Finding empathy in the age of rage

Human rights scholar Payam Akhavan reflects on how today’s brand of hateful populism differs from that of the past, and what is required to change course.

By: /
22 May, 2019
A woman, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, stands next to the border wall, carrying her child, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“I am not a terrorist, nor an Islamophobe, rather a person who was carried away by fear, negative thoughts and a horrible form of despair.”

Those were the words of Alexandre Bissonnette as he pled guilty on March 28, 2018, to six counts of first-degree murder for killing Muslim worshippers at Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre in January 2017. One year later, on March 15, a self-professed white supremacist walked into Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and murdered 51 people.

These atrocities are by no means isolated. They are part of an alarming upsurge of hate crimes in the Western world. The mass murder of African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, of Jewish worshippers at synagogues in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, and Poway, California; these horrors that we once imagined as savagery beyond our borders are now becoming the new normal. Lest we think that we are somehow immune from the dark forces gripping our American neighbours to the south, a shocking Globe and Mail report on April 27 on “Canada’s New Far Right” revealed a group that is “actively recruiting new members, buying weapons and trying to influence political parties.” As the virulent disease of hateful populism spreads, the next atrocity is simply a matter of time.

How did we get here? In 1990, when I graduated from law school, things looked so promising. The end of the Cold War, the spread of democracy, the invention of the internet and World Wide Web — these revolutionary developments had ushered in a new world of unimaginable possibilities. Francis Fukayama declared “the end of history,” the final triumph of Western liberalism and free market capitalism as a global ideology. Even sceptics, with perspectives as diverse as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order or Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, relegated tribal hatred and “ethnic cleansing” to illiberal societies, beyond the Western world. “Human rights” was something that we exported overseas, to others less privileged than us. Extremists were invariably Islamic terrorists and the like; white supremacists were relics of a distant past. Intoxicated with euphoria, we were confident that where other ideologies had failed, ours was the last utopia. Now we are sober, and there is only the hangover; the memory of what once was and what could have been.

We live in what Pankaj Mishra calls the “age of anger,” gripped by a “global pandemic of rage.” Human rights advocates despair as demagogues skilfully exploit a pervasive and increasingly violent collective narcissism to gain power. We now talk openly about the emergence of fascism; we are no longer surprised by racist mass killings. We witness an unprecedented assault on long-cherished democratic ideals and institutions, a retreat from multilateralism, unravelling the liberal global order we once took for granted. Thrust into profound uncertainty and anxiety, we desperately cling to an increasingly romanticized past; we fantasize about going back to a better future, making liberalism great again. Yet, it is in that same imagined past that we find the historical currents that have brought us to this turbulent juncture.

By way of a basic observation, hatred is an emotion, not an intellectual idea. It is an expression of fear and fury, despair and disgust. Objective facts may have little relevance for those consumed by hatred. For the white supremacist, it matters little that the only pure-blooded Aryans remaining in the world may be confined to a remote Himalayan valley in India’s Kashmir region, where they migrated from Central Asia 4,000 years ago. In the delusional ideology of the neo-Nazi, brown people cannot be genetically pure Aryans, irrespective of scientific evidence to the contrary. In the era of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” the pathological confirmation bias inherent in hatred can only be addressed by exploring emotions, and their exploitation in political discourse.

Hatred is an emotion, not an intellectual idea. It is an expression of fear and fury, despair and disgust. Objective facts may have little relevance for those consumed by hatred.

In Réflexions sur la question juive, published in 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre famously observed that: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” Anti-Semitism, he explained, was more about the needs of the perpetrator, less about the reality of the victim. By assigning blame to someone else, we absolve ourselves of responsibility; we avoid having to confront our fears and failures. Scapegoating is essentially dehumanization. We cannot hate and harm others if we see in them a shared humanity, a reflection of our own self. That is also why radical evil is typically justified in the name of a greater good, glorified as purification and cleansing, or as self-defence against foreign invasion or sinister conspiracies. When he murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, Anders Breivik did not think that what he was doing was morally wrong. His belief in an impending Islamic takeover of Europe infused his mission with a sense of urgency, transforming a heinous atrocity into a heroic act.

It is important, however, to distinguish between impulsive or isolated hatred on the one hand, and its political instrumentalization on the other. There is a vast difference between deviant violence on the social periphery and the mainstream legitimization of extremism as a means of acquiring power. Therein lies the difference between random hate crimes at one end of the spectrum and genocidal violence at the other end.

When I served with the UN during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, I observed that despite historical tensions, in cosmopolitan Sarajevo, most marriages were mixed. In the old town, known as Baščaršija, Catholic and Orthodox churches stood side by side with synagogues and mosques, as they had for centuries. Yet, amidst the turbulence of the post-communist transition, ethnic entrepreneurs fanned the flames of fear against Bosnian Muslims, invoking the history of Ottoman wars from 600 years ago to warn against an imminent Turkish invasion. It was said that the ethnic war was not the result of spontaneous combustion; it was the work of pyromaniacs. The Rwandan génocidaires who exterminated the Tutsi, the ISIL warriors who slaughtered Iraq’s Yazidi minority, the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s Tatmadaw — the narrative of hatred is always the same. The dehumanization of others is always a prerequisite for their destruction.

Yazidis attend a commemoration of the third anniversary of the Yazidi genocide in Sinjar region in 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

The Holocaust, it has been said, did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with words. When those words emanate from people with a megaphone, their effect is exponentially magnified. Social media has multiplied these megaphones, and given once marginal elements a disproportionate voice.

