The communication strategy that counters the populist hysteria around the subject of refugees should take into account the following:
Populists have a head start in winning hearts and minds, because their framing is age-old and it is supported by the gravity of fear, intellectual laziness, and other human vices. Engaging with populism head-on is wrong, because it is a self-perpetuating narrative. It is based on stoking fear – and the rest inevitably follows.
Before we discuss the methods and narratives that may work, we should understand what we are up against and how that works. It gives us clues to the traps laid down in their narrative. So let me start with a run-down of the mechanism of populist hate speech.
1. The framing of hate speech and why you should never fight the symptoms
The authoritarian thinking consists of the following elements. It is a downward spiral, where every element supports the others. Every populist plays on these notes instinctively.
2. Do not embrace the narrative of an emergency
Every populist narrative starts with some sort of threat and every dictatorship is based on the legitimacy of fighting emergencies.
In case of an emergency, morality is suspended, restraints on power are considered irresponsible and dangerous, and only a strong leader can help – or so the implicit narrative sounds. In reality, none of the above is true.
Emergency also means that survival strategies kick in. In an emergency, we take orders and make every effort for things to remain the same. It is maintenance, rather than prosperity. A survival strategy is thus inappropriate for living, and permanent acceptance of strong leadership erodes democracy and freedom. See an emergency when there is none, and you make damage.
”How did this happen? Who’s to blame? … truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
— Alan Moore
The narrative from emergency is a cornerstone of populism and generating hatred. The fear it creates and the conviction that we can no longer afford to be moral, open and trustful/trustworthy are the starting points of the populist’s narrative. The narrative frame of hate speech and xenophobia is based on the notion of an emergency and plays on the following few notes:
- Dehumanisation of the subject of our fear is a preparation for attacking them
- Victim blaming and scapegoating
- In-group vs out-group rhetoric – often expressed by the existence and usage of stereotypes
Hatred is merely a symptom. Addressing the symptoms, such as hate speech, is like a cat chasing the laser: it keeps you busy, but the red dot is not the problem.
3. Fear is never useful
Fear is framed by populists as a necessity (so called “evolutionary” references to saber tooth tigers will keep popping up inevitably) but it is not true. When fear ceases to be a useful signal and a reaction to a threat and becomes a preemptive state of mind, freedom of all sorts is lost.
The underlying sentiment is always fear, and that should be addressed instead of pandering to the rhetoric of the enemy of the day. What makes it difficult is that fear is politically forgivable, and it is supported by the perception of human nature: we were told that being fearful when there’s no actual threat is a small price to pay. That erring on the safe side cannot be overdone. It can.
For a politician, it is also easier to create fear, than genuine popularity. It is easier to create war (the perception of threats) than peace. Easier to induce fear than love. As any Machiavellian would attest: threat – real or imagined – is something a politician and a populist can create. Love (popularity) is in the hands of the voters. Fear should be pursued, not love.
„One cannot capitalise on the opportunities provided by democracy in that chronic state of fear that believes that liberty is a threat to the national cause. To be a democrat means first and foremost not to be afraid: from those with different opinion, language or race, from revolution or conspiracy, from the evil intentions of the enemy, from enemy propaganda, not to fear from being disparaged, and all the imaginary dangers that become real exactly because we fear them.”
— István BIBÓ
4. Blaming the weak, the victim, and the need to scapegoat
Another element of authoritarian thinking that is worth keeping in mind when fighting xenophobia is victim blaming.
Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) included among the authoritarian personality traits the “contempt for everything discriminated against or weak”, what would be later called “blaming the victim”. Melvin Lerner considers it as a distorted form of the just world hypothesis. From childhood onwards, we are bombarded with the message that good is rewarded while bad is punished. We carry this notion into adulthood and need an explanation for injustice when facing the cognitive dissonance of an innocent victim. (Lerner 2002) In order to “make” the world just again, we look for fault in the victim.
But victim blaming is only necessary, when one is not in the position to prevent injustice. In other words, helplessness. (Peterson-Seligman 1983) If one could intervene or rectify the situation, they would do that instead of mental self-adjustments.
Victim blaming serves multiple purposes:
- It justifies one’s own inaction in the face of injustice
- It allows to (one-sidedly) identify with power in a form of unrequited love that is neither confirmed nor denied by the powerful.
- It provides the comforting notion that the victim must have done something wrong – their fate can thus be avoided by avoiding the same behaviour.
- It thus recovers the illusion of control where there is none.
We cannot even tolerate the thought of an illness to come to someone without deserving it, it is no wonder we cannot cope with a mass of floating bodies suffering this unspeakable fate without any wrongdoing. When we feel helpless in rectifying the situation or prevent injustice from happening, we may resort to looking for fault in the victim to soothe ourselves. A populist will help us find some.
It also prepares the ground for the dehumanisation of the victim. If they are not like us, we don’t have to apply morals (as we do in interaction with our kind), we can detach ourselves from their suffering and feel safe in the illusion that it cannot happen to us.
Next lesson: How not to engage with populists and hate speech
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Verplanken, Bas – Wood, Wendy (2006): “Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 25, no. 1 (2006): 90–103;
Adorno, Theodor; et.al. (1950): The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row
Lerner, Melvin (2002): Pursuing the Justice Motive, In: Michael Ross, Dale T. Miller: The Justice Motive in Everyday Life
Lerner, Melvin (1980): The Belief in a Just World A Fundamental Delusion In: Perspectives in Social Psychology
Smith, David Livingstone (2011): Less than human: why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others. Macmillan
Featured image: Life of Brian by Monty Python