Cherian George is a professor and former journalist, whose research concentrates on freedom of expression — more recently about how religious intolerance coincides with freedom of expression. His new book, Hate Spin: The Manufactures of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy compares how religious extremists in the U.S, Indonesia, and India all use similar tactics of control — perhaps a key to understanding the role of language during the Trump presidency. George writes that hate speech, othering, and manufacturing false outrage against other groups — like Muslims or immigrants — require constant scrutiny by the people for the sake of freedom.
George spoke with Sojourners about religious intolerance, identity, democracies, and resistance.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dhanya Addanki, associate web editor, Sojourners: You've researched quite a bit about religious identity and how certain countries take that identity to the extreme. Can we talk about the similarities with the Christian right in America, the fundamentalist Hindu government in India, and the Islamic-majority government in Indonesia?
Cherian George, associate professor, Hong Kong Baptist University: One of the bitter ironies is that the extreme right the world around are remarkably similar in the way they operate and in their worldviews. They believe in a certain purity of identity. They often use similar tactics. For example, the extreme right in the U.S has been very active in trying to censor textbooks and the Hindu right in India has a major campaign trying to reform textbooks. The right in U.S agitates against the building of mosques; the right in Indonesia agitates against the building of churches. There’s no doubt that the right in the U.S is less violent than in India or Indonesia, but I don’t think that has much to do with religion, but in how routine violence is in and out of politics. In societies where violence is more routine, you find the right using more violence regardless of religion.
Addanki: Is this a new or old trend that you’re seeing?
George: Well, the use of hate speech is very old. When I talk about hate speech, it is usually defined as incitement. It’s when a speaker uses extreme language to instigate the listeners toward violence or discrimination against a target group. This is usually done through a process of othering communities, treating them as an outgroup, dehumanizing them, and blaming them for all their problems. It’s safe to say that every major genocide, ethnic cleansing, and injustice done against large groups of people — whether it’s enslaving of Africans or wiping out aboriginal populations — was accompanied with hate speech. What is newer is this idea of taking offense, manufacturing indignation and outrage. I think of it as a dark side of people power.
One of the most powerful things about the 20th century has been the democratization of the world; ordinary people are much freer at the end compared to the beginning. Unfortunately, many people use their freedom not to further and enhance democracy, but to suppress the freedom of others. I don’t think we’ve given enough thought to this. Free people need not actually behave in particularly democratic ways. We find that political leaders are willing to use public opinion as a weapon. One easy way to harness the power of the crowd is to get them worked up about something. What I’ve defined as "hate spin" is this combination of hate speech and manufactured outrage or indignation.
Addanki: Could this go both sides, meaning the left and the right?
George: It tends to be much more frightening when it comes from the religious right. (I am using left and right in the American context.) If we talk about far left, they were pretty capable of bad as well. In most democracies today, it is the right that tends to be more prone to this purist, absolutist, intolerant attitude.
Addanki: People of color and other marginalized communities in America have been saying that their experiences in this world were terrible far before Trump. I think there’s a new group of people that finally believe that. But I’m wondering, is there cause to be as alarmed as we are in the U.S or do you think we’re taking it a bit too far?
George: It’s something positive that people react very strongly to the intolerance that is coming out of Trump and the people around him. I think vigilance is extremely important when dealing with purveyors of intolerance. In many other societies, the kind of rhetoric that is coming out of Trump and his followers now has become so normal and routinized that people have become immune to it. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a battle going on for the soul of the country. It is absolutely right that those who believe in a more just and equal society should be on guard and push back.
Having said that, I think it would be wise to be more careful about tactics and strategies. I say that because there’s a risk of further alienating his supporters. The risk is that if the left makes the mistake of showing contempt or condescension toward his supporters, they will lose the battle for hearts and minds. Just because Trump won doesn't make him morally right. I don’t think that it puts him on the right side of history. But, the left does need to acknowledge despite having power, they did not address the grievances of what was previously their core constituency.
Addanki: So what is the solution here?
George: The people who can persuasively speak to conservative religious communities are also members of the same community. We see this in Indonesia where the voices that are most able to speak sense to the extremist Muslim crowds are Muslim intellectuals and not your liberal, secular, and atheist intellectuals. I suspect the same is true in the U.S. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, it will not come from the most outspokenly liberal commentators. The leadership will come from within the evangelical movement, who have strong credentials on the religious front but see that the intolerance that Trump is pushing is not Christian.
Addanki: What do you think all of this means for religious liberty in the U.S specifically?
George: It’s obviously under threat. The proposed Muslim ban (or whatever he calls it) is a threat to religious equality. Most of the injustices taking place around the world are happening precisely in societies that do not have religious equality. The U.S, until now, has been an example of having strict adherence to religious equality. It’s concerning that it’s under threat. Thankfully it seems that most Americans are fully aware of what’s at stake and will not let this be compromised.