Sat 23 January 2021

Angelique Richardson explores how social media has fuelled its own Orwellian ‘two-minute hate’ and ways to combat the racial and social fragmentation it produces 

In George Orwell’s 1984, Julia spends “an astonishing amount of time in attending lectures and demonstrations, distributing literature for the junior Anti-Sex League, preparing banners for Hate Week… It paid, she said, it was camouflage. If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission notes the boundaries between freedom of expression, unlawful discrimination and harassment, and hate speech. It also points out that while the term “hate speech” is widely used, it “does not have any legal meaning”. Generally, the term describes forms of expression that incite violence, hatred or discrimination against other people and groups. 

Whether hate speech is unlawful, and falls outside of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which protects the fundamental human right to freedom of expression), depends on the context of what is said and when. There is no easy way through the rules around hate. But the big one is surely that we need to learn to hate less, and be vigilant in courage and compassion. 

There is a desperate need to address violence, and incitement to violence, and no shortage of examples that make this a moral absolute. A proliferation of discourse draws our attention to hate, but does it succeed in taking our actions away from it? Prolonged, even exclusive, focus on microaggressions may not necessarily address macroaggressions. At this crucial time, the left risks becoming dangerously, lovelessly, moribund, many of its members’ energies turned in on themselves and each other in a vortex of intra-identity fragmentations underpinned by hyper-marketisation. 

A centring on individual identity, rather than collective struggle against an oppressive social structure, risks reinforcing the norms it set out to challenge

Material Realities

Almost half the world’s population lives in poverty, defined as having under $2.50 per day. This is overwhelmingly racialised, and the direct result of the operations of global capital, first as imperialism and now as financialisation. Britain has a claim to having led the world in the invention of the whole sorry fiction of race – the separating of human beings according to skin colour for the purposes of capital. 

In 1907 the Tokyo newspaper Hochi Shimbun published a letter in Japanese from the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy in a series entitled 「日本に対する世界 名士の感想」 [‘Opinions on Japan, from prominent figures of the world’] in which he wrote “I can only express a hope, which is that your nation may not become absorbed in material ambitions masked by threadbare conventions, like the European nations and America”. 

If we move away from a focus on material conditions we cannot address the atrocities attendant on these ambitions, and do the practical work that decolonising entails if it is to be more than a discourse. And if we remain defined and circumscribed, and divided, by self-definitions, however valid they may be, as much as by definitions by others, we reduce the possibilities of greater solidarities, notwithstanding a rhetoric of care and allyship.

Debates are rarely generous places of dialogue. They can be more about winners and losers

Political action doesn’t have to be about you. There is an argument to be made that it should be about people who aren’t you, providing it does not involve speaking for others without first listening to them. You may not need a food bank, or housing assistance, or subsidised childcare, or an education, or a secure job. Political action is surely at least in part about how to help people who do. But this requires an imaginative suspension of the tyranny of the self, a thinking and feeling into someone else’s situation, and an attempt to do something useful about ameliorating it.

A materialist understanding of the world, which apprehends the economic basis of racial, no less than social, oppression, does not preclude ways of addressing its problems by drawing on a shared humanity, with shared and unshared histories. Indeed that is one way out from the inequalities that underpin social and racial injustice. This requires active resistance to the cynicism that hyper-capitalism both engenders and is predicated on.

Freeing Speech

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published half a century ago, and bearing the imprint of Fanon and Marx, the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire called us to the mutuality of human relations, to the dialogue that moves us to responsibility, humility and respect. We need to remember that we are not the first, or only, speaker, whether in the classroom, the pub or in politics, and must find expression that is not only free, but freeing

In dialogue, we speak with others, to be heard and, in turn, to listen. If everyone is actively present, a radical sense of the future, and of hope is possible. Maintaining hope is imperative, even when, as the Black feminist philosopher and educator bell hooks writes “the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite”.

But dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people: “love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others. If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue,” cautions Freire.

The dialogue Freire urges is one of hope, a search for the humanity denied by injustice, away from the stark polarities of oppressed or oppressor. It is a dialogue that discerns “an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people”, perceiving reality “as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity”, and “does not separate itself from action”. 

In telling our stories, and hearing those of others, we are able to “pronounce the world” together, not on behalf of others. “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real” the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch reminds us in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). 

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned in South Africa; more recently it was barred from schools in Arizona, and the Brazilian government has worked to erase it from schools and curricula.

