“They that hate me without cause are more than the hairs of mine head.”
– Psalm 69:4
Carol Emcke, a German philosopher (Habermas supervised her MA and Honneth her Ph.D) and war correspondent, is a sparkling writer. One can sweep through her book, Against Hate (Polity, 2016), gathering numerous arresting diamonds of straight-to-the-heart bon mots. In this cram-packed text of 134 pages, Emcke sets herself an immense task. She wants to examine hatred and violence exercised by one group against others. She probes how it is manufactured and grips some people’s minds and spirits so vice-like that they feel justified to “insult others, humiliate others, attack others” with “absolute certainty.” Those who insult sandpaper and remove all unique features of the human person from their consciousness.
Hatred has been let loose from Pandora’s box of ills. It is wandering around the world looking for someone to abuse. Like a virus, it has infected our politics and cultural life. Emcke locates hatred and violence toward the ‘other’ in our cultivated perceptions of ourselves and others. We have to learn to hate. Our imaginations have to be marinated or saturated in ideologies that divide the pure and authentic believers from those deemed impure. Emcke rivets our attention to the Islamic State (IS) ideology, now prevalent in the Middle East, as a disturbing purveyor of hatred and contempt.
In itself, this is a controversial move, given that scholars like Edward Said, Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky have described Zionism as a colonial settler vision of a pure Jewish homeland that erases the Palestinian presence to legitimate its solitary claim to the “promised land.” Ironically, the plight of the Palestinians remains invisible in Emcke’s text. Strange—because, like Said who challenged us to see Zionism from the standpoint of its victims, she wants us to cultivate an empathic sensibility towards those who are the targets of violent hatred.
Emcke characterizes the IS ideology as a kind of cult of purity. It offers potential adherents the promise of inclusion in a transnational “we”—Arabs and non-Arabs, whites and Black Muslims, from the East and West—are called to fight against corrupt forms of Islam, atheists, secularism and pluralism. IS ideology is ultra-conservative and radically authoritarian. The world is divided into absolute good and absolute bad. No middle ground. No ambivalence. The “we” is only made possible by hygienically purifying itself from impurities. In Emcke’s words: “Not only Christians and Jews are declared real or imagined opponents of this ultra-conservative project of radical purification, but also all those Muslims who are excluded from it by the accusation of apostasy.” This kind of radical bifurcation of human beings into pure and impure drives a stake into aspirations for religious and social coexistence. It also erects walls dividing the chosen, pure ones from those who are alien and tainted.
“Hate is fuzzy. It is difficult to hate with precision. Precision would bring delicate nuance, attentive looking and listening; precision would bring that discernment that perceives individual persons, with all their diverse, contradictory qualities and propensities, as human beings. But once individuals have been blotted out as individuals, then all that is left are indistinct groups to serve as targets of hatred; they can hate to their hearts’ content, and defame and disparage, rave and rage: the Jews, the women, the unbelievers, the Blacks, the lesbians, the refugees, the Muslims, or perhaps the United States, the police, the media, the intellectuals. Hatred distorts the object of hatred to suit itself.” Emcke pushes us to confront the reality that the brutalized (such as facing the mobs outside) “whom hatred takes as its object cannot and will not get used to it.” Nor ought we.
One of the most remarkable stories in Against hate illustrates Emcke’s lucid concepts of hatred. In “Hatred and contempt, Part 1: group-focused hostility,” she examines the “difficulty of imagining other persons” (Elaine Scarry’s phrase) by deconstructing a video taken in Clausnitz, Saxony of a mob surrounding a bus full of refugees. Darkness frames the scene. We can only see the back of the heads of the protestors. They hold their index fingers forward; they are chanting loudly, “Wir sind das folk” (“We are the people”). It is as if the slogan explained itself, or their hatred for others. An old slogan of opposition to the communist regime in East Germany, in this moment, it means, “And you’re not.” It means, “We are the ones who decide who belongs and who doesn’t.”
What are they seeing in front of them? The camera zooms toward the windscreen of the coach. Seven figures are standing or sitting inside at the front. On the right, the driver is impassive. Two young women are sitting at the front. Backs turned to the howling crowd outside, appear to be exhorting the paralyzed refugees in the coach. How long have they been sitting there? Has their coach been blocked for long? The images provide no answers to questions of whether anyone has noticed this raucous crowd. An older woman wearing a beige headscarf standing in the aisle, clearly upset, gesticulates towards the people screaming at here, and makes a spitting gesture. The crowd continues shouting that “We are the people,” signalling “You are outsiders,” “You don’t belong.” The women’s spitting signals a “No.” What kind of people are they claiming to be, to make such a spectacle of themselves?”
