Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
Hate-speech is a verbal assault, an attack on a person with the intention of destroying and diminishing him, or reducing her to the status of a nobody.
It happens quite often that an army about to launch a war on a neighbour, first despoils the good name of those neighbours. Second, they bring disgrace to them by calling them “bad names”. When you have destroyed their good reputation and shown them to be less human, the act of killing becomes easy. First, you dehumanise the opponent with insults and verbal venom, then you torture them to death.
Hate-speech is the beginning of outright violence, war, armed conflict , nuclear annihilation and genocide. Whole nations and peoples may have to give up hatred, acrimony, loathing, animosity, abhorrence, spite, abomination, and discrimination.
Has the United States ever repented over the destruction of Japan, especially Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by nuclear bombs in August 1945? “The ancient prophetic idea of whole cities and nations repenting is one that is just now becoming operational, and it is one of the greatest achievements of our time” (Wink Walter pictured; 1998: When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations).
Before we can think of reconciliation and bring it about, we must cleanse and purify our hearts, minds and emotions. As long as our hearts are still obsessed with hate and discrimination between nations, we will not be able to rid us of violence, war, and fanatical rearmament.
How can we do away with malice? In one small Italian town, the mayor told residents that malicious language, hate-speech, insulting one another and malignancy in social relations would be punished so as to liberate the community from a destructive spirit. Malice in our hearts should be removed altogether so as to eradicate the deep-seated roots of loathing and animosity which might result in physical violence and armed conflicts. The latter are caused by malice in our hearts.
Insults and expressions of disdain and loathing will result in arrogance, pride and contempt. Leaders, chiefs and managers, if recognised as such, become bossy, dominant, authoritarian and intolerant. Everyone who looks down on perceived lesser fellow citizens will want to claim superiority, a top position and raw power. Power needs violence to maintain itself.
This virus of dominance infects us and captivates us. As long as we want to dominate in family and community, or insist on superiority of one’s own nation over others, or give men superiority over women (or vice versa), war between nations or domestic violence would be just round the corner.
This domination virus poisons human relations. It causes violence and bloodshed. It is as old as humanity. Church members must be trained “in the skills of mediation, negotiations, and proactive peacemaking in order to prevent war and armed conflicts. Those trained will train others in order to develop a critical mass of people who will demand and implement a non-violent culture of tolerance and negotiation”. We must prepare for peace even while war is raging. We must learn how to make peace, forgive and reconcile. That will only be possible if we have done away with the habit of being dominant over our partners, that is, husbands and wives, competitors and leaders, customers, clients and patients. An infallible, authoritarian doctor does not allow his/her patients to express what ails them. Domination is sabotage. It is destructive for dialogue and disturbs constructive thinking.
“Critical solidarity” might mean “fostering relationships with government leaders while resisting the temptation to cosy up to power”. You may be in sympathy with government and yet be critical. And you may be critical without pouring scorn on the political class altogether. Soldiers must follow orders from their military commanders. They may themselves be bossy and dominate civilians.
Autocracy is poor preparation for a democratic government. Armed violence in any revolution does not prepare you for a political culture of participation and popular sharing of power and prosperity. Former armed fighters make for poor democrats. Yearning for domination is part of the power game. Economic and political domination is thought to be sustainable only through police violence and military intervention.
If you want an egalitarian society – then apply equal rights for all! You have to base it on non-violence as a strategy. Walter Wink, a thinker on the principles of non-violence, is asking us: “How can we challenge these powers to conceive their vocations as service for the general good?” Non-violence renounces domination, while egalitarianism abandons economic or political superiority. This has a base in Christian teaching. It goes together with the New Testament command: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Clearly, this is not a spirit of domination, but it advocates egalitarianism: “ Your Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45).
These are Biblical principles. “How may the churches attack the greed who pervert our economic life?” Domination of the economic life is in practice corruption. Accumulating wealth without a legal claim to it and grabbing what is not our common, collective property, like tax payments or contributions paid to insurance companies is dominance. A domineering leadership in any church may result in senior churchmen humiliating junior officials, or elected lay leaders harassing the ordinary folk. But a friendly church community may attract kindhearted, and sympathetic new members.
Democracy in big corporations, companies, educational institutions, churches, local and national government is participation by all in everything. The corporate culture of domination “has to change in order to allow managers to become more participative, and to persuade everyone else that their input is significant — and safe to make”.
These are the values “cherished by some traditional societies, where the ‘chief’ merely states the emerging consensus, and all stakeholders have a voice”.
A key concept of the Bible is the “Kingdom of God”. What does it mean? The answer is easy: Freedom from domination, freedom from bossiness and harassment.
It is the gift of respect for our companions and colleagues. It will be the gift of a new society.
Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator