Fight bigotry by promoting social inclusion, tolerance

Hatred can be conceptualised as an infectious disease, leading to the spread of violence, fear, and ignorance. Hatred is contagious; it can cross barriers and borders.

By Waqar Mustafa (Core Issue)

Published: Sun 24 Mar 2019, 8:51 PM

Last updated: Sun 24 Mar 2019, 11:05 PM

Last week, a college student was arrested in Pakistan and charged for stabbing his English teacher to death in the eastern city of Bahawalpur. Police said the student was angered by a mixed gender farewell party that the professor was organising on the premises of the coed college. A day later, an antiterrorism court wound up a case of lynching of a university student, Mashal Khan, in the country's northwest two year ago following a dormitory debate, sentencing two men to life in prison. In February last year, the court had convicted 31 people, sentencing one person to death, for their role in the campus lynching, while acquitting 26 others.
These incidents are not unique to Pakistan. One can replace the characters involved in cases mentioned above with people from almost anywhere in the world. Vigilantism triggered by hatred, hate speech, and bigotry can raise its head any day, anywhere, in the physical as well as digital world. And that's because some of us are becoming intolerant, enraged at whoever and whatever is different from us. An expression of one's mind can meet with a torrent of hatred. A group can be treated to a barrage of vitriol and contempt. Sometimes properties are attacked, and sometimes even people individually or in groups. Bigots hate people they don't know. What's all the more appalling is that they don't consider themselves bigots. They think they're right, and the others are not.
But often it is the societies that allow bigotry to flourish. Many a time there is oral, digital or physical manifestation of the bigoted responses to differentiate in faith, caste, colour and creed. What's worse? States sometimes condone them or do not act as resolutely as they should against it, much to the chagrin of the ideals of plurality and diversity. Devoid of these bonding values, societies and states go fragile and crumble.
Hateful behaviours and their harmful effects spread fast. Hysterical narratives fed on fear of the out-group - those who do not resemble us in looks, talk, or way of worshipping - provoke real-world violence more than stereotypical hate speech. Public health specialist Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish and family physician Dr Neil Arya, in an article titled Hatred - A Public Health Issue argue that "Hatred can be conceptualised as an infectious disease, leading to the spread of violence, fear, and ignorance. Hatred is contagious; it can cross barriers and borders." They suggest several 'primary prevention' strategies, including promoting understanding of the adverse health consequences of hatred; developing emotional self-awareness and conflict resolution skills; creating 'immunity' against provocative hate speech; and fostering an understanding of mutual respect and human rights. In principle, these educational efforts could be incorporated into the school curricula to shift perceptions of in-groups and out-groups. Harvard social psychologist Gordon Allport suggests that increasing exposure to out-group members will improve attitudes toward that group and decrease prejudice and stereotyping. But Allport suggests four specific conditions in place for positive results: the support of legitimate authorities; common goals; a sense of interdependency that provides an incentive to cooperate; and a sense of having of equal status. An inspiring leadership, a people made up of a variety of groups who enjoy equal status, share common goals, and feel interdependent. The more they know one another, the more they become human in each other's eyes. It is in the melting of intergroup barriers that bigotry is reduced.
A similar attempt has been made in Pakistan. The Paigham-i-Pakistan (message of Pakistan), a counter-narrative declaration or edict passed last year, says: "All citizens are guaranteed fundamental rights within the parameters of law and ethics. These rights include equality in status and opportunities, equality before the law, socioeconomic and political justice, the rights of expression, belief, worship and freedom of assembly." The declaration condemned sectarian hatred, armed sectarian conflict and the imposition of one's ideology on others by force. The religious scholars who signed the declaration pledged they would work for a society based on the principles of democracy, liberty, equality, tolerance, harmony, mutual respect and justice to achieve a congenial atmosphere for peaceful coexistence.
The spirit of inclusiveness and goodwill can often compete with fears and prejudices. But we need to reconcile the tension between murderous bigotry and deep compassion. We have to encourage more of the latter as has New Zealand did after Christchurch's hate-fed terrorism.
Waqar Mustafa is journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan

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