Picture credit: Michael Duva/Getty

The weaponisation of hate

Reducing thought to emotion is overtly propagandistic

Artillery Row

“We must not fetishise ‘debate’ as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate… is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.” So says Labour MP, Nadia Whittome, writing in relation to the issue of transgenderism. The ill-defined concept of ‘hate’ is now deployed by the contemporary, culture-focused, left in much the same way the charge of blasphemy was once used by authoritarian Christians, namely as a device for shutting down intellectual challenge.

The recent campaign to stop Kathleen Stock from speaking to the Oxford Union was predicated upon her apparently “dehumanising”, and thereby wishing to “erase”, transgender persons. If given a platform, it was said, this would result in trans students being made “unsafe”; some might even commit suicide. Those making these grotesque claims knew full well that Stock has never said anything disrespectful concerning trans people and fully respects their right to express themselves however they so please. But that was not the point.

The attempt to attach the epithet of “hate” to perspectives and individuals judged to be politically transgressive in some way therefore has nothing to do with their actual moral content. Accusations of hate are being used to encourage feelings of detestation against those who will not conform or, more accurately, shut up.

What I shall refer to as the Culture Control Left (CCL), is not primarily concerned with suppressing the expression of hate per se, but to weaponise the idea for politically selective, strategic reasons.

What defenders of the values of an open society are up against is not just an authoritarian ideology but a form of symbolic representation designed to induce a particular set of aesthetic responses. To understand the origins of the CCL we need to go back to the inter-war period.

A key figure was the German communist MP Willi Münzenberg, the “red millionaire”. This fascinating man, living in the shadows of the febrile and sinister politics of the period, was brought to attention in Stephen Koch’s book, Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals. It was Münzenberg who appreciated that the hard left had to fight cleverly after the failure of revolution was exposed following the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. Echoing Gramsci, he saw that radical change would not come through a mass uprising of the working class but rather from above — by Marxists operating through popular front operations which they controlled, albeit not too overtly. Stalin, ever the foxy pragmatist, agreed. 

Such campaigns would operate in a siloed fashion so that “fellow travellers” and “useful idiots” could be enlisted on an issue-by-issue basis employing soft-focus, populist rhetoric. Hence, for example, during the Spanish civil war a plethora of fronts were created that purported to be raising money for the orphans of the Republican side, among other things. Münzenberg also saw that the deployment language was key to ideological conflict. He urged Moscow to drop talk of the Soviet Union being as a socialist workers’ paradise and sell it instead as a land of milk and honey for bourgeois elites in the west.

One example of the hard left’s capacity to twist and use language was the Soviet Union’s attempt to smuggle into the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights a self-interested amendment designed to nullify the document’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Soviet delegation wanted the insertion of the words; “freedom of speech and the press should not be used for the purposes of propagating fascism, aggression and for provoking hatred as between nations …” This was the political debut of the hate concept. Eleanor Roosevelt saw through the ruse and warned that this proposed caveat was “likely to be exploited by totalitarian States for the purpose of rewriting the other articles null and void.” 

What we are arguably seeing is a slide into what the brilliant Frankfurt school thinker, Walter Benjamin called the “aestheticisation” of politics. This analysis he applied specifically in the 30s to the fascist propaganda machine. Pageants, rallies, films and rhetoric were designed to trigger primitive emotions relating to feelings of group belonging, a sense of quasi-sacred awe for the regime, as well as feelings of repulsion for its opponents.

The trick … was to bypass the rational faculties

The trick, as with the advertising-like techniques being pioneered in the inter-war period by the likes of Edward Bernays, was to bypass the rational faculties. While all forms of political communication, no matter how much they set out to elaborate a set of coherent arguments, will engender an emotional response on the part of the recipient based on that person’s already adhered to value structure, totalitarian propaganda is typified by the desire to evade intellectual exposition and challenge. The aim was to cut through to the emotions.

The repeated attribution of hatefulness to opponents is now the principle way many on the left are bringing about the aestheticisation of politics. It differs from the totalitarian variants of the last century in that it does not seek to eulogise a movement or regime in the same way. The left today is a more fragmented network of parties, groups and streams of thought which do not cohere into one phenomenon.

The CCL is now more united by what its collective components wish to neutralise than the promotion of a common, positive vision. This is why, also in keeping with Münzenberg’s propagandistic strictures, the term “socialism” is hardly ever evoked.

The first task for defenders of free speech is to expose the misapplication of the slippery hate concept. We should wage a defence of our right to express our emotions, including what others may understand to be hateful. After all, no one, quite rightly, disputes the right of ultra left anarchists and Marxists to vent their anger towards the bourgeoisie and the rich. Laws against the articulation of allegedly hateful expressions are pure thought crimes. So long as there are restrictions on the direct, immediate incitement of violence there is no need for any further legislation in this area.

Second, political liberals need to expose the real agenda of the CCL in this regard. The long-term aim, without having the same honesty of the historic authoritarians, is to establish ultimate control over the means of communication. It is part of the contemporary left’s postmodernism-inspired belief that through the regulation of language a new type of society can be engineered. Only by imposing a “big picture” narrative upon what the new enemies of the open society are doing can we bring about a greater awareness of how our political culture is being corrupted. 

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