The buck starts here
23 July 2017 22:40 (South Africa)
Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul

Kill it with fire: Questioning communal hate

  • Vashthi Nepaul
    Vashthi-new-photo.jpg
    Vashthi Nepaul

    After over a decade coaching school debating, Vashthi gave up working with children in order to write about them instead. Her book, GIFT: the search for South Africa’s genius children, recently won the City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award, which means she definitely has to finish writing it. Her day job is in IT, her hometown is the Internet and her bad jokes live online @giveusalol

Controversy and outrage are proven to sell. The more hate you generate, the more money you make. But the harm here is that people interact with the opposition’s extreme fringe element, and more rational arguments get lost in the crossfire. Little wonder that as a society we begin to lose our appetite for engagement.

Ever since Nelson Mandela died, but even before, one was utterly flabbergasted before the intensity of media fervour pouring out en hommage to the Big Man… In a real sense, Mandela and his myth are the muti of the West. But his fame and glory come at a terrible price: the disenfranchisement of the white minority, the hijacking of their public and private assets, as well as their ultimate expulsion from their fatherland as in the Zimbabwean example.

- Dan Roodt

There is nothing redeemable about whiteness. It is the premise for all othering and destruction of whole nations of people’s livelihoods, it is intrinsically wound up in conquering and capitalism and supremacy. Until one can see this and consistently deconstruct and seek to destroy this construct you will always be complicit in it.

- Gillian Schutte

Angry yet? If I had included a link to each of these articles, would you have read them? And are you primed to read the one that makes you more angry? ‘Hate-reading’ is to consume media, often a blog or newspaper article, with the specific intention to ridicule or criticise it. This phenomenon extends to a broader range of media consumption habits including actively listening to partisan radio shows and watching television programmes and viral videos that expose an incendiary point of view.

Our consumption habits around this are fascinating because the foundation of hate-reading is choice. We actively opt for something that we know will anger us. Some of us will do it only when something hateful is referenced to us, others do it as a matter of frequent habit. It is also worth noting that this outrage dynamic is not something used by any specific community or group. It can be used by any group that takes a stance in opposition to another group. Religions vs. Athiests? Feminists vs. Mens Rights Activists? Capitalists vs. Socialists? Conservatives vs. Liberals? Anyone and, more frequently, everyone. In what has been dubbed in the United States as the ‘outrage industry’, entire websites now exist just to watch certain sections of society and collect the things they say, so that other people can access and mock them. Popular commentators make a living off of reacting to (not analysing) the things their self-determined enemies say and do.

Even the more august publications will stoop to generating or reacting to a hate-read once in a while. Controversy and outrage are proven to sell. The more hate you generate, the more money you make. Nowhere is this commercial phenomenon as evident as on the Internet. Websites use incendiary headlines as something called ‘clickbait,’ a lure to get a browser to get a link. Once you click on their site, they make money from advertisers who pay to display there. Owing to the fact that a good deal of radicals were thus making money off of the angry people who stopped by their sites, some popular hate-reads are now copied and put onto mirror sites. Thanks to this bit of internet savvy, people can now indulge in their pet hatreds without the ‘bad guys’ making any coin. So that is how we consume hate-reads and while intriguing, it is nowhere near as captivating as the theories for why we consume it.

What goes through our minds when we actively choose to scroll down into a News24 comment section? The first and most obvious reason for why we do it is confirmation bias: ‘We thought all along that those people over there are stupid and/or malicious and now we have public, shareable evidence to support that belief.’ What outrage politics demands is not that you see the other side as different, but that you see them as wrong. In fact, you must actively condemn them as being wrong. There must be a strong, morally opposed standpoint adopted by you-and-your-group against the views of the other group.

Really though, we have to go a layer deeper here. Confirmation bias can rear its head even in more rational argument and debate. However, when this happens in a more open engagement, it is about confirming the belief that the other party is wrong. When you mix outrage politics with confirmation bias, it already assumes the other party is wrong and is really only about confirming the belief that the people being wrong are also being bad people. The value judgement attached to this sort of confirmation bias is far, far more subjective and damaging.

So it is no longer enough to believe one’s group is in the right, we must also believe that the other group is morally bankrupt. Better yet if we can also believe that they are ignorant and backward. Where did this insecurity come from?

