Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hate: A How-To Guide

There is a misconception about hateful speech and practices -- that it always comes wrapped in an ugly, repulsive shell. For the most part, this isn't true, for one simple reason: Hate is a political action. People who hate, for the most part, wish to enact that hatred into policy. To do that, then, they will seek to frame their hatred in the dominant language of the time -- that which will accord it the most authority and make it more likely to be translated into action. Some express hate for hate's sake. Most, though, are savvier. They believe that their hate is in accord with the dominant paradigms of the age, and will express their points accordingly.

Anti-Semitism has long followed this pattern -- constantly mutating in form so that it fits comfortably within authoritative schemas. In some places and epochs, that language was Christianity. In others, Islam. In others, Enlightenment. And in the context of modern international politics, human rights. Jonathan Sacks observed this trenchantly.
“It begins as anti-Zionism — but it is never merely anti-Zionism when it attacks synagogues or Jewish schools,” Sir Jonathan said. “In the post-Holocaust world the single greatest source of authority is human rights — therefore the new anti-Semitism is constructed in the language of human rights.”

In a new book, Future Tense, he describes a “virulent new strain of anti-Semitism”. A worrying alliance had developed between radical Islamists and anti-globalisation protesters, he said.

The UN had also fanned the flames. At the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, he said, “Israel was accused of the five cardinal sins against human rights — racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and attempted genocide. So the old myths are recycled they are alive and well but they are done in a new kind of vocabulary.”

This isn't to discount "human rights" or to say that they are unimportant. Far from it; I believe human rights are absolutely critical. But precisely because I and so many others accord human rights that sort of power, the term becomes one of the primary ways one states and warrants political claims. Hence, we should expect that anti-Semitic activities will come couched in language of anti-racism, human rights, and like terms, precisely because that language carries with it, in the words of Mari Matsuda, "legitimating force."

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