The net of hatred: after Utøya

The public debate in Norway following the massacre of 22 July 2011 is taking shape. A key focus is the obsessional and hate-filled language that pervades and dominates online discussion, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen
6 September 2011

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the entire political landscape of Norway has changed after the terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011, yet there  has been a definite and perceptible shift in both the emphasis and priorities of public debate.

The main elements of this shift are threefold. First, a discussion of security issues, albeit in a context where the Labour-led coalition government has stood firm against any diminishing of the openness of Norwegian society, where (for example) politicians rarely need security guards. The focus includes the role of the police and (in particular) allegations of inefficiency in responding to the Utøya attack; criticism of the security police (PST) for having failed to monitor the Islamophobic right; and dismay at the judiciary’s routinely mild punishments (a feeling shadowed by concern that the terrorist might actually be released one day, which admittedly seems at the moment very unlikely).

The second and more abstract level of the emerging debate is over the roots of the terrorist's ideology in a certain, ethnic version of Norwegian nationalism. This will in time be duly investigated by academics and others.

The third, most pervasive (and perhaps most interesting) theme is what is sometimes described (slightly disparagingly) as the debatten om debatten (“debate about the debate”) - that is, an examination of how Norwegians discuss matters such as immigration, Islam, globalisation and cultural diversity.

The driven discourse

An acutely relevant area here is the ways that the discourse about these matters seems to have changed as substantial parts of it have moved online. The concern goes wider than is a clutch of popular Islamophobic websites (which often parade as feminist, liberal or simply “honest”) to a plethora of Facebook networks and the intensively used “comments” field on newspaper websites.

Very often, readers' postings on articles dealing with completely unrelated topics - such as school performance or agricultural subsidies - are dominated by lengthy accusations that Norway’s spineless elites have sold out the country to immigrants, especially Muslims. (An endlessly recycled trope here is that Muslims will form the majority of the population by 2050. On current trends, Lars Østby of Statistics Norway estimates that Muslims may comprise about 7% of the population in 2050).

Indeed, a cursory reading of the readers' online comments and discussions about politics in Norway would give an outsider the impression that Norwegians are obsessed with the “Islamic threat” that has been allowed by a supine government guided by dangerous multiculturalism to reach alarming proportions. No other topic, not even English soccer (a favourite among Norwegian sports fans), remotely nears multiculturalism, Islam and immigration in sheer volume and popularity; the threads, dominated overwhelmingly by vehement adversaries of government policies, often use vaguely threatening language that sometimes invokes metaphors of civil war.

The sheer vitriol and aggression vented in online discussions across a broad range of media - again, from dedicated anti-immigrant sites to the main newspapers - have been building on the internet for a long time, roughly since the 9/11 attacks on the United States; yet such hatred has come to be seen in the Norwegian public sphere as a problem only after the terrorist attacks.

The new normal

These online effusions differ in two important ways from earlier forms of public debate. First, widespread anonymity influences both impact and content. Before the online age, newspaper editors always insisted on knowing the true identity of the people who wrote letters to the editor, even if they were allowed to use a pseudonym. Today, if Ola Nordmann (the Norwegian equivalent of John Doe) writes disparaging things about me, I am aware that he knows who I am, and where I work and live - but I have no way of tracing him.

Second, the norms of “netiquette” established at the inception of the internet (around 1990) seem to have been forgotten. At that time, people who posted messages on the net were strongly advised to avoid “flaming’”(personal attacks, the use of capital letters and exclamation marks) on the grounds that a written message comes across in a rawer and more blunt way than a spoken one; for in the latter, physical presence (gestures, tone, smiles, tics - individuality and personhood themselves) mitigates the starkness of criticism. Today, flaming seems to be the norm rather than the exception, and thus spreading its influence even to spaces ostensibly committed to a better way.

Many of Norway’s online editors have sought to ensure accountability by making it mandatory to sign in with a Facebook, Google or similar account before posting a message. That way, most anonymous contributors are known at least to the moderators. It is too early to tell whether this will render debate more civilised, since neither Google or Facebook ask for a verified identity on registration.

