The European Centre for Tolerance and Reconciliation Conference, Monte Carlo, 6 March 2018
This has been a fascinating round table and I would not have missed it for anything. So I would like to express my thanks to Dr Kantor and the organisers, and of course to all the contributors who have given us so much to think about.
When summing up, as I have been asked to do, rather than give a precis of what we have just heard, I think it would be better to highlight some of the excellent points which have been made, and look at them within the wider background.
We have heard how across Europe, the political centre is on the back foot. Unfortunately, in a time of upheaval, arguments in favour of the liberal democratic status quo will appear to have nothing new to offer. Britain certainly found this in the referendum campaign on membership of the European Union. But another significant element emerged. It was the dominant role of the hard right, both UKIP and Conservative Party Brexiteers, which in fact gave the hard left of Momentum the chance to seize power in the Labour Party, as some of its members have gleefully acknowledged. As soon as a process of polarisation develops, the extremes find it easy to outflank the majority in the centre.
But before anything else, it is absolutely essential that we first understand clearly where all this hate comes from. We need to examine the origins of group hatred in Europe. Does it come from atavistic legends, or from a combination of present frustration and fear of the future? Do those fears have some basis in truth, or are they totally irrational?
The basic point surely is that there is only so much change – demographic, ethnic, cultural, economic, technological and so forth – which any society can hope to absorb and adapt to in a short time. And the transformation of our societies which we are experiencing has come upon us very suddenly.
We have indeed entered a new era. After Donald Trump’s surprise victory shook the world, we found ourselves in what the Pentagon already called “the new normal”. The conventional rules of politics no longer applied along with the conventional rules of warfare. The overwhelming consensus of the political establishment and the traditional media in the United States could no longer predict electoral success, rather as even an overwhelming military victory can no longer bring peace.
The real origins of our present problems, however, go back to the extraordinary revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The great geo-political change with the end of the Cold War happened to coincide with many others – the communications revolution, the invention of the internet and the mobile telephone; economic liberalisation, the abolition of exchange controls, and banking’s big Bang. All these led to the onset of globalisation. Raw materials, finished products and above all cheap labour suddenly became accessible almost anywhere in the world. Although often improving living standards in the developing world, globalisation has adversely affected the incomes and job security of workers, both blue and white collar, in most advanced economies.
Few of us really understood at the time the consequences of what was happening. It all seemed rather exciting then. But it was not long before we began to notice the fragmentation of collective or tribal loyalties. Trades unions, religious organisations, traditional political parties, and other associations all began to decline. The emphasis had shifted to the individual rather than the group or community. A growing scepticism towards authority led to a much less deferential society. The press especially became far more critical of traditional hierarchy and especially of politicians. But fragmentation and uncertainty also produce a contrary reaction in people. They prompt a need to associate only with those who share similar values and beliefs. This development of introspective enclaves is true of immigrant communities as well as indigenous ones.
Above all, we failed to foresee the all-consuming dynamics of globalisation. Beyond the effective control of governments, multi-national companies could move both profits and tax liabilities around in a game of find-the-lady. They could also ‘out-source’ their manufacturing base to where labour costs and light regulation were most attractive to them. Corporations could thus become fiscal nomads, ignoring borders and national loyalties. As true multi-nationals they no longer needed to pay lip service to patriotism. Their allegiance was only to themselves. This was bound to provoke a nationalistic reaction among those excluded from economic success and who suffered during the economic crisis and austerity which started ten years ago. All the while, any pretence by politicians that they could control events became correspondingly less convincing.
Already before we see the full onset of robotisation, turbo-charged, corporate machines, have been producing huge profits for the fortunate, while drastically reducing the job security and spending power of both workers and administrative staff. The most extreme examples are the so-called ‘gig’ economy and zero-hour contracts. Globalisation has intensified price and service competition to an almost insane pitch, so labour and supplier costs have to be crushed to a minimum. Look at the latest row in France over whether supermarkets are beggaring producers by their cost-cutting rivalry.
