This is the edited text of a talk given an international symposium, “The Journalism We Need”, at Stanford University on May 11, 2018.
Over the past several years, I have been trying to understand the global problem of rising religious intolerance and how it threatens human rights, including freedom of expression. In my 2016 book, Hate Spin, I studied the hate propaganda of right wing groups in the world’s three largest democracies, India, the United States and Indonesia.
I concluded that sustained and large-scale episodes of intolerance and hate are never the spontaneous outcome of irreconcilable tribal or civilisational differences. They are orchestrated by political opportunists for whom us-and-them identity politics is an irresistibly effective mobilisational tool.
In many democracies, these events can be understood as manifestations of a clash within civilisations — between the civic nationalism on which their constitutional orders were built, and resurgent ethno or religious nationalisms; between the rule of law, and the rule of identity.
To secure the conditions for peaceful and just co-existence within diverse societies in the face of hate campaigns, we need intelligent interventions by the state, civil society — and the media. So, what role can journalists play?
I’m going to ignore the likes of Breitbart or Fox News in the United States — those media that are promoting intolerance with actual malice or reckless disregard for civic values — because discussing their role would be as productive as talking to Philip Morris about tobacco deaths.
Instead, let’s think about the journalists who sincerely want to be part of the solution — journalists who are committed to the public interest and want to help build inclusive and liberal democracies. What would that conversation look like?
I’ll confine myself to three broad points.
Uncover the network
First, journalists need to understand how hate propaganda actually works. At an interpersonal level, we know racist speech when we see it. But it’s a mistake to think that industrial-strength hate campaigns that are subverting democracies around the world — attacking immigrants and minorities, for examples — simply amount to racist speech with a megaphone and a bigger audience.
When journalists make this mistake, they obsess over particular utterances by prominent newsmakers. Think of the hours of air-time devoted to debating Donald Trump’s off-colour remarks. Racist? Or not racist? The implication behind such debates is that if his words are judged not to have crossed the line, there’s no problem.
But that’s not simply how hate campaigns work. What we’re dealing with is far more sophisticated. The most pernicious hate propaganda campaigns involve multiple mutually-reinforcing messages by various actors — political leaders local and national, religious and community leaders, political parties and activist groups, think tanks and funding organisations, and so on. Each contributes a small part to the campaign, from explicit agitation to dog whistles and even pseudo-academic research outputs. There’s a division of labour, such that the most prominent leaders can make an impact without indulging in explicitly hateful speech, giving them plausible deniability.
When we understand this, it should be clear that spewing moral outrage against a politician for possibly racist remarks is a small part of the work we need to do. Just as we investigate corruption by following the money, we need to track hate campaigns systematically, to expose whose interests are ultimately served, who’s doing the dirty work, and who’s laundering the bigotry to conceal its source. Follow the hate.
Understand the demand
Second, we need to reflect on why some segments of the public are drawn to bigoted, divisive viewpoints in the first place, even when it means rejecting facts. Part of the answer is being provided by the mounting body of research in the behavioural sciences, explaining people’s psychological preferences for information that confirms their own biases or that protects their identity.
There may be another explanation. Perhaps the media and other elite institutions that we consider trustworthy have betrayed the trust of many citizens over too long a period. Yes, by mastering rigorous processes such as professional journalistic routines, there are media that have become quite skilled at finding answers.
But they may not be as good at identifying questions. Too often, their energies are not really focused on matters to do with alleviating human suffering or contributing to social justice. In most countries, elite media have done a much better job at telling us about the new features of the latest iPhone and the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Index, royal weddings and celebrity breakups, than reflecting the day to day struggles of the working class or the rural poor.
If the so-called truths that the media routinely serves up are so removed from the lived experience of millions of citizens, is it really so irrational for people to opt for a post-truth world? It’s tempting the despise for the public for not believing us, but we need to ask if we’ve given people enough reason to believe in us.
Tend the soil
Third, we should ask ourselves whether, we — not just journalists, but also educators — could do more to shore up the civic values on which democracy depends. When we observe debates around populist intolerance, you will often find defenders of bigotry and spokespersons for demagogues saying things like, polls show that many people agree with us; or, our side won the election, so there.
They thus attempt to appropriate the democratic principle of majority rule to legitimise their attacks on constitutional rights. And this discursive strategy often works. It is alarming to see how often it discombobulates their opponents, including the journalists interviewing them.
The correct response to such claims is that it democracy isn’t solely about the will of the majority based on opinion polls or even election results. Popular sovereignty always has to be balanced with equal rights for every person, without which we will end up with tyranny — the tyranny of the majority. The moral legitimacy of the one person one vote system is premised on the notion that all citizens have an equal right to participate. Undermining that right, would make a mockery of whatever outcome emerges from our electoral systems.
Pushing this line can be problematic for media. Defending minority rights against a dominant culture often requires media to tell their own readers and viewers that they may be wrong.
The very qualities that the public prizes when applied outward against government and big business — independence and moral courage in fighting for the weak — are resented when turned inward, against the majority community itself.
It’s hard enough to speak truth to power; it’s harder still to speak truth to people power. Yet, that is precisely what a plural democracy requires of the press when majoritarian forces threaten the human rights of religious minorities, immigrants, and other defenceless groups.
Cherian George is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of journalism. He researches freedom of expression and censorship, and has a special interest in religious intolerance and hate propaganda. His books include Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy (MIT Press, 2016).
Before entering academia, he was a journalist with The Straits Times in his native Singapore. He continues to practice professional journalism as the publisher and editor of What’s Up, a monthly current affairs newspaper for schoolchildren dedicated to values-driven journalism. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Journalism School and Cambridge University. (www.cheriangeorge.net)