Head of Media Program
Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis
We are harvesting the fruit of the tree of hate planted long ago. This conclusion comes into mind after the news about the explosive devices sent to former US president Barack Obama, former US secretary of State and candidate for the US president Hillary Clinton, philanthropist George Soros and broadcaster CNN.
Words Setting Fires
Writer Amos Oz, when asked why sometimes substitutes writing novels for writing news, responded that he does it because he cannot reconcile himself to the frequency of abusing words in public. “I believe that many horrible things in history started with words, dehumanizing words. You hear all dehumanizing labels attributed to people and understand that bloodshed is only a matter of time. Being a person working with words, I have a task to be a fireman rushing to extinguish the fire every time I hear rhetoric poisoned with hate. The should be at least a fire alarm to warm about the threat” – the author said.
We could also state that the harvest of the fruit of hate was strongly increased by politicians, who built their election campaigns on the polarization of society, increasing hostility, delegitimization of their opponents, turning them into nearly existential enemies threatening to the survival of state, nation or religion. We could also confess that there a reasonable part of guilt should be attributed to the media, which, instead of rationalising public debate and encouraging the culture of dialogue and search for truth, sometimes contributed to the creation of hate performance scenario, making excuses that it only fulfils desires of the readers. We could also speak about the negative influence of social networks, full of different trolls, and hatemongers appealing to hermetic bubbles. However, these explanations, even if they partly reach the truth, would remain rather superficial as they would not answer the crucial question – in what soil did this seed of hate that it was destined to sprout and not to perish?
The Roots of Hate in the Lack of Trust
Searching for the answer to these questions, I would stress two things – the increase of income inequality, finally turning into inequality of other forms, e. g., access to high quality education in every school or health services, and decline of trust. Let’s begin with trust, which can be divided into two types – social and institutional. Social trust reveals individual approach to the state of society. This indicator shows to what extent people trust other people, including strangers. The review of the survey carried out by the Nordic Council of Ministers named “Trust – the Nordic Gold” stresses that social trust can be considered as individual’s perception of what is the human and social nature. In addition, social trust is also related to expectations that the strangers will follow certain behavioural norms and will not have intentions to act dishonestly. Meanwhile, institutional trust indicates whether citizens trust the performance of public institutions, i.e., that they are aimed at common welfare, do not employ nepotism, corruption and the like.
Accessible statistics show that inequality tended to increase in the developed countries since the 90s. Moreover, US specific statistics reveal significant decline of social and institutional trust. Yoni Applebaum, the author of “The Atlantic”, presents the statistics about the decline of the civic participation of the Americans, which means, that those not participating no longer have opportunities to learn the norms of democratic operation in practice. An interesting fact: the percentage of those who rarely or never participated in community activities, such as sports or book clubs, associations of teachers or parents, condominiums etc., was higher among the supporters of Donald Trump compared to the supporters of other candidates, even Republican. Applebaum emphasizes that the majority of the supporters of D. Trump was made up by those people who are not participating in civic activities. Therefore, I make a hypothesis that those not participating in civic activities were also those lacking social and institutional trust as well as practice of civic performance.
What Should We Do or Whom Should We Blame?
This is very important, taking into account conclusions of the aforementioned survey of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which state that trust and individual happiness are very closely related, because people feel better and safer living in the societies where people trust each other. People who trust tend to think that they can control their life better and benefit from the opportunities. In short, they bear responsibility for their lives.
Jonathan Sacks, former Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, during our conversation in London, emphasized that people facing difficulties and crises always have two possibilities – to question whether I can change the situation or to ask who is the one to blame and who did this to me. The first way indicates taking responsibility and believing that I, along with the others, can change things for the better. The second way refers to huge mistrust, sense of helplessness and search for whom to blame, so that all the responsibility for the situation could be transferred to them. In this atmosphere of mistrust public space degraded from the search for dialogue and compromise to the battlefield, where civilised rules are disappearing. This battlefield is the exact place for the thriving of the populists, who provide the society with the lists of the ones to blame and to “punish”. They carry out political mobilisation through hostility, polarization, search for “fake” Americans, Hungarians, Poles or Lithuanians, naming those who stand against the nation or the state. The rhetoric finally degrades to the level, where specific people are listed as the problem that needs to be solved.
It is important to perceive the extent and roots of this problem not only to be able to better understand what is going on there, across the Atlantic, but also to be able to extinguish the fires when we hear the words of hate encouraging speech, and to engage in prevention by not allowing to loosen soil where the seed of hate could easily sprout. Obviously, to reach this goal it is necessary to pay attention to decreasing of inequality or at least stopping its increase, which is making us speak about few Americas or few Lithuanians, to building social and institutional trust, returning the dialogue and compromise to the public space. It is not an easy task, but it is the only warranty of hope that we will not get lost in the jungle of radicalism.
First published by BNS, news agency (in Lithuanian)