Several years ago in Malaysia, a large crowed assembled by hard-line Muslim activists disrupted a forum on religious freedom. The police arrived to restore order—by instructing the organizers of the dialogue to abandon their meeting so as not to provoke the protesters further.

When I heard about this incident in a country with a deserved reputation for tolerance of diversity, I was taken aback. I would have been less surprised if the religious conservatives had been incensed by a rock concert or some other perceived assault on family values. Instead, they were outraged at the idea of an interfaith initiative. Somehow, these members of the country’s majority faith—the state religion—had convinced themselves that their status was under threat. And somehow, the authorities decided that the proper way to resolve the dispute was to side with those loudly professing righteous indignation, and to silence purely legal speech.

An Indonesian translation, Pelintiran Kebencian, has been published by PUSAD Paramadina (December 2017).

Until then, my personal antenna had been tuned to more conventional types of government censorship. Working as a journalist and an academic in the illiberal environment of my native Singapore had made me all too familiar with officials’ desire to restrict political discourse and the expression of popular grievances. But here was something else. The protestors were exhibiting the dark side of people power—a public opinion convinced of its virtue, intolerant of difference, and using democratic space to smother the freedom of others.

I began to notice it happening everywhere. At a time when few challenges are more urgent and universal than learning to live with diversity, opportunists are using hate propaganda to create delusions of pure communities in need of protection from adulteration by others. Some of this takes the form of hate speech, which instigates harms against a vilified group. In other cases, hate propaganda manifests as outbursts of mass indignation against perceived offense. Protestors demand government intervention or engage in vigilante reprisals to salve wounded religious feelings.

Observers usually describe these conflicts as primordial, rooted in tribal psychology and reinforced by the messages of prophets and preachers. In this interpretation, the instincts of man, plus the word of God, are sufficient to explain these seemingly spontaneous and inevitable events. My inquiry started from a different intuition: Perhaps, many large-scale episodes of group vilification and indignation are not organic responses to human diversity, but rather sophisticated campaigns manufactured by political entrepreneurs working to further their own strategic interests. It soon became clear to me that their orchestrations of offense-giving and offense-taking make up a double-sided technique of political contention. Unable to find a term to describe this phenomenon, I decided to call it hate spin.

This book is a study of how hate spin operates and what democracies can do to deal with it. It analyzes major transnational episodes, typified by the 2005–06 controversies surrounding the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. It also investigates several domestic conflicts within the world’s three largest democracies. The Hindu right in India, the Muslim right in Indonesia, and the Christian right in the United States all contain accomplished users of hate spin, adapting their methods to suit their respective legal and social environments.

I show how hate spin agents use the freedom and tolerance provided by democracy to push an agenda that undermines democratic values. They assert themselves in the public sphere, claiming victimhood and demanding respect—even as they deny others the right to participate as equals in the life of society, or even to be treated with the basic dignity owed to fellow human beings.

Democracies must develop legal, political, media, and civic responses to hate spin. Notwithstanding the need to protect free speech, they need to prohibit incitement. This book will show how vulnerable communities are terrorized when authorities fail to live up to this obligation. But dealing with offendedness is a different matter. We’ll see that laws against blasphemy or the wounding of religious feelings are highly counterproductive. They allow exponents of hate spin to hijack the coercive powers of the state by staging performances of righteous indignation. Thus, misguided policies towards hate spin can actually doubly disadvantage vulnerable groups. On the one hand, inadequate policing of incitement leaves them exposed to hate campaigns that result in discrimination and violence. On the other, their own religious or cultural practices may be declared offensive to the dominant group, then suppressed through the selective use of insult laws.

Commentators, analysts and policymakers have been paying close attention to the unsteady dance between religion and free speech. The cost of mismanaging that relationship is plain to see—in bitter divisions over art and literature, in polarized elections that leave no room for compromise, and in dehumanizing rhetoric that culminates in mass murder. To improve our prospects for peaceful co-existence in societies that are not getting any less crowded or diverse, good intentions are not enough. We also need to grasp the underlying dynamics that shape religious intolerance. Understanding hate spin and how it works is a small step in that direction.

Audio interview

Podcast from MIT Press

Hate spin in graphics