What 'Hate Speech' Really Means, and How the Term Is Being Misused

The Sangh parivar and its acolytes have dislodged hate speech from its accepted uses in contemporary discourses, and deployed it in reverse.

Once again, supporters of social justice are bewildered and flailing for a response. For a fleeting moment after the pogrom in Delhi, it seemed as though the Sangh parivar – with unassailable access to resources and muscle power – would have to reckon with the legal and moral consequences of openly inciting and unleashing brutality on groups resolutely resisting the National Population Register-National Register of Citizens-Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The victims were wretchedly underprivileged and using their meagre resources to defend a fundamental human need — a status as equal citizens.

Briefly trapped by the norms of decency and forced to respect the rule of law, the regime has slithered out by unleashing propaganda, accusing the victims and rights activists of being equally responsible for both hate speech and violence: an audacious move that has caught everyone off guard.

Manufactured paralysis

Hate speech has stable uses in legal and moral discourses. Widely accepted meanings are “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination” or “insulting nouns for racial groups, degrading caricatures, threats of violence” and portrayals of groups as “animal-like and requiring extermination”.  And hate is just one of its triggers – hate speech can also be driven by contempt and by the intention to shock and to build group solidarity.  Political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh wrote recently that hate speech is objectionable because “it views members of the target group as an enemy within, refuses to accept them as legitimate and equal members of society, lowers their social standing, and in these and other ways subverts the very basis of a shared life”.

Notwithstanding this stability in language, hate speech is a controversial idea, particularly when juxtaposed with free speech. Libertarians have worried that its indiscriminate evocation can curtail free speech. Religious groups have objected to progressive uses of hate speech as an unfair and too-frequent ploy to restrict their genuine concerns from being raised. But even these critics did not challenge the meaning of the term – as texts and speeches emanating from dominant sections that target vulnerable groups (based on race, caste, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality).

Also read: In Backing Kapil Mishra, RSS Shows Riot Hand

In contrast, the Sangh and its acolytes have dislodged hate speech from its accepted uses in contemporary discourses, and deployed it in reverse. In their worldview, those who resist their ideology, such as vulnerable groups, beleaguered academics and activists fighting for social justice with shoe-string budgets are equally responsible for propagating hate speech and are anti-democratic.

This rhetorical move serves two purposes.

First, it creates a false equivalence between a slogan like “goli maro saalon ko” and the recitation of poetry, “Hum dekhenge” and calls for “aazadi”. The former is an incitement to violence by well-funded groups with the backing of the state machinery. The latter are expressions of helplessness under a totalitarian regime and urge for compassion and freedom from oppression. Given the equivalence, any legal action against the former should entail actions against the latter.

Through this cynically manufactured confusion, public outrage is dissipated, and the police and compliant judges are released from the pressure to do their duty. Agencies key to ensuring justice can feign paralysis, pointing to false moral dilemmas while indulgently winking at the unpunished instigators of violence who are emboldened to ratchet their hate speeches to an ever-higher pitch.

The second is a classic strategy used to trigger and rationalise genocidal violence. Research on the genocide in Rwanda uncovered a strategy called “accusations in a mirror” wherein the instigators of mob violence impute the intentions of violence to the victims – “the party which is using terror will accuse the enemy of using terror”. The genocides and pogroms are packaged as a necessary, pre-emptive strike to remove the threat to the survival of the dominant groups. “If we don’t, they will”.  This sort of mirroring also preceded and triggered the violence unleashed by the mobs in the violence that gutted Delhi and is echoed in its later justifications.

Perks of anti-intellectualism

Such disregard for linguistic and scholarly conventions for political gains is possible only for a social movement that is anti-intellectual at its core. Anti-intellectualism allows for the rejection of academic norms, particularly when the settled consensus disagrees with ideological foundations necessary for mobilisation. Unmoored from and ignorant of the demands of scholarship, the Sangh’s ideologues can use concepts and terms in ways that would be unacceptable in even an undergraduate class submission.