Already in the United States and Britain, the race to reduce costs has severely disadvantaged the less-skilled, and also an increasing proportion of the middle class, whose disposable income has declined dramatically. They are less and less able to afford the products and services on offer. This, of course, is a major factor in the economic stagnation we have started to experience in the West. Globalised capitalism, while kick-starting production output and sales in large parts of the developing world, is in fact cutting its own throat in much of what used to be called the First World.
The political consequences are of course immense. In the past, traditional capitalism could justify its inherent inequalities on the grounds that at least it made the lower paid slightly better off. That is patently no longer the case, and the inequalities are now perceived as far more acute. At the end of the 20th Century and the very beginning of the 21st, the low inflation boom years contributed to an ideological vacuum. That has now changed very abruptly, with the rise of extremism on both the left and the right, which produces its own form of polarisation.
The uncertainties caused by social fragmentation over the last quarter century have naturally been exacerbated by unprecedented waves of international migration. They have been triggered by conflict in the Middle East and Africa, the effects of climate change, and of over-population, but also by the revolution in communications, with mobile telephones and internet. The way quasi-fascists conducted the election campaign in Italy over the last few weeks indicate a danger of social unrest in the near future. Promises to dump 600,000 refugees back on the southern shores of the Mediterranean are both incendiary as well as impracticable.
In Europe, hatred for other ethnic or religious groups, has been ramped up, especially among a significant minority of the young. This has been achieved through social media by what can only be described as weaponised disinformation. During the recent row over Poland’s Law and Justice Party’s attempt to criminalise any suggestion of a link between Poles and the Holocaust, I was struck by a study carried out by Warsaw University which showed that the rise of anti-semitism in Poland among the young is strongly linked to a rise in Islamophobia.
We should learn from History while at the same time recognising that it never repeats itself, even if it at times it may echo or rhyme. If we look back to 1942, almost certainly the worst period of hate during the last century as Dr Kantor has observed, we see the dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’ – both external and internal – reach new extremes. The diabolical genius of Josef Goebbels was to recognise that hatred alone was not enough. The way to make hatred truly explosive was to combine it with fear. I also learned when researching my history of the Spanish Civil War that men in societies with a strong macho culture, have to suppress their fear, and the very act of suppressing fear makes it far more violent when it bursts forth.
Fear and resentment also create a refusal to listen to and acknowledge the views of others. Social media, supposedly providing the great vehicles of free speech, have actually produced a contrary effect. They have created echo chambers which simply reinforce existing prejudices. We have been witnessing a dialogue of the deaf in the United States, in Britain, and in nationalist politics in Europe.
The internet produced another similar paradox soon after the collapse of Communism. Individuals, although supposedly liberated from collectivism, with every form of information at their fingertips, can also become more credulous. In an age of identity politics, the sinister slogan of the Scientologists in America – ‘If it’s true for you, then it’s true’ – has spread like a virus, distorting the perception of its victims. Conspiracy theories have always existed, but now linked up through internet communication they can take on a completely different strength and momentum. Isolation in the new mass society makes people far more vulnerable to the charlatan and false prophet. I don’t know how many of you saw the internet movie ‘Loose Change’. Through the selection of news clips, deliberately taken out of context, the four young Americans behind it, made the Bush administration out to be the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. They claimed it was all a false flag operation to justify the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. ‘Loose Change’ has been seen by millions of people, and most Muslims and Russians are convinced that its basic premise is true. We have even seen national governments paying for feature films to turn untrue myths into ‘cinematic fact’. The Kremlin financed a film about the invented heroism in the Battle of Moscow of ‘Panfilov and his 28 Men’, while the Law and Justice Party in Poland financed a film dramatising its own version of what happened in the Smolensk plane crash in April 2010.
