Cultural Stereotypes and Exclusion: The Politics of Hate Speech
November 14, 2015
E. V. Ramakrishnan
We may not be aware of this fact but the society we live in is withdrawing into a shell, abdicating its social responsibilities. There is a new provincialism that sweeps metropolitan culture masquerading itself as international. It wears many masks – of spiritualism, of assertion of our “Indianness”, of our search for roots, of parading ethnicity as marketable exotica, and of tradition as an exhibit that can be displayed. In every act of forging an identity, there is exclusion and negation. Our inner self never matches the outer self we are legislated to put on by customs, culture, community, codes, creeds and canons. The loss of power before the grids of power structures such as patriarchy, communalist forces, Brahminism etc manifests itself as a loss of language. This loss of speech reduces you to a sub-human state. The subaltern can never speak as an individual but only as part of a collective. This is because speech needs to be claimed and the space of articulation has to be cleared through an ideological struggle. In most of the dalit autobiographies in Indian languages, we can see the protagonist becoming aware of his or her dalit identity through an experience of violence. This is usually through a verbal act of violence where language plays a central role. Our languages tend to exclude the voice of the dalit, the woman, or the minority community from its very unconscious. I write this on a day when some of the national television channels were debating the lynching of a Muslim in Dadri for rumours about his having been a beef-eater. A national commentator asserted that in our country there is greater communal harmony now than ever. Is there a language for the victim’s family to speak to us, or to the world outside? They are weighed down not only by the enormity of the tragedy, but by their absolute isolation in their moment of utter helplessness. None of their neighbours came to their rescue. Whom can we trust, the widowed woman asks. On a day when we remember Gandhi, his legacy is a distant memory. Our politicians who are vocal on lots of matters affecting ordinary people and choose to keep complete silence over such scary developments. Who are we to turn to?
How do we come to terms with this sudden transformation of human beings into the “other”? They are not our neighbours, but “others” – people unlike us. Our education and training have not prepared us for collective living in a heterogenous society. We forget that there are others amongst us who are different in their beliefs, attires and food habits. K. Panoor, a well-known tribal activist and author from Kerala, in his book called The Tribal in My Heart describes an incident in which the will brings out the nature of tribal value system which goes back to the oldest times of our cultures. On one night, when the author was a tribal officer living amongst them, a large crowd of tribals along with the local shopkeeper came to his house. One of them called “Nareene Kothiya Koman” (Koman the tiger-killer) had stolen some jaggery and dal from the shop. The shopkeeper Khader said he had no complaint since Koman had stolen no money and the items stolen were too small. However, the tribal community felt that they had lost their honour because Koman had violated their code. Koman’s version was that he had taken 500 grams of jaggery and one measure of dal exactly because he wanted to return these items later to the shopkeeper. He did this because his family had been starving for a week. But his community did not forgive his crime and he was excommunicated. Henceforth, he had no right to participate in any feast or ritual in the community. This is a fate worse than death for a tribal person and his family who have no sense of private property and share everything with others.
In a travelogue by Amritlal Vegad based on his journeys along the remote banks of the Narmada during his parikrama of the river he describes several tribal communities (Soundarya Ki Nadi Narmada, Narmada the River of beauty, 2007), utterly destitute and dispossessed but greatly generous, as helpful and dignified. In one of the tribal hamlets he and his friends were taking rest when they were distracted by the incessant cry of a child. Vegad went to enquire and found that a child was crying for food and its mother was very much around, but unconcerned. He volunteered to bring some food to the child. But the mother objected and said, “She has to learn to be hungry.” This came as a revelation to him. Her argument was he might give her food on this day, but next day there was no guarantee of a visitor bringing food. She would turn to beg for food, which a tribal will never do and should never do. The child has to live with hunger. Our cultures differ, and one of the first lessons taught to a tribal child is how to live with dignity in an uncertain world. We are yet to understand that the poorest of the poor in this country live by their value system and they value their dignity. Our exposure to Western knowledge has taught us abstractions but we are unable to recognize the lived values of a community which survives on the margins of modernity. Our education and training put a premium on literacy and appearance and we are unable to communicate to the people who appear different or speak differently. We have internalised stereotypes of various kinds which cannot be broken by our conscious mind. K. Panoor also describes in his book a performance of a song he witnessed when one of the tribals becomes possessed and enacted the role of a deer which is described in the song. He disappears into the forest but his movements are controlled by the song. He is brought back by the song and it is believed even a small lapse on the part of the singers would result in him being irretrievably lost in the forest. It was a miraculous performance when through the power of music and narration the deer is brought and the possessed man collapses on the stage, unconscious.
Do we have the conceptual apparatus to understand the cosmology of such complex communities? Words such as ‘fanatsy’ or ‘hallucination’ or “myth” and “magic” are usually employed to signify another order of experience. But the fact is that in secularising the world, we have also denuded it of divinity or any sense of the sacred. Language itself is not able to evoke or invoke the sacred except through an act of subversion. Our education and socialisation inculcate a “universal” idea of “modernity” which institutionalises instrumental rationality. It works through violence of various kinds and violates the frame works of multiple cosmologies that inhabit societies like that of India. This has also kept us away from finding innovative, people-friendly solutions to our complex problems. Tribals and other communities keep their environment scrupulously clean and they have a high sense of public hygiene. There may be cheaper solutions to the larger crisis of health care and modern living if we care to listen to their practices. The antagonism of reason and nature has alienated us from certain ways of living and experiencing the world. Here I would dwell at the root of the hate speech as one of the manifestations of this deep alienation bred by instrumental reason.