An example is the appropriation of descriptions by Eric Hobsbawm (no less) of strategies of demagogic dictators, dislodged from Marxist scholarship, to claim legitimacy for similar tactics used by the Hindutva politicians. Prominent spokespersons embedded in a firmament that relies on the use of social media to weaponise disinformation complain now that “social media platforms killed both truth and authenticity” and sagely observe that “half-baked information can be dangerous”. For them, the anti-NPR-NRC-CAA protesters, not the divisive law, are the real threats to multiculturalism! Senior globally respected scholars, negotiating with gritted teeth the ignominy of interacting with arrogant administrators with dubious or non-existent credentials, are “powerful elites”.

Also read: Impunity From Institutions of the State: The New ‘Niti’ for ‘Nyaya’

Hate speech and such distortions to the language of justice, as well as its propagation through social media platforms, are projected to increase globally. Meaningful regulations are unlikely when powerful interests – social media platforms and the government – benefit from emotion-fuelled sharing of hate propaganda. The massive disparity in resources for the sectarian agenda and guaranteed electoral returns will only make political communication in India increasingly venomous.

Making things worse, key institutions of justice – including the police and the courts – can no longer be expected to consistently ensure the rule of law. Instead of accepting their failure and complicity in the Delhi pogrom, these agencies are displaying more eagerness to offer security to the instigators, harass activists fighting to restore justice for the victims, and shut down news outlets that challenge the regime’s propaganda. The injustice aside, such acts are also a part of the repertoire to reverse the roles of oppressor and victim.

How do we, particularly students of politics, respond?

Take notes

There are responses for every scenario, even bleak ones. An example is the trigger behind a fascinating study called The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Kemplerer. As a scholar of linguistics and a Jew, Kemplerer observed the steady and systematic marginalisation of Jews as fascism tightened its grip on all facets of German society. Throughout the harrowing experiences of first losing his faculty privileges and then his teaching position, of observing colleagues, friends, and neighbours transform into passive observers and unreflective bigots, Kemplerer took meticulous notes of transformations to the language under the Third Reich.

He saw the “language of a clique becoming the language of the people” and both the beneficiaries and victims adopting the same language. Nazism had “permeated the flesh and blood of people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously”.

He noted with despair: “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction set in after all….Making language the servant of its dreadful system, it procures it as its most powerful, most public and most surreptitious means of advertising”. He observed that, “the fear of the thinking man and the hatred of the intellect are revealed in a constant stream of new expressions”. Innocuous words like strafexpedition had entered the vocabulary to describe impromptu “punitive expeditions” by common people for recreational heckling of those opposed to the regime (not unlike the gau rakshaks composed mainly of lumpen unemployed youth seeking excitement and validation).

Also read: Tathagata Roy and the Normalisation of Hate Speech by Public Functionaries

Maybe we have arrived at a similar juncture? No amount of denial can hide the threats facing secular scholars and activists in contemporary India. The purge, as threatened, has begun and will only gather steam.

It is time to start recording for posterity the creeping viciousness of everyday language and its (mis)use in the service of fascism. A close scrutiny of everyday language will reveal how oppressors masquerading as victims appropriate the language of justice and how propaganda establishes this as common sense. Practices in the media, which desperately seek to appear neutral by providing space for bigots, should be called out for parroting the false equivalence propagated by fascists.

Taking notes will offer little or no comfort to the victims of hate speech. But when this phase of fascism ends (and it will!), there will be the important work of restoring sanity. After the Second World War, Kemplerer used his notes to identify fascist usages that had become embedded in public discourse. He noted that for the rebuilding of German society: “it isn’t only Nazi actions that have to vanish, but also the Nazi cast of mind, the typical Nazi way of thinking, and its breeding ground: the language of Nazism”.

A similar future awaits; and for that we must be prepared with a meticulously compiled list of distortions to the language of justice.

Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil is faculty at the Centre for Policy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.