Moreover, many forums - which some Norwegian intellectuals describe as the “sewers of the public sphere” - are hardly moderated at all. Yet it is difficult to see how they could be forced onto a more civilised track, far less banned. In Norway, there is legislation that to a degree limits freedom of expression (personal defamation and racism are theoretically illegal), but no website has so far been closed on the grounds that its anonymous users collectively build hatred, paranoia and suspicion against any particular group (currently Muslims).

Some commentators and editors have responded to the anxieties expressed about the seething hatred on the internet by calling for “not less, but more openness”. The argument here is that extreme views need to be published and confronted lest they move underground to develop and thrive in closed circuits where they encounter little resistance. There is, however, no solid evidence that the publicising of extreme views makes them less influential, nor that calm and reasoned counter-arguments make extremists more moderate. ("Oh, so most Muslims are peaceful people! Never thought about that.")

The power of language

The principled defenders of (more or less unlimited) freedom of expression also seem to have underestimated the force of words. In his classic How To Do Things With Words the linguistic philosopher JL Austin argued that the distinction between words and deeds is frequently a fuzzy one, and that words can be performative (as in “I hereby declare you husband and wife”) and incitements to action as well as  reasoned argument. There are many cases where a dehumanisation of the hated "other" or enemy has been a precursor to genocide, such as Ottoman Turkey (Armenians), Bosnia (Muslims), and Rwanda (Tutsis) - and now the link between words and mass violence has been made in Norway.

Jan Brockmann is a professor and a Norwegian intellectual of German origin (or, perhaps, a German living in Norway for many years - it has never occurred to me to ask him about his citizenship). He recently reminded the readers of the highbrow weekly Morgenbladet of the parallels between current generalisations about Islam and the hate-speech built up against Jews in Germany over decades, which culminated in the holocaust. In fact, he argued, a long period of gradual dehumanisation of Jews through the media had cognitively prepared Germans to assent to the genocide of the Nazi years. By the end, a Jew was hardly a fellow human.

Could this happen with Muslims today? There are obvious differences between Muslims in Europe today and Jews in inter-war Germany; but the similarities between aspects of the majority discourses are clear enough.

In his challenging and, on the whole, persuasive book The Political Mind, the neurolinguist George Lakoff shows how certain metaphors and associations between discrete concepts can become "hardwired" in the brain if they are invoked regularly and casually for a sufficient period of time. Such a connection between Muslims and terrorism has become quite stable in Norway (and a number of other European countries).

Only a tiny proportion of terrorist attacks in Europe have been carried out by Muslims; yet many Europeans share the view expressed in an election speech in 1987 by Carl I Hagen - the architect of the rise of Norway’s populist Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), and a figure of near-legendary status - that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”.

The shared responsibility

In this deeply worrisome landscape, it is worth recovering another truth that the evolution of net-based discourse has tended to bury: that not all viewpoints are equally worth of attention. The fact that a point of view is (for example) unusual, contrarian, extreme or “refreshingly politically incorrect” does not make it right, interesting or deserving of publicity.

When, in the 1980s, I was on the editorial committee of Gateavisa, a libertarian/anarchist monthly published in Oslo, we regularly received articles about anything from the Shroud of Turin to the prophecies of Nostradamus. We rejected most of these (and similar) articles, less because they were badly written (that could always be improved by editing) than because we saw them as irrelevant and silly. Editors make this kind of judgment continuously, and they are therefore responsible for the kind of debate typical of their newspaper, whether offline or online.

This kind of argument should not be taken as a call for censorship, but as a reminder of our collective responsibility for the kind of discourse that becomes dominant in a society. In Norway, Islamophobic and ethno-nationalist discourses have been allowed to rule for far too long, partly because editors - swayed by the nihilistic view that all perspectives are equally worthy - have not been sufficiently wary of the latent potential of the hatred that pervades their “vibrant debates”; and partly because we, the reading and writing public, have not called the hate-mongers sufficiently to account.

An examination of the way freedom of speech is practiced in Norway in the light of 22 July 2011 suggests a possible conclusion: that editors (online and offline) have a duty to play the role not (as some insinuate) of Orwellian thought-police, but of democratic traffic-police. The importance of the distinction, and indeed of this everyday and apparently mundane job should never be underestimated. After all, preventing head-on collisions and saving the lives of pedestrians are both civic and moral acts.

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