Politics of Hate: Is it social media, or a failure of language which engenders violent responses?

‘Hate’ is an emotion felt increasingly to be dominating the social space and the phenomenon has been widely noted after the brutal murder of Bengaluru journalist Gauri Lankesh as well.

Gauri Lankesh was an outspoken (if violently partisan) journalist and her death, on 4 September 2017, polarised opinion — with some coarse tweets even cheering her killing. A campaign against ‘hate’ has been launched by a section of the intelligentsia and we realise we live in different times now from, say, the liberal '80s and '90s. But the gradual polarisation of opinion with no segment conceding to another seems so appropriate to Twitter and Facebook that one begins to look more closely at the social media today, wondering if it could not be responsible for the state of affairs.

It would, of course, be simplistic to see them as agents specifically of hatred, but isn’t there something about the language used in social networking most suitable for hate messages and trolling?

What follows is some speculation about the depletion of language in the age of social networking which may be responsible in some way for ‘hatred’ — since hatred spreads primarily through language and verbal communication.

Hate spreads primarily through language and verbal communication. Representational image via sxc.hu

Hate spreads primarily through language and verbal communication. Representational image via sxc.hu

Looking first at the language of social networking, we note characteristics about it and the first is its tendency to inhibit free-flowing expression; what it does is to compartmentalise qualities and opinions, including those involved in self-definitions, in either/or terms. If one were to describe oneself freely in a paragraph there would be no restrictions on what information should be put in or omitted. A person describes himself/ herself in anyway deemed fit with no format directing him/her. This is not so in social networking where lines/spaces left blank appear as information deliberately withheld. If I don’t reveal where I studied I may be hiding the ignominy of a poor educational background. There is also an indication provided by the site of how ‘complete’ a self-definition is which effectively limits the categorising of people according to certain kinds of attributes. Much of this may be intended to determine the kind of buying decisions a person is likely to take but its effect is also the division of people.

As a further aid to determine buying decisions there is a listing of ‘favourites’ which usually includes entertainment icons, politicians, films and books and places and brands. While one may like this actor or that, this politician or that, naming him or her as a ‘favourite’ becomes a gesture of expressed loyalty since it has been exhibited to a public. I might admire Shah Rukh Khan, but when I name him as a favourite, I tie myself to him through a gesture of loyalty; when I ‘meet’ someone else on the same social networking site whose favourite is an actor publicised to be hostile to SRK, my immediate response could be towards that person could be negative. I am acutely conscious of ‘belonging to the SRK camp’ because of my steadfast declaration and I see that person as of the ‘opposite camp’. It is evident that some ‘favourites’ (such as political leaders) are more polarising and a person’s hostility to an acquaintance on the same networking site could be expected to be proportional to the perceived enmity between their respective favourite icons. Where in actual conversations the tendency is that, when there is disagreement on an issue, to move to another issue where there is agreement (since attachment to issues is usually tentative), here the person has apparently committed his/her loyalty to the icon permanently as part of his/her self-definition.

While developments in social media point to a depletion of language capabilities among the public it would be simplistic to see social media as the original cause.

Verbal language, it can be argued, began to suffer when the image became the primary means of mass communication, i.e. with the rise of the electronic media.

But verbal communication, it would seem, equips a person more as a social being than images in that it ‘names’ emotions and behavioural characteristics sharply as visual communication cannot. As an illustration, ‘pique’ and ‘irritation’ are different from anger and being offended, but it may take familiarity with verbal communication to see the difference. In everyday life, if you interpret an ‘irritant’ as ‘offensive’, your own response to the other person’s behaviour could become disproportionate. Irritation can simply be a product of impatience while anger is often the response to a deliberate injury. Disproportionate responses like road rage, it can be supposed, result essentially from failures of communication and have hence risen dramatically in an era when people cannot speak. We are accustomed to people having few conversations and the sight of young people sitting by each other and busily texting other people is also a common sight. But the issue to be addressed now is how this depletion of language capabilities may be causing ‘hatred’.

The interjection ‘I hate you’ is a response associated with childish rage and the reason it is ‘childish’ is that the emotion ‘hate’ is too fanatical a response to be appropriate for most kinds of everyday situations; it illustrates the inadequate command over verbal language that one would expect from a child. But if one examines routine social/electronic media responses such as tweets and blogging comments, one finds that ‘hate’ is a dominant emotion on view although the provocation is usually less than proportionate. Even responses to unfavourable reviews of hit films (like my own review of Baahubali 2) can be uncouth, and it is significant that — judging from the grammar and spelling in evidence — the most offensive remarks are made by those with the poorest verbal communication skills. Since it cannot be true that anyone who fleetingly likes a film will actually find an opposite response ‘offensive’, one concludes that it is the failure of language which engenders violent responses, made easier when the identity of their authors is hidden. When at a loss for words at something slightly unpleasant — like encountering disagreement — one’s immediate response could be to reach for obscenities. Since an obscenity will also go on to become a strong provocation on its own one could expect a gradual burgeoning of hatred through hostile exchanges between inarticulate people.

In the democratic political space there has always been a tolerance of opposite points of view, but this has been declining sharply with the growing incapacity to argue.

Nothing illustrates this more than the shouting match that news TV has become and I would attribute this once again to failing language skills. Argument diverts the attention of the contestants from each other’s ‘hateful personas’ to the processes of reason. It is possible through argument to arrive at a negotiated settlement in which no one loses face; but this is not true of impassioned polemic. One recognises falsehoods and oversimplifications in rousing polemic which one either loves — because it caricatures one’s adversaries — or fears/resents because one imagines it will become a rallying cry for them. Argument persuades while polemic only addresses those already persuaded. Consider the argument of an atheist disputing the existence of God alongside the polemic of another exhorting people to desecrate an icon, to demonstrate His powerlessness. One may be certain that while an argument could lead to some kind of understanding, and a peaceful parting of ways, the latter will only polarise opinion and/or cause violence.

As already argued, failed communications can either take the shape of violent outbursts or extreme provocations but an issue is also whether the violent responses lead to actual bloodshed and how this might happen. The violence that concerns us here, I propose, is essentially a gesture of linguistic helplessness or incomprehension.  When an ignorant rustic comes face to face with an unknown reptile, his first response is to kill it because he has labelled it with the one word he thinks most appropriate: ‘dangerous’. An educated person, in contrast, may be drawn by his biological knowledge/vocabulary to simply name it. The realm of politics is complicated but it is one in which dismissive labels (like ‘fascist’ and ‘anti-national’) are used most readily. The ready application of antagonistic epithets to each other instead of engaging in mutually beneficial argument is widening the gap between socio-political groups. ‘Ideologies’ are coming into conflict even before they have found words to define themselves.

Perhaps murder is the ultimate symptom of the failure of argument and language.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India.


Published Date: Sep 17, 2017 10:43 am | Updated Date: Sep 17, 2017 10:43 am