Fear is the New Normal
Carolin Emcke’s Against Hate
By John Foster
Hate is an ironic concept. It has been a recurring theme in western politics for centuries and, if the statistics collected by law enforcement on acts of violence are anything to go on, we’re in crisis mode again.
This is especially evident since the election of Donald Trump, who, in typical imperial fashion, has both implicitly and explicitly validated its public expression worldwide. Most significantly in Europe, where nationalism has been exploding since the 2007 financial crisis.
Yet, by and large, nobody will admit to being a hater. When liberals admit to hating anything (injustice, Nazis, climate scepticism, etc) they tend to do so with an apologetic air. On the right, where hate is much more often the coin of the realm, it is usually presented in the neutered form of “concern” or where this guise will not suit, as bewilderment at cultural diversity.
Recent years have seen attempts, mostly by scholars and journalists, to investigate the emotional landscape of this declining civility, such as political philosopher Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion, or the various works by Martha Nussbaum on topics such as disgust, anger, and (most recently) fear.
Both thinkers are, tellingly, of American, and Jewish background. Their national example is instructive, insofar as racism, in the United States, is so important to how we talk about the problem in Europe.
The brand new translation of Against Hate (originally released in Germany in 2016) by the award-winning former Der Spiegel journalist Carolin Emcke, directly addresses the overlap and treats the crisis as shared.
Against Hate begins by narrating two powerful and instructive moments in Europe and America: a disturbance surrounding a transport of refugees in the Saxon town of Clausnitz in 2016, and the killing of Eric Garner by police on New York’s Staten Island, in 2014.
In both cases, the question Emcke raises is, “What do you see that I don’t see?” What it is that the hater or victimiser perceives that prompts them not to show the care for a fellow human being that society normally expects?
The events in Clausnitz become the occasion for a meditation on the difference between love and hate. Love, the German journalist argues, is based on the belief that people should be valued for their individuality. Hate, in contrast, requires that people be viewed as stereotypes, like races, or as threats.
European history is littered with instances of crude distinctions between us and them, dirty and clear, modest or licentious, with groups meriting the latter designation ranging from (Catholic) Irish, to Italians, to Slavs, to Jews, and the “dirty, dirty Dutch”. Now it is the turn of refugees from war-torn areas such as Iraq and Syria.
Describing a notorious YouTube video in which a bus full of refugees is surrounded and made the subject of racist threats and abuse for several hours, Emcke resists the temptation to demonise the perpetrators. Rather, she wants to ask what it is in the situation that prompts people to find others dangerous.
This is a particularly profound question for a number of reasons. Not the least of these is the way in which hatred is directed toward women and small children.
Social norms are generally looser with regard to the sort of treatment that can be meted out to adult males, who are supposed to be able to fend for themselves or, at least, can somewhat more plausibly be viewed as threatening.
For Emcke, like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, those designated “outsider” are always unseeable. This failure of vision is abetted by the belief that one’s emotional impulses are always valid and worthy of untrammelled expression. Concern about the “danger” posed by “outsiders” then becomes a social, and sometimes a political, imperative not subject to debate.
But this does not mean that such explosive emotions are not enmeshed in rational processes. The fears and prejudices of people like those observed in the video are also useful to shadowy figures in politics, who wish to make use of those raw outbursts without themselves trooping out in the streets.
A similar institutional logic is in evidence in the earlier case of Eric Garner, strangled (on camera) by a police officer using an illegal chokehold for the crime of being unwilling to submit to an intrusive search. This was the prototype case revealing the underlying basis of so-called “broken windows” policing.
While it was putatively intended to increase community cohesion by making the streets safer and more pleasant, it was also the expression of an underlying racist logic.
Although Garner had committed no real offence (he was falsely reported to have been selling loose, untaxed cigarettes), his statement that “This ends here,” constituted an unacceptable challenge to the police. The sentence for this, in the case of young American black men, is often death.
And so it was with Eric Garner, left handcuffed and unresponsive on the sidewalk while police stood around making no attempt whatsoever to render aid to a man who had been choked into unconsciousness.
The fact that this was done in broad daylight and in front of a crowd (at least two of whom were filming the event with their phones) was a matter of no concern to the police, who were well aware that the racial logic of the situation meant that they could act with impunity.
Maintenance of order requires the disciplining of black men. The fixing of blacks in this position involves a way of seeing, in which the physical cues of blacks are read as inherently threatening. And, because one cannot know the gravity of the threat, no artificial or abstract limit may be placed on the options that police have for responding to and neutralising, the danger.
Perceived threat is, once again, made the unfettered basis for racist violence.
In the final third of the book, Against Hates turns to the situation of trans people, where belief in fixed gender roles makes them subject to a range of discriminatory responses, from everyday insults to torture and murder.
Emcke pours over a number of distinctions that are commonly made between gender identities, such as pure versus impure and natural versus unnatural, in order to explain the arbitrary norms through which trans people (and LGBTQ people more generally) get marginalised.
The journalist also looks at the ways that these binaries get expressed in the violence of fundamentalist groups such as ISIS. There is, she suggests, a connection between European racism and the violence of radical Islamists.
In both cases, the goal is rejecting integration in the diaspora, in order to preserve cultural homogeneity.
Emcke’s solution is analogous to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of parrhesia, which he developed in the early 1980s. Translated literally, parrhesia means something like “free speech”. For Foucault, it is speaking truth to power.
According to Against Hate, this is the fundamental commitment that those dedicated to justice and equality must make. Reactionary and nationalist politics rely on aggression for their power. For Carolin Emcke, it is essential that those wishing to defend a complex, cosmopolitan society be steadfast in their determination to outing lies when they encounter them.
Against Hate is a heartfelt and powerful argument for the defence of a democratic, pluralist society that not only tolerates but also welcomes otherness. There’s no mistaking its timeliness. Europe is undergoing its worst regression to tribalism since the 1930s and the multiplicity of hatreds that it is producing demands a broad diagnosis like this. That it would be written by a German is no surprise.
John Foster is a historian of European politics. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.