Censorship Aids the Powerful and Privileged

We urgently need to bring together histories that are shared and unshared. Accounts of ourselves and of the interrelations of national pasts provide us with a route to responsibility. This honesty does the opposite of erasing history – an accusation that is made by those who purport to be on the side of history – drawing renewed attention to the past, and connecting new knowledge with lived experiences. It allows us both to see injustices and how they often exacerbate each other, overlapping in ways that are intersectional (a term coined by the legal scholar and race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who in turn traced it back to nineteenth-century American Black feminists). When it holds at its centre the material and social causes of oppression this honesty acts as a bedrock for solidarity.

This dialogue will not be easy. The poverty that exacerbates disparities and divisions has intensified. And we are up against the misuse and manipulation online of free speech by dangerous extremist groups. In high-profile moves, Twitter and Facebook decided in 2017 and 2018 to remove the far-right group, Britain First, which had spread anti-Muslim content across the internet.

For the community-based organisation HOPE not Hate, which lobbied for their removal, this demonstrates that it is possible to uphold freedom of speech and expression while calling for the online removal of a dangerous group by not confusing the right to say what they please (within the law) with their right to say it wherever they please (which they do not have). But, and as far-right groups proliferate online, it is in practice unlikely that these platforms will be able to curb hate speech. 

Political action doesn’t have to be about you.

HOPE not Hate also acknowledges the risk of overreach. Pointing to a letter in Harper’s Magazine it notes that while hate speech usually involves clear moral and legal transgressions, areas that are less clear cut require especially close attention to the details of a case. Amnesty International reminds us that many governments “abuse their authority to silence peaceful dissent by passing laws criminalising freedom of expression”. Palestinians remind us that academic freedom is not always equitably applied

Censorship generally aids the powerful and privileged. As Kenan Malik observes, it’s the powerless who are most negatively affected when free speech is threatened: being able to dismiss concerns about censorship is itself an expression of privilege. New guidance from the UK Department for Education, while encouraging an inclusive classroom, includes as “extreme positions” the promotion of “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. Educators have asked what narratives are being referenced here, expressing concern that encouraging young people to think, be critical and analytical, won’t have a place in the classroom

At a time when we urgently need to teach anti-racism in schools – we have moved on from the racism my brother and I experienced as the children of an English mother and a Sri Lankan father, but how far? – only 5% of children’s books published in the UK last year have a Black or Asian main character, while a third of the school population are of minoritised ethnic groups. The survey doesn’t reference characters who are mixed race, though this is the fastest-growing ethnicity group in the UK, posing its own challenge to essentialism, and revealing categories of race as shifting.

Debate and Dialogue

The Human Rights Act (1998) affords protection under Article 10: Freedom of Expression that extends to the expression of views that may shock, disturb or offend the deeply-held beliefs of others. This may bring relief or dismay, depending on the issue involved and the view held, quite possibly in turn to different members of a group, or even to the same individual, such is our plurality. A speaker may switch to being that other, pleased to be afforded protection to express a deeply-held belief in socialism, but shocked, say, by comments from Richard Dawkins on Islam. 

Debating societies tend to be a flashpoint for conflicts over freedom to and freedom from. They have a radical history, spilling out from the pubs and coffee houses of eighteenth-century London, with mainly men but also women challenging government and family. When suppressed after the French Revolution, they convened clandestinely in alehouses, sewing the seditious seeds of British Jacobinism and Chartism. A combination of commercialisation, Eton’s debating chamber and the Oxford union altered their make-up, but not necessarily their radicalism.

Oxford declared in 1933 that it would not fight for its King and Country and hosted Malcolm X in 1964 with the motion “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. It begins each academic year with “This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.

That said, it has also hosted Stephen Bannon and any number of racists, and is to a notable extent responsible for the current cabinet. We need to open up these places to the people they were intended for, those who had no access to learning (there is a history of doing so – Oxford came to lead the movement for adult and working-class education) and stop the production of elites by institutions such as Eton which perpetuate and reinforce privilege. 

Debates are rarely generous places of dialogue. They can be more about winners and losers than about seeking to understand someone else’s point of view. If the complexity of our views and beliefs makes it unlikely we will be fully aligned internally, it is probably even more unlikely we will be fully aligned with others. Neither is it desirable. It would, for one, make us, individually and collectively, extraordinarily tedious. 