A friend has posited the theory that it could stem from a lack of self-awareness. If one wholesale adopts a specific movement’s point of view without interrogating it thoroughly, one may also be prone to adopting the value judgements of said movement. One of the best examples we have of this is the often dirty game of identity politics. Whether you’re a radical feminist decrying all intercourse as an expression of contempt for women, or a men’s rights activist claiming that all women desire to be dominated, your own personal identity has become the platform for embracing or denouncing others. People seeking to identify with some of the narrative are allowed little room for deviation by these moral gatekeepers – and so they enter the cycle of othering lest they be othered. We have examples aplenty here at home. Speak out critically against a policy or privilege that benefits one’s own race and sit back to watch the stream of vitriol: race traitor, coconut, wigger, house negro

While such base ad hominem criticisms have always existed, the recent phenomenon of hate-reading certainly exacerbates them. As is evident right now with GamerGate: thanks to forums, hashtags and watchdog sites, it is incredibly easy to group together and begin an us-versus-them narrative and then, to act on it. There is a certain satisfaction in fighting, loudly and with a thousand cheering backers, against an online foe. For the young, the isolated, the holder of unpopular or unhealthy views, hate-reading is part of their process. They gather this fodder for a base that will validate their views within their own online community. They use the most hateful material to stir up emotion and incite action such as spamming, hacking, doxxing and other forms of online harassment. Even the relatively well-meaning person can get swept up in this sort of pointless battle, just because it will stem from or target the places online that one frequents. Shared hatred is like a particularly virulent infectious disease and it is definitely catching.

This has a lot to do with how we choose to consume media. The fact that having a soapbox is far more cheaply achieved thanks to the internet through blogging, vlogging and user-generated opinion content, and thanks to the potentially broad reach of web-based radio stations and news media, an individual can interact directly with sources that overwhelmingly support their point of view. Owing to the way these publications will source hate-reads from the other side, individuals can also choose to interact with only the most provocative, most poorly constructed opposition views.

The harm here is that people interact with the opposition’s extreme fringe element. For example, while there may be valid arguments for more stringent immigration laws, a reader who is hate-reading about how foreigners deserve to have their shops looted is never going to hear those views. Individuals and groups cherry pick the opposition’s weakest arguments to engage with, rather than engaging with the strongest and therefore most relevant arguments. This means that a lot of vital and valuable questions sit unanswered in increasingly partisan discourse.

There are two levels of effect here. At a societal level we experience a diminishing of the safe middle ground – a place where groups can truly debate issues important to us all. Instead we see a vilification of the moderate; typecasting those willing to consider elements from all sides as weak willed. This is despite the fact that it takes both courage and smarts to navigate contested ground and weigh various standpoints objectively.

We are being prompted to engage with the most extreme people on the spectrum: the people who have no incentive to ever give fair consideration to the other side. Often their livelihood or essential value metric depends disproportionately on their extreme view. We either exhaust ourselves attempting to reason with the unreasonable or we fall into the trap of being satisfied by the fact that we can now view an entire group of complex opinion by, essentially, the screaming village idiot. Little wonder that as a society we begin to lose our appetite for engagement.

At an individual level we teach a similarly destructive message: that there’s nothing so bad as considering all angles and, just possibly, changing one’s mind. Those who consider themselves moderates learn that the way in which they approach engagement is not wanted in public spaces. Only their ire and prejudice are palatable to the hate movement. Strangers and friends alike will condemn an undecided thinker for seeking both sides of the story instead of adopting a communal black-or-white approach. This happens to the point where moderates either give in and contribute to the hatred or instead opt to never speak out.

One such self-confessed moderate posed an interesting question to me: imagine human beings a thousand years in the future, reading our newspapers and ancient web relics like historians read old treatises now. What impression would they get of us; if only the extreme speaks and the moderates never do? Are we represented by Dan or Gillian, Andile or Julius? By the Westboro Baptist Church or Boko Haram? I do not believe so, but will have a hard time proving it. By never speaking up, moderates create more and more space for the loudest and most hateful. By hate reading, we deliberately trigger our own outrage and stoop to their level. The world isn’t made up of extremists, it just looks that way. What are you willing to do to change that? DM

‘Kill it with fire’ is an online term advocating the burning of particularly scary, egregious or hateful things. For example: a large spider; Rick Santorum. It is used expressively, not literally.

  • Vashthi Nepaul
    Vashthi-new-photo.jpg
    Vashthi Nepaul

    After over a decade coaching school debating, Vashthi gave up working with children in order to write about them instead. Her book, GIFT: the search for South Africa’s genius children, recently won the City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award, which means she definitely has to finish writing it. Her day job is in IT, her hometown is the Internet and her bad jokes live online @giveusalol

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