The confusion between fact and fiction is made worse by an international entertainment industry able through computer generated imagery to create its own false visions. More and more people have an increasing difficulty, distinguishing between fiction and truth, and between fantasy and reality. Borders between the two are being relentlessly and deliberately eroded, mainly because of the huge commercial potential. We are entering a post-literate world where the moving image is king. This is, of course, profoundly corrupting in historical terms. We have recently been seeing ‘faction-creep’ both in documentary and feature films. The danger is that ‘entertainment history’ provides most people’s perceptions of the past.
Anthropologists now study how politics and even human relationships are being changed by the internet, and especially by social networking sites. Facebook alone has more than two billion active members, of whom more than half log on every day. Smartphone users apparently check Facebook fourteen times a day. On average members have 130 ‘friends’. But what sort of friendship can that represent? A recent study revealed that there has been a huge increase in mental problems among young women especially, because they are made to feel inadequate by social media. It is another striking paradox that nothing can be more isolating than the internet, the greatest communications invention of all time.
Parliamentary democracy, which should be the political guarantor of tolerance and reconciliation, can only survive through a basic respect for verifiable truth. But this is not easy when people believe that truth itself has been democratised down to the level of the individual – that same mantra ‘If you believe it’s true, then it’s true.’ And predictably, these beliefs tend to be negative ones, forming an Opferkult – a cult of the victim. They are convinced that the powers that be – the elite – are just out to do the little people down.
Intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage. And what we have started to see over the last few years is an incoherent moral outrage fuelled by fear and incomprehension. An easily identifiable culprit must be found, so it has to be a foreigner, a stranger, an outsider. At the same time, liberal democracy is blamed for being not merely weak, but for acting as a form of appeasement to multi-culturalism, which is seen as a deliberate betrayal of national values. The majority of the poorer electors in Britain who voted to leave the European Union, were in fact trying to blame Brussels for the effects of globalisation and mass immigration. That was why the slogan of the Leave campaign: ‘Take Back Control’, proved so effective. It was a shamelessly dishonest promise, and the Remain campaign found nothing to counter it with. Defence of an awkward status quo, with widely acknowledged faults, can never inspire devotion.
Demagogues and their acolytes sometimes even imitate that Stalinist tactic: the bigger the lie, the more people are likely to believe it, if only because they cannot imagine that anyone could invent such an outrageous falsehood. These deliberate attempts to polarise all arguments allow the extremes to feed off each other, creating false alternatives, as we saw in the 1930s. No poem was more prophetic than W.B.Yeats’s The Second Coming written in 1919.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Both democracy and the cause of tolerance can never afford to ‘lack all conviction’. They must do everything in their power to confront the ‘passionate intensity’ of religious, racial or political fanaticism. The power of tyrants has always been based on the old tactic of divide and rule. They focus fear and hatred against minorities, and thus away from their own crimes. And they come to power by provoking violent social disorder so that people long for a strong-man to take over. Thus the cause of democracy is the cause of tolerance.
The purpose of the European Centre for Tolerance and Reconcilioation is to fight intolerance with active measures, and the Kantor Prize for Secure Tolerance is designed to encourage the development of strategies and practical measures to achieve this. In the course of the round table we have heard a number of recommendations.
– the need to impose zero tolerance for violence
– the need to confront illiberal practices, such as female genital mutilation, polygamy and the suppression of the rights of women or anyone else.
– the need to combat a misuse of religion, by getting religious leaders to condemn as blasphemy all calls to violence in the name of God.
– the need to end or at least marginalise the use of anonymity in internet exchanges, especially on social media.
– to redefine Hate or Harmful Speech to fit a legislative framework.
– to re-examine and update the declaration on human rights.
– to force internet platforms to face up to their responsibilities by providing effective controls on hate material, and encourage them and the public to treat terrorist incitement to violence group and abuse in a comparable way to child pornography.
In all these cases, international co-operation is required and that is why an international group like the ECTR is so important if real results are to be achieved.