Yesterday’s massacre at two mosques in New Zealand is another instance of extremist violence facilitated by digital platforms which freely share supremacist ideologies and other forms of hatred. These platforms not only encourage the performance of terror – the gunman livestreamed his rampage – but also offer the lunatic fringe an opportunity to justify their lethal objectives. The alleged killer, an Australian with a track record of hateful opinions, even published an online manifesto which referred to a “Great Replacement” of Caucasians by immigrants.
Writing in The Guardian the clinical psychologist Masuma Rahim warns that “Your thoughts and prayers will not save our lives, while the actions of politicians and the media undoubtedly destroy them.” She adds that: “Every single day, people like me are subject to media onslaught … demonised, both by the people who make our laws and by the people who have significant influence over public opinion. And when I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean Muslims. Because it’s not just Muslims who are losing their lives at the hands of far-right nationalism. It’s Jews, and Sikhs, and black people. Because when fascism comes to call, it usually doesn’t care what shade of ‘different’ you are. All it knows is that you are different, and it does not like you for it.”
Rahim is right to blame the normalization of weaponized rhetoric. In a 2015 book about the resurgence of far-right populism, the scholar Ruth Wodak notes that “the rise and, indeed, discursive prominence of right-wing populist parties currently seems to be without end.” Presciently, Wodak observes that “rightwing populist parties have moved away from the margins in many EU member states and beyond [and] indeed become mainstream parties and movements.” She also warns that the “normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and antisemitic rhetoric … primarily works with ‘fear’: fear of change, of globalization, of loss of welfare, of climate change, of changing gender roles; in principle, almost anything can be constructed as a threat to ‘Us’, an imagined homogenous people inside a well-protected territory.”
When potential motivations are so various it is hard to imagine the security agencies in any democratic country adequately monitoring the sort of rhetoric which gave rise to the violence in Christchurch. Consequently there is always a temptation to curtail freedom of expression in order to limit the spread of such beliefs. Although this urge is understandable, particularly in the aftermath of such horror, in fact censorship more often exacerbates hateful behaviour rather than curbing it.
One of the main reasons why online groups so often incubate extremist opinions is their isolation from a wider peer group. In a 1999 study of the “group polarization” which spurs progressively disinhibited behaviour in such settings, Cass Sunstein noted that “social homogeneity can be quite damaging to good deliberation” because “people frequently do what they do because of what they think (relevant) others do.” Teenage girls who watch their friends have children are likelier to become pregnant themselves, and similar patterns are noticeable with respect to other social problems like littering and violent crime. Conversely, “a good way to increase the incidence of tax compliance is to inform people of high levels of voluntary tax compliance.” Strikingly, the judicious expansion of a peer group has been one of the few successful deterrents to binge drinking on college campuses. But Sunstein also warns of the dangers of informational “cascades” in which “Many people, lacking firm convictions of their own, may end up believing what (relevant) others seem to believe. . . The same process may work for the choice of political candidates, as a fad develops in favor of one or another – a cascade “up” or “down,” with sensational or ruinous consequences.”
What matters, then, is how carefully we collectively analyze and debate the ideas which breed such hateful thoughts when they are exiled from the public sphere. How scrupulously we interrogate racism, sexism, homophobia, religious hatred and other forms of discrimination. Most importantly, perhaps, is how thoroughly we hold public figures to account whenever they disparage or dismiss a minority. For, as Masuma Rahim correctly points out, this should not be seen as a question of defending one’s own minority interests but of standing up for all of your fellow citizens. Misogyny, should be intolerable to every citizen, not just women, and we should all condemn racism, explicitly, and xenophobia, and religious hatred. Failure to maintain these norms emboldens demagogues and their followers, and lets terrorists, madmen and bigots drift into self-reinforcing contexts in which they are never refuted.
Before the carnage in New Zealand is overtaken by discussions that largely ignore the suffering of the victims and their families, it is worth reflecting on how well we ourselves push back against the sort of intolerance which has led to the murder of 49 innocent people and injured 48 others.