It is with good reason that international human rights law requires the prohibition of hate speech. Multiculturalism, migration, integration — these are legitimate subjects of political debate. But the discourse of demonization and dehumanization is not free speech; it is incitement to extremist violence. The May 15 “Christchurch Call” summit, initiated by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron, was a long overdue attempt to bring together governments and tech companies to confront the use of social media to spread violent extremism.

But the question is why now? There have always been extremist elements in our midst, yet there is a genuine sense of shock among liberals at the sudden surge in hateful populism. What are the forces that have given rise to the mainstreaming of once marginal elements? There is of course no simple explanation. One factor is ever-increasing inequality, both within and between nations. Since the 1990s, the neo-liberal gospel of greed has allowed the privileged few to accumulate obscene fortunes at the expense of the many. Human rights discourse has focused on civil and political rights while leaving flagrant social injustice unaddressed. There is among the masses an increasing perception of corruption in the alliance between political elites and the billionaire class. Leaders are perceived as being out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people, and their politically correct platitudes are viewed cynically as subterfuge — an attempt to create the illusion of progress while preserving the status quo. The anger against the establishment is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous leaders. In a complicated world, scapegoating provides simple answers. These elements are a perfect breeding ground for extremism, for the attribution of blame to imaginary foreign enemies rather than discernible forces in our own midst. But this does not explain why many extremists come from privileged backgrounds. Poverty as such does not lead to hatred.

An unprecedented factor in the Western world is the combination of non-European mass migration and technological transformation, which has intensified perceived threats to cultural identity. On the one hand, there is a flight of desperate people from the Global South to the North, escaping corruption, poverty, climate change and armed conflict, which has exacerbated xenophobic currents. On the other hand, the proliferation of information and instant transmission of images, together with media fragmentation, has diminished shared public spaces and reinforced cultural solitudes, magnifying the perception of a cultural invasion. There is a perception of a more competitive, more hostile world. Majorities are fearful of becoming minorities; of being outbred, outnumbered and replaced by others. Dominant ethnic groups in liberal societies may have been willing to share power with minorities so long as their dominance was guaranteed, but with shifting demographics, democratic ideals of equal rights and opportunities are not as appealing any more. Confronted with these existential fears, it is reassuring to retreat into a mythical past when everything was safe and simple; a sort of collective infantile regression.

We are poised between two diametrically different visions of the world…one is divisive and destructive; the other is unifying and constructive.

There is however a deeper dimension to the contemporary resurgence of toxic, essentialist identities, which is often overlooked in the utilitarian, rationalist worldview of Western civilization. It has to do with the search for an authentic identity in an atomized, alienating and degrading consumer culture. The “global pandemic of rage,” the prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression and despair in prosperous post-industrial societies, is perplexing. Whither the pursuit of happiness that was the promise of material and technological advancement?

It calls to mind Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving, published in 1956. Already then, he presciently described the modern human as “well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men.” Happiness, he observed, “consists in ‘having fun’ … in the satisfaction of consuming and ‘taking in’ commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies — all are consumed, swallowed.” If this is what he perceived in 1956, what would he think of the empire of Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Instagram? He could have scarcely imagined this future cyber-society of constant distraction and instant gratification in which people are electronically hyper-connected but experience only the most superficial of human connections; an endemic addiction to endless entertainment where politics are reduced to a reality TV spectacle. Perhaps hatred is a misdirected search for a more meaningful identity, a confused conflation of authenticity with insularity.

Through most of human history until the industrial revolution, our communal identity was rooted in local ties of blood and soil. Now the internet revolution has suddenly thrust us into hyper-globalization without a social context, the effects of which only future historians will be able to decipher. The only certainty in this period of radical dislocation is that the inextricable interdependence of humankind is an inescapable reality, an inexorable process that has collapsed hitherto sacrosanct boundaries in our consciousness. We are witnessing, in the prescient words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “la planétisation humaine.” For the first time in history, we have no choice but to assume an inclusive and transcendent identity, to mediate self and other in a way that represents a visceral disruption of our very conception of society. We are poised between two diametrically different visions of the world, two processes pointing towards opposite directions. One is divisive and destructive, a stubborn clinging to obsolete identities and institutions in a futile denial of the inherent shared humanity that binds all people together; the other is unifying and constructive, walking courageously into an unknown but auspicious future, embracing the reality of a global civilization as the next stage in our collective evolution.

In the shadow of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction, the reality that we are one human race inhabiting a common home is anything but a naïve aspiration; anything but a far-fetched fantasy. Our very survival depends on discovering a deeper identity, emancipated from the limitations of the past.

Arnold Toynbee famously said that, “civilizations aren’t murdered. They commit suicide.” And this brings me back to the observation that hatred is an emotion. We cannot win the war against demagogical self-destruction through ideological polemics or feel-good platitudes. Perspectives as diverse as ancient Indigenous traditions and cutting-edge feminist epistemology teach us that the deepest knowledge, and by extension the most profound capacity for social transformation, comes from conscious, enlightened emotional connection; it comes from spirituality and selflessness.

The antidote to a hateful populism that brings out our lowest emotions is an empathic populism that awakens our higher sentiments of solidarity. In times of widespread disillusionment, this requires moral leadership by example; it requires the empowerment of progressive grassroots movements inspired by the astonishing resilience of the human spirit. From where we stand at this historical juncture, we will either embrace the oneness of humankind through vision and volition, or we will be forced to do so after unimaginable catastrophes leave us with no other choice.

This essay is derived from words delivered by the author on May 9 at a meeting on human rights and civil society at Global Affairs Canada.

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