSP virus, it is difficult to ascertain.

HSPs have begun to define social identity and social relations: people who eat a certain kind of meat, speak a different language, whose racial origins in the distant past lie outside current geopolitical borders, are categorised as the Other. HSPs carry an indeterminate meaning: what does the Other or the foreigner mean?

But it is this indeterminacy, not tied to any specific context that allows the HSPs to be malleable, to be applicable to whoever or whichever ethnic group needs to be targeted. HSPs ostensibly explain the Other.

Frightening Regularity

They provide a language and a framework in which the Other’s behaviour, cultural practices, belief systems can be interpreted – as strange, threatening and barbaric. They serve as a system of supposed rationalisation, so that the Other is now explainable as an effect of certain ancient causes — invasion, rule, religion, and so on.

That HSPs are now part of not only political discourse but also of everyday speech and news coverage is what renders them frightening. By normalising the different as threatening Other, interloper or enemy, HSPs become constitutive of a social condition where the Other must be controlled and fought.

Proscriptions, bans, targeted attacks – a pilgrimage subsidy has recently been withdrawn – of various kinds then become acceptable, indeed necessary. HSPs against specific communities have begun to define social relations as never before. This ought to concern us, for acts in language never remain tethered to words alone. Genocides begin in language.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)