| Convergence of redneck attitudes
When do most of us first encounter hatred' If you are lucky, as so many of us are, the early encounter in childhood is vicarious. It's what happened to someone else ' perhaps in the form of words, not action; perhaps in a place far away; even, perhaps, in a book. But however indirect, this encounter remains in most of our memories as something of a milestone. We probably already knew, in a childish way, that the world is full of exciting mysteries to be solved. But this encounter gives us the first warning of another sort of puzzle, frightening but inescapable. Some people hate others. Even as a child, you want to know why. And even as a child, you can see, dimly, worryingly, that many examples of hatred are completely irrational.
I can still recall, for instance, one of my own early encounters ' hearing Countee Cullen's poem 'Incident'. I must have been the same age as the children in the poem when I heard someone read out: 'Once riding in old Baltimore,/ Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,/ I saw a Baltimorean/ Keep looking straight at me./ Now I was eight and very small,/ And he was no whit bigger,/ And so I smiled, but he poked out/ His tongue, and called me, 'Nigger.'/ I saw the whole of Baltimore/ From May until December;/ Of all the things that happened there/ That's all that I remember.'
At the time, of course, I knew nothing about racism, in America or anywhere else. In any case, the poem does not speak in terms of white and black. Its point, and its success, lies in the fact of commonality ' the two protagonists are alike; just two children. Also, other than the tongue being stuck out, there is no action, only words, actually just one word. The puzzle is why the speaking child should react the way he does to another child's overture ' a smile. A smile that takes the place of his saying 'You are a child, just like me; this city is yours, and I like what I am seeing.'
In short, the child is saying, in the simplest way possible, that the world is a good place, and both of them own it together. Then all it takes is a word to bring the whole fa'ade of a shared life, of wellbeing, crashing down. A word that name-calls, that says nothing, that means nothing, except that the person saying it does not know you ' or want to know you ' beyond the visible fact of your skin colour. That the person communicates this to you through a cruel word ' a word he may not even understand but nevertheless knows is hurtful.
As a child, all I figured out was that the name-calling child wanted to give pain. The ignorance behind the cruelty, the ways in which prejudice takes hold of a person and limits his world, all this I was to understand much later. But recently, as I was surfing the net, I found out that even as a sophisticated adult, I had a thing or two to learn; not only about the power of prejudice and its implied ignorance, but also about its banality and its essential laziness, its refusal to learn more. I had just read about the horrific case of Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who was raped by five men of the Mastoi tribe to punish her brother for violating their 'honour'. The Imrana case followed soon after. I was wondering about instances of 'rape as punishment' elsewhere and looked up new items in different parts of the world. Then I came across an article with comments posted below, one after the other, a dialogue of sorts, if such comments can be dignified with a word like dialogue. A number of the postings said that 'Pakis' deserved this sort of thing; or that all 'Pakis' should be wiped off the face of the earth, so it was a good thing if they raped and murdered each other. There was worse, especially about the 'titillating' idea of rape, but the redneck attitude to women seemed part of the overall redneck vision of the rest of the world.
It's easy enough to dismiss this sort of thing as inevitable. The internet is a reflection of the real world, and there are all kinds of people out there, many of them with ignorant or unhealthy minds, or positively harmful intentions. The regulation of the internet is a necessary but difficult business if freedoms are to be protected. In all likelihood, the use of the internet to build bridges outweighs its use to break them.
But how do you understand the people behind the hatespeak, people whose ugly prejudices are reflected in the internet as on a mirror' What kind of person puts up a 'hate site', or, in a safer and more cowardly fashion, hides behind an assumed name in a chat room or message board to spew hate through words' It would be a person, I suspect, who cannot tolerate anything unfamiliar or complex. Bigotry and hatred thrive on ignorance, fear, false information and half-truths. The fear in these sites and postings seems to be in varying degrees of paranoia: a lot of the conspiracy theories blame the groups they target for any number of social, economic or political problems. These are people shrill about the 'dangers' of immigration, for instance; or the need to return to the 'traditional' way of life.
Invariably, a return to a better time, or a move to a better future, involves getting rid of someone ' black, Asian, Muslim, women, all named, of course, in the most pejorative language possible.
The perpetrators of hate-tinged conspiracy theories seem to rely on the assumption that their readers will be as ignorant as they are. In some cases, there is also invented 'evidence' to back up their claims. In a world with an overload of information, most of it chaff, this is not exactly difficult. In cases where invention and half-truths fail, there is always the 'matter of faith'. Hate sites of different 'persuasions' often make use of scriptural references, religious writings and holy tracts to give the impression that their claims are sanctified by moral righteousness and guided by a higher power.
Hate-mongers use other means. Sometimes it is pseudo-scientific language or 'academic' work to make their views credible. The obvious example is old hat ' the 'proof' of the different intellectual and physical abilities of different 'races'. Then there is misinformation or historical revisionism; or that rousing language cloaked in false patriotism, a tool we in India have seen close-up in recent times. Whatever the particular form or words of hate-speak, there seems to be one common distinguishing feature among the speakers. This is the mind imprisoned in a well, a small, enclosed, lonely place. A mind that is afraid of light coming in ' anything new, fresh, puzzling, challenging. For such minds, the only real community exists in venues where they can, often without public commitment, indulge in a kind of hatefest that reinforces each other's prejudices.