17 Jan “Hate Spin”: Dr. Cherian George
On 17 Jan 2017, we held an evening talk with Dr. Cherian George on his latest book, Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy. The session was part of our Global Citizens Singapore series, looking beyond traditional politics and economics to human and social issues, and was moderated by SIIA Chairman Simon Tay.
“I owe a great debt of thanks to Donald Trump for drawing attention, globally, to the problem,” Dr. George joked. Previously, he received quizzical looks from people when he told them he was researching hate and democracy. “Now, nobody asks why.”
Our planet is getting more diverse and more crowded. We are surrounded physically and symbolically by people with different beliefs. In this context, it is common to hear about cases of anger and outrage. However, the central premise of Hate Spin is that many of these incidents are not natural or inevitable. As Dr. George puts it in the book:
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.
Societies need to safeguard against Hate Spin. The law plays a part in this, but legislation alone will not solve the problem. It is possible for legal solutions to backfire, for instance when a country goes beyond simply prohibiting incitement, hate speech or actions that cause objective and measurable harm, to also prohibiting any form of offence against religious beliefs.
Indonesia’s blasphemy law dates back to the Suharto era, and was originally intended to protect Indonesian society against Communism. But the blasphemy law is now being used to attack Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama.
“While incitement is by definition intentional, offence may not be. Even when the speaker has absolutely no intention to cause offence, people can take offence,” said Dr. George. “Diversity inevitability multiplies the potential of offence, and we need to consider whether a policy of prohibition is even practically possible.”
Governments can do more than just pass laws. States can use their own instruments to mobilise the middle ground and crowd out hate speech. There is also a role for civil society and the media, who can help assert pluralism and reject narratives of ‘us vs. them’.
However, Dr. George cautioned against overestimating the impact of the Internet and social media. He noted that there are cases of hate spin which predate the modern Internet, such as the controversies over The Last Temptation of Christ or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
With that said, Google, Facebook and other Internet players can do more to counteract hate propaganda. This is one of the positive outcomes of the contentious American Presidential Election in 2016. There is now a tremendous effort to fix the fake news problem, which was not seen as a high-priority issue before.
Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy (MIT Press, 2016) was one of Publishers Weekly’s 100 “Best Books 2016” and was also a Times Higher Education “Book of the Week”. Read more about the book at www.hatespin.net
Date: Tuesday, 17th January 2017
Time: 5:30pm – 7:00pm (Registration at 5:30pm; Talk begins at 6pm)
Venue: Singapore Institute of International Affairs
60A Orchard Road #04-03 (Level 4M) Tower 1
The Atrium @Orchard, International Involvement Hub
Original Event Synopsis:
Singapore is a multicultural country, a modern democracy where people from all races and backgrounds are considered equal. But how can we preserve that unity? Events around the world have demonstrated that religious and racial tolerance can be fragile – identity can be a divisive force in politics, as shown by the tumultuous United States Presidential election and protests in Jakarta against the city’s Governor. But renowned commentator Dr. Cherian George argues that such conflicts are not an organic backlash against diversity – rather, they are being deliberately stirred up to mobilise support for political agendas. This evening dialogue under our Global Citizens Singapore programme features views from Dr. George on what he terms “Hate Spin” in his latest book, focusing not only on the problem, but also on the actions we need to take to ensure our society remains harmonious and peaceful.
About the Speaker
Cherian George is a Singapore-born and Hong Kong-based academic and writer. He is an associate professor in the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University, where he researches freedom of expression, especially in connection to journalism and public discourse. He studies censorship, media systems and alternative media.
He is the author of three other books: Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (Landmark, 2000); Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore (National University of Singapore Press and University of Washington Press, 2006); and Freedom From The Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore (National University of Singapore Press, 2012).
Before leaving for Hong Kong in 2014, he was an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. He launched and ran the Asia Journalism Fellowship, an initiative of Temasek Foundation International and NTU until 2016.
Before joining academia, he was a journalist at The Straits Times, where he wrote mainly on politics. He received his Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University. He has a Masters from Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a B.A. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University.