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On normalising hate

Words kill, words give life. They’re either poison or fruit (Prov 18:21)

In the United States, this weekend, 31 people died as the result of two, near-consecutive mass shootings. The first was in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a 21-year-old Caucasian man carried out what is said to be an anti-immigrant, racist massacre. The second was in Dayton, Ohio, where another angry young white man opened fire in a popular nightlife district. Just over a week prior, a 19-year-old man opened fire at a Garlic Festival, bringing his violently held ideologies to life. In the US now, there is an open conversation on the reality of domestic terrorism and why such violence has become so prevalent. 

Most political commentators are very sure of the “why”. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said that the problem is that domestic terrorists are being “radicalised in a funnel of vitriol”, much of which, she says, comes from the office of President Trump. Trump’s allusion to immigrants as “invaders”, she notes, to sanctioning violence against certain groups has lit the fire under domestic terrorists who ally themselves to a white nationalist cause.  Her Democratic colleague Beto O’Rourke said much the same, becoming rather emotional when facing members of the press and noting that the hate and anger that comes from the White House is legitimising much of the actual violence that is being enacted in recent mass shootings.  In fact, he likened Trump’s response to the shootings to Nazi Germany.

The actions of the shooter in El Paso, in particular, have already been linked to a growing  global phenomenon of white supremacist violence, aided an abetted by the mainstreaming of such figures as Steve Bannon, Milo Yannapopulous, Tommy Robinson, or the ignominious ‘Festival of Ideas’ that has sprung up in UK academia.  As the Guardian noted in its analysis of the El Paso shooting, at the heart of the rhetoric of these ideologues is the belief that whiteness is under attack, and that a wide range of enemies – from feminists and leftwing politicians to Muslims, Jews, immigrants, refugees and black people – are all conspiring to undermine and destroy the white race, through means as varied as interracial marriage, immigration, “cultural Marxism” and criticism of straight white men. 

The cultural Marxism thesis, as well as that of the Great Replacement, was at the heart of the rationale of the Christchurch shooter. The academic Aurelien Mondon notes that it is not just select individuals, but, since 9/11, the continued singling out of certain populations (Muslims, refugees, immigrants) has led to a rhetoric of violence against the Other, perpetuated in a quotidian manner by many politicians and commentators. These ideologies remained uncontested and undefined, in the main.  Due to this, extremist, violent far-right ideologies have become internalised and normalised.

We can see this so clearly close to home, where the rhetoric of fundamentalist Buddhist movements has always been to see non-Buddhist populations as being “foreigners”, “invaders”, linking national purification to the elimination of the Buddhist Other. In India, the Modi government’s re-election strategy was quite forthright:  the protection of the Hindu Rashtra. Modi lauded himself as the “chowkidar”, the caretaker. In just the last two days, this playbook has been shockingly deployed with the abrogation of Article 370 and the occupation of the disputed territory of Kashmir, with Hindu nationalists as well as the government claiming that they were “taking back their lands” and making it possible for Pandits to reclaim properties that had been taken over by Muslims. 

Professor Eddie Glaude, of Princeton University, providing one of the most insightful analyses of this weekend, noted that there was a deeper structural and historical issue, and, referring to the United States in particular, that the rhetoric of the current White House or celebrity white supremacists was not only to blame.

“What we know”, he said in a powerful interview to MSNBC, “is that this country has been playing politics for a long time on this hatred – we know this. So it’s easy for us to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders. It’s easy to place Pittsburgh on his shoulders. It’s easy for me to place Charlottesville on his shoulders. It’s easy to place El Paso on his shoulders… This is us!”

What Professor Glaude points out can be extrapolated to the global stage to highlight an issue that social scientists, religious studies scholars and critical race theorists around the world have been highlighting for several decades; that a certain rhetoric that connects violence to the idea of the state and the nation continually legitimises and normalises acts of hate and aggression such as mass shootings in America, the occupation of Kashmir by India,  a shooting in a mosque in Christchurch, an attack on a synagogue in California, the burning of Muslims shops in Digana, an attack on a Methodist church in Anuradhapura, or a Sinhala-only movement that led to a 30-year civil war.