Dangerous Speech and Divisiveness


The people of this country are being daily bombarded with an overload of coverage in print and online about the Soopramanien Kistnen case and the events (including the killing of Manan Fakoo) that have followed after an insulting post attributed to a certain Okeep that went viral on social media.

Of the many comments that have appeared on social media, most are tit-for-tats that are as vulgar and deplorable, and reflect a mindset that aligns with a kind of reporting in print that tends to exacerbate polarization and divisiveness.

However, a ray of sanity surfaced in a post by someone who declared his belonging to the same community as Mr Okeep. In a calm voice, he said the remarks made by Okeep to be entirely condemnable and unwarranted, and should not have been made. Equally condemnable, however, would be similar remarks coming from any community against any other community. But also unacceptable, he added, was the brutal way in which the police is alleged to have dealt with Okeep. They have to treat him – or any other person – with the respect due to any citizen, even as they proceed with charging or arresting him, which must be done according to proper procedures. And the rule of law must prevail at all times and let the courts decide.

It is sobriety and maturity of this level that is most required on the part of all who have a stake and an interest in maintaining stability and peace in the country, at a time when there is so much of hotheadedness around and a single spark may be enough to precipitate the country into chaos.

An article in The Conversation of January 26 by H. Colleen Sinclair, Associate Professor of Social Psychology, Mississippi State University makes a very thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon of dangerous speech. Although it focuses on statements by politicians, the contents are relevant broadly to all similar social situations and contexts.

Defining dangerous speech as ‘communication encouraging an audience to condone or inflict harm’, the author adds, ‘Usually this harm is directed by an “ingroup” (us) against an “outgroup”.’

Prof Sinclair refers to studies made by psychologists who found that the following emotions, particularly when combined, could ignite violence:

  • Anger: The speaker gives the audience reasons to be angry, often pointing out who should be held responsible for that anger.
  • Contempt: The outgroup is deemed inferior to the ingroup, and thus unworthy of respect.
  • Disgust: The outgroup is described as so revolting they are undeserving of even basic humane treatment.

The author points to how, ‘Commonly, outgroups are depicted as evil, due to their alleged lack of morality. Alternatively, they may be portrayed as animalistic or worse’, citing the example of the Rwandan genocide, when ‘Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches in Hutu propaganda’. Allusion is also made to ‘competitive victimhood’, which is ‘used to portray the ingroup as the “real” victim’. But more ominous is, ‘a particularly dangerous fabrication is when outgroups are accused of plotting against the ingroup the very deeds the ingroup is planning, if not actually committing, against the outgroup’.

Observing that ‘these are just some of the hallmarks of dangerous speech identified through decades of research by historians and social scientists studying genocide, cults, intergroup conflict and propaganda’, she continues that this ‘is not an exhaustive list’. ‘Nor do all these elements need to be present for a speech to promote harm.’ Further, the writer underlines that ‘the elements described above are warning signs a speech is intended to promote and justify inflicting harm’ but that ‘people can resist calls to violence by recognizing these themes’ and ‘prevention is possible’.

If we analyse what is happening locally within this framework, we will realise that it captures the challenges that we too are battling, and that we must take the cue of resisting further calls to violence. Stakeholders who are intervening in the current matters must therefore be very mindful of their language so as not to cause more tension. By the same token, the excessive focus on the ‘punishment’ to the person amounts to denying that it is the offence caused that led to this reaction. And here, we condemn most vehemently this act too, for it should have been left to the police and the ICTA to take the necessary action. Under no circumstances is it acceptable that people should take the law in their own hands.

By the same token, as much as Mr Sawmynaden has a right to a fair trial, the presence of political heavyweights outside the court is apt to provoke a reaction, as it did, with sympathizers mobilizing to support Mrs Kistnen who was surely the person deserving of most empathy for having been widowed in addition to her other woes.

It is time to stop this dangerous slide towards divisiveness and polarization.

* Published in print edition on 29 January 2021

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