Stable Democracies of Hate


        Photo by Shalom de León

This article by Professor Daniel Innerarity and Serge Champeau 

appeared on 7/02/2021 en El País

One of the main problems of democratic coexistence today is the proliferation of so-called “hate speech”. We are not in the classic ideological confrontation but in something more “personal”. Divisive and confrontational leaderships seem more profitable than cooperative strategies. Political actors proliferate who owe their identity more to what they deny than to what they claim. The phenomenon of polarization occurs when such actors are grouped in such a way that any divergent opinion is considered an attack on their identity. The affirmation of one's identity seems to require the demonization of the adversary. Sometimes it will be the delegitimization of the competitor when s/he arrives to power and forms government (with accusations of electoral fraud in the USA or, in the case of Spain, of being an illegitimate government because it is supported by parties that are denied the character of valid interlocutor no matter how legal they are).

This proliferation of contempt is often interpreted as a collapse of truth and democratic coexistence that will inevitably lead to civil war. Our hypothesis is that, no matter how unfortunate or disturbing this phenomenon is to us, we should not interpret it in that warlike key but rather as the opposite. To justify this diagnosis we have to unravel a curious paradox. Public opinion in advanced democracies has become a hotbed where hatred is compatible with institutional strength. There is much more stability in our political systems than the spectacle of confrontation seems to imply. Hate democracies are painful, but stable. That the future of democracy thus experienced is not very promising does not mean that it is inevitably heading towards civil war.

We have a public space full of gesticulations without consequences or with fewer consequences than would be expected judging by the speeches made. Against the idea that this increase in aggressiveness could be the preamble to a destruction of democracy, it can be argued that the triumph of hatred in politics is not accompanied by an increase in violence but on the contrary, it is a manifestation of the civilising strength of democracy. Ultimately the verbal escalation is due to the impotence of some individuals who know themselves contained by an institutional structure or legal frameworks.

Ann Hironaka, a professor at the University of California, has offered an explanation of this strange circumstance in a book in which she compares the conflicts of weak states with the kind of conflict that is typical of the strongest democracies. Her thesis is that in politically and economically weak countries conflicts take the form of "endless civil wars", while in economically more prosperous and politically stable countries, conflicts turn into "endless civil hatreds" (as in strongly polarized societies).

We must interpret that hatred well and take it with all the seriousness it deserves, but no more. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Cynthia Fleury has called attention to the hypocrisy of hatred that is practiced in those societies that are bellicose under the condition that they do not have to pay any price for it. They would be "those two minutes of glory predicted by Warhol that allow each one to vomit and then return to their inaction and ineptitude." They are provocateurs who fortunately do not set fire to anything other than the networks they ignite. Hateful statements that do not take the person who broadcasts them out of their comfort zone.

If recourse to violence is often due to despair for the institutions failing to do what they have to do, substituting it for verbal harassment indicates that we take it for granted that the institutions do what they have to do; it can be considered, regardless of the personal degradation implied by the person exercising it, an advance of civilization and democracy. That hatred does not go beyond its verbalisation is because there is too much to lose, economically and politically. This peaceful hatred is, in fact, deeply hypocritical; it is exercised in a framework that they pretend to want to subvert.

We could identify a curious law by virtue of which hatred increases and protest is pacified. Societies may be hateful and peaceful at the same time. They are peaceful in the sense that, except for specific moments, they do not resort to violence. History shows that not all wars are motivated by hatred, and not all hatreds lead to war.

So we live in a time when there is a lot of hatred and little violence. It is convenient not to confuse the two. This degree of intense hostility that we suffer today in our democracies has nothing to do with organized armed violence. Hate is not the prelude to violence, but it may be replacing it. We probably allow ourselves to hate so much because we know that — because of the strength of our institutions, the rule of law, or the threat of punishment by the law — such mutual contempt is highly unlikely to lead to violence. With this we do not want to underestimate what is unacceptable and the risk it poses for democratic coexistence, but rather to try to present this phenomenon in its true dimension.

If something threatens our democracies, it is this non-violent verbal hatred and not so much the risk of civil war. This circulation of hatred in our public spaces does not herald a civil war but other regimes of democracy. We have, on the one hand, the liberal democracy of hate, a system that gives us no reason to consider it especially unstable (despite the painful end of the recent American elections, the institutions have resisted and the peaceful transition belies all those who foresaw a civil war), but which undermines the framework outside which it is very difficult to develop quality policies. And there is, on the other hand, the peaceful illiberal democracy (which proclaims itself peaceful to the extent that it seeks to neutralize hatred, regain social harmony and restore its effectiveness to politics, although it seals the odious triumph of one identity over the other).

Are we condemned to choose between a liberal democracy unable to overcome hatred and an illiberal democracy that only surpasses it in an illusory manner? The democratic and non-nostalgic reconstruction of a feeling of belonging to a united, diverse and open community is one of the great tasks of our time. It could be inspired by what Biden calls the soul of America, in the work of each one and that of the community to recover the constitutive values of democracy, which is not only something procedural but also substantial: the universal ideal of a society of equals that it is incarnated in concrete nation estates.


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