But we need to get better at disagreeing. Or agreeing, but only in part. It is hardest to do this on social media, with the absence of presence. But dissent must always be possible, even from dissent.

Accepting Disagreement, Non-conformity and Uncertainty

Two months into the UK’s lockdown, Twitter introduced a new feature which allowed the limiting of replies to tweets. This may seem a benign act of Twitter: its avowed aim is to improve “conversational health”. But it masks the contribution of anti-social and addictive, dopamine-delivering, forms of media to how we communicate; to the binary, polarising and splitting environment we encounter if we venture onto these platforms, with their dangerous combination of narcissistic performativeness and flammability. 

Such platforms have the potential to be profoundly unrelational, and to engender a policing and reification of boundaries between group insiders and outsiders. They also demonstrate how easy it is to rally around an ideology without fully or even comprehending it – indeed, that is often a default response to ideologies, for who wants to be left out? 

1984’s Two Minutes Hate comprises “a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil”. Orwell, imperfect socialist  – “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war” –  had no truck with totalitarianism of any stripe. 

There’s plenty of good research on how behind-the-scenes algorithms intensify conflict and how the age of information has ushered in new fundamentalisms and the post-truths we call misinformation and disinformation (its deliberate accomplice). And it is the case that the very form of these new modes of communication overdetermines their content. Twitter is not representative. It is used by a relatively small number of people who may be algorithmically targeted but can themselves rapidly become targeting.

Dissent must always be possible, even from dissent.

But we surely know – or ought to know – when we are being thoughtless, or aggressive. We can’t really, or entirely, ascribe these behaviours, or their causes, to algorithmically controlled social platforms. Or at least not in a way that enables the abdication of responsibility (collective or individual). 

Coercion, the policing of anyone out of line with new and rapidly shifting norms, is far from absent on the left which seems to be fracturing simultaneously into a (carefully labelled) glitter bomb of self-definitions and the violence of groupthink, new puritanisms, and moralisms that are, first and last, failures of imagination. This may well be a response to increasingly right-wing governance, but I am not sure that excuses it. 

The left must want to be different – and markedly so – from the right (which bases itself in largely white identity politics). 

Herding Into Certainty

I am reminded of when campaigners for female emancipation doing important work in the 1860s became moral purists (self-defining as social purists) and by the end of the century were advocates of eugenics (and certificates of health before marriage). Or of the gusto with which a friend (for whom I had the honour of being a birth partner) was encouraged by friends self-identifying as feminists not to go through with a pregnancy for a baby she desperately wanted as it would be difficult to be a single mother and a student. Or of when I turned up (after a summer working in Pizza Hut) to a lecture on feminism at Oxford to hear the eminent lecturer remark “Why sleep with men? – It only adds to your oppression.” It caused an undergraduate buzz.

I must have been quite impressionable for I briefly considered an embargo on relations with my boyfriend (who had wisely opted for the indie scene of a Northern red-brick university: he could by no stretch of the imagination have been placed in the oppressor category). This flourish on the apparent left may well have been produced by the violence of Thatcher’s Section 28. But it was its own imposition, of sorts. 

There are even more reasons to be vigilant in the twenty-first century but to demonise one group and elevate another is unintelligent, and has no social or ethical value. In the words of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure “Still, Sue, it is no worse for the woman than for the man. That’s what some women fail to see, and instead of protesting against the conditions they protest against the man, the other victim”. Our humanity is shared, and ultimately division comes of a misunderstanding of this simple foundational reality.

Oppressors are themselves of course not free, but in thrall to the economic, and to the burden of supremacy. An understanding of the possibility of transformative relations that history, and humanity, contain, has the potential to liberate them too, though this is not the priority. 

Respectful disagreement, and acceptance of dissent, is surely more urgently desirable than policing into conformities, or non-conformities: the herding into certainty, in the hyper-surveillance of digital culture, which expects full alignment when we are each more than one thing.

We might be moved, instead, by radical hope, and humility, into rejecting what the philosopher and political thinker J.S. Mill in On Liberty (1859) called the “tyranny”, “moral coercion” and “censure” of public opinion, reaching instead for an attentive openness to encounters in the manner of Buddhist or Vedanta teaching, or of Keats’s negative capability, that capability “of being in uncertainties”.

Angelique Richardson is a professor of English at Exeter. Her books include Love and Eugenics in the Late 19th Century and After Darwin: Animals, Emotions and the Mind.

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