A boy in a blue-hooded jacket, face contorted, evidently crying: is supposed to go out there. He is very frightened. But he is led through the coach out into the dark, where the crowd is now yelling, “Go away … go away.” Inside we can now see the two women in the front seat, holding each other, one hiding her face on the other’s shoulder while the other wipes tears from her eyes. Emcke wonders how it is possible for people to see a crying child and terrified young women, and scream, “Go away” But the protestors do not see fear or human beings. What techniques of blinding or blotting out does it take to do that? What ideological, emotional, psychological circumstances can so shape their perception that they do not see people as human beings? Her questions and mine.
In Clausnitz, the refugees are not simply invisible; they are not ignored; they are perceived as something detestable. What is happening here? Emcke extrapolates three cardinal axioms from this vignette. First, the refugees in the coach are being made invisible as individual persons. They are cast outside the “we.” They are only made visible as “not us.” The protestors mark them as repulsive, strange and dangerous. They have turned into a different species. They are unavailable for attention and hence absent from the outset. Who are these people who hate, who shout, who protest, who defame? What is the background of these acts? What are the sources of their learned contempt?
Second, another group surrounding the coach in Clausnitz consists of the spectators. Emcke zeros in on the “spectacular character” of the event. But the victims have become part of a “theatrical performance” that humiliates them. Frightened, they now are defiled objects with entertainment value. Powerfully, she observes that the Clausnitz spectacle takes its place with dishonourable places where people of different religions are terrorized or beaten up because of a given skin colour or having a different sexuality. Emcke is rather taken aback that the bystanders just seem to stand there, doing nothing. Whey don’t the go home? Why do they remain, gawking? They appear frozen.
Third, “Rage is vented on those who are both conspicuous and unprotected” (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of enlightenment). The third actors present are the police. This is reassuring, but Emcke says that the video images merely reveal that the police watched the crowd’s activities. But they didn’t disperse the crowd. No bull-horn messages to disperse, go home. Somehow police listlessness signals to the crowd that they can go on. The refugees are terrified to leave the coach. When the refugees begin to resist their situation, a police officer rushes on to the coach to drag out one of the boys who raised his middle finger to “the people” in front of the coach. He is treated like a criminal and not as a person who has been insulted and threatened by the crowd.
Emcke chooses another video that pierces the heart., the excruciating “I can’t breathe” video of African American Eric Garner (“Hatred and contempt, part 2: institutional racism [Staten Island, NY]). In this vignette she teases out reasons why the police can treat a Black man in this contemptuous manner. She comments: “In a society in which the trembling of a Black body is still interpreted as an expression of anger, in which white children (and adults) are still trained to see Blacks as something to be avoided or feared, Eric Garner (or Michael Brown or Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice, or all victims of white police violence) are seen as threatening even though they present no danger. After generations of training in such perception, a real fear is no longer necessary to abuse the Black body. The fear has long since been transformed and inscribed in the police’s institutional self-concept. The racist template which perceives something frightening in any Black body has been translated into the attitude of white police officers who regard it as their job to protect society from this imaginary danger.”
This is tour de force analysis. I have left out other important critical insights. But we are alerted to get busy studying the history of “structural contempt”—how fearful and degrading perceptions of selected human beings are, in fact, inscribed in our cultural sinews over long periods of time through various teaching modes and visualized practices. Once inscribed, as Axel Honneth has commented (“Invisibility: on the epistemology of ‘recognition’), our “inner eye” is constructed such that “our inner disposition” does not permit us to see the true person. We overlook and look through: we disregard the complex human being before us as a distorted, even monstrous, stereotype. Hatred is manufactured on the Internet, places of worship, discussion forms, publications, talk shows and YouTube videos. It doesn’t pop out of nowhere.
Emcke affirms that: “Only a communicative culture which gives new expression, over and over again, to the hope of creating an inclusive society, one which does not permit individuals or whole groups to be ostracized as ‘foreign’—or ‘impure’ – only such a culture of remembrance can remain vital.” This requires that we “remain attentive to the mechanisms of exclusion and violence in the present.”