Hate speech precedes the actual perpetration of violence and it is an act of abetting and legitimating violence. It can be directed against women, minorities such as the Muslims or Christians, or homosexuals, or any other groups who do not conform to the majoritarian norms. I will briefly refer to Judith Butler’s formulation of “injurious language” in her book, Excitable Speech which is highly relevant to our cultural situation. Using the speech act theory of Austin and the knowledge-power conjunction outlined by Foucault, Butler argues that speech acts (words in performance) condense past and present meanings. An utterance exceeds the moment of its occurrence. There is no sovereign agency in speech, and sovereignty and responsibility cannot always be synonymous. She argues that affirmative re-contextualisations and subversive deployments are more effective than law. Here again we confront a site of subject production in the rational organisations of law and justice that do not meet the objectives of law and justice. It is the court which decides what is hate speech. There is no hate speech in the full sense of the term until and unless there is a court that decides what constitutes it. Paradoxically, the case is made only when it is decided. The circulation of hate speech in society cannot be strictly controlled since it may arise in a variety of situations. The state produces hate speech in the act of countering it. Hence Butler argues that only an effective public discourse can create a site of consciousness which can restore a sense of power to individuals. She says: “The public display of injury is also a repetition but it is not simply that, for what is displayed is never quite the same as what is meant, and in that lucky incommensurability resides the linguistic occasion for change. … …. There is no possibility of not repeating. The only question that remains is: how will that repetition occur, at what site, juridical or non-juridical, and with what pain and what promise?” (Judith Butler 97: 102).
The creation of stereotypes parallels the generation of hate speech in many contexts. In the history of Kerala, particularly in the history of north Kerala, Malabar came to be equated with Muslims and Muslims came to be equated with fanatics through clever collusions between colonial and nationalist discourses. Commentators like M. T. Ansari has shown how William Logan’s Malabar Manual describes Muslims in Malabar as poor, hard-working peasants who are friendly and trustworthy, but soon merge into the fanatic, demonic figures threatening the social fabric of Malabar in the description the poor peasants. Once Muslim is represented as a “fanatic” he loses language. In colonial discourse, the Muslim is rendered speechless, once he is made into an object of condemnation. This stereotype later circulates in mainstream Malayalam literature reducing Muslims either to angelic, benevolent figures or demonic, ruthless villains. Even after sixty years of Independence, a state known for its literacy and progressive policies has not confronted its ghosts of the past which can suddenly assume various shapes in public imagination. In the communally charged atmosphere of Kerala today, one senses the presence of dark shadows of these buried discourses in the public debates in the media.
In his book on violence, Violence (Picador, 2005) Slavoj Zizek argues that in the violence that followed some cartoons appearing in a Danish periodical in 2005, those who took to the streets in the Muslim world had not seen the cartoons. What they were reacting against was their own image of the West. He says: “What exploded in violence was a web of symbols, images and attitudes, including Western imperialism, godless materialism, hedonism, and the suffering of Palestinians and which came to be attached to the Danish cartoons. This is why the hatred expanded from the caricatures to Denmark as a country, to Scandinavia, to Europe, and to the West as a whole. A torrent of humiliations and frustrations were condensed into the caricatures. This condensation, it needs to be borne in mind, is a basic fact of language, of constructing and imposing a symbolic field” (Zizek 2008: 60). Once an image enters a language it lies dormant there, may mutate and feed into other images and gradually may become a cluster of symbols directing and distorting the way in which reality is perceived and understood. The words ‘race’ and ‘reason’ have the same root in Latin. Language itself divides and makes it impossible to cultivate a reciprocal inter-subjectivity. Lacan speaks of a Master discourse which is constitutive of language, being grounded in irrationality of some kind, making it impossible to return to reason of any kind (62). There is a sense in which language essentialises identity of minorities or women. As he says the “being” of blacks is “a socio-symbolic being”. The white interpretation of blacks as inferior takes on a reality of its own in the real world, as the symbolic frame intrudes and legislates the frontiers of reality. Zizek comments: “It is not merely an interpretation of what blacks are, but an interpretation that determines the very being and social existence of the interpreted subjects” (72).
In our mainstream culture, the tribal, the woman or the minority is invisible because of the conceptual grid that control acts of representation. We need a public discourse that will re-enact the anguish and trauma of exclusion because the speaking subject alone cannot counter the logic of injurious hate speech. A subject is created through the production of a discourse. The role of speech is central in the production of discourse. The role of theory is also crucial in creating a critique of present society and retrieving those narratives that carry the potential for emancipation.
E.V.Ramakrishnan is a bilingual writer who has published poetry and literary criticism in Malayalam and English. He has three volumes of poetry in English: Being Elsewhere in Myself (1980), A Python in a Snake Park (1994), and Terms of Seeing: New and Selected Poems (2006). He is working on his next volume of English poems. Among his critical books in English are Interdisciplinary Alter-natives in Comparative Literature (Co-edited, Sage, New Delhi, 2013), Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions and Translations (Orient Blackswan, 2011) and Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (IIAS, Shimla, 1995). He has five critical books in Malayalam, including Aksharavum Aadhunikatayum (1994) for which he was awarded Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. He is presently Professor Emeritus, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
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