Intelligent. Kenyan.

Published: 1 year ago

The Dangers of Speech

In the aftermath of the 2007 general election that ended in violence and the death of over 1,000 Kenyans, we decided “never again” and set up the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), to promote ethnic harmony and investigate complaints of ethnic or racial discrimination or any issue affecting ethnic and racial relations. The National Cohesion and Integration Act (2008), which sets up the commission, in Section 13 criminalizes the use of hate speech and stops the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour in any medium if they are intended to spur ethnic hatred.

We would therefore expect, and reasonably so, to have our jails full of offenders convicted for this offense, politician and everyman alike, since the use of hate speech in this country is as much a Kenyan pastime as eating roadside maize or mutura. Except that this isn’t the case. With the exception of a few, such as Alan Wadi, nobody goes to jail for it. Hate speech is notoriously difficult to prove.

What does it mean when Ferdinand Waititu, accomplished thrower of stones, asks Jubilee supporters not to hesitate to “defend themselves” during the CORD anti-IEBC protests? When Kimani Ngunjiri asks Luos to move out of Nakuru? When Moses Kuria suggests that Raila Odinga “must not trouble us forever” and can “eat bullets” (or maize, depending on your interpretation)? When CORD camp members then ask their supporters in turn to “defend themselves” if the three are not apprehended by government?

These politicians are engaging in dog-whistle politics, where they send targeted political messages using coded language that reaches voters sympathetic to them, just like how the special high-pitched whistle used to train dogs is inaudible to humans. The message is subject to interpretation, and relies on the prevailing attitude and way of thought of the target audience. They are demonizing entire groups of people and employing the composition/division fallacy: where one represents the whole, and the whole should suffer for the actions/words of one. They are also using eliminationist rhetoric. In the run up to the Rwandese genocide, for example, radio presenters partial to the elimination of the Tutsi would call for the elimination of “cockroaches”.

An outsider listening to these messages would wonder what/who the cockroaches were, but the intended audience (the Hutu majority) knew all too well what they meant. Similarly, in Kenya, what does ‘defending yourself” against Jubilee supporters or CORD supporters mean when we have a history of ethnic violence that has lead to mass death? What does “eating bullets” (or maize, depending on your interpretation) mean in a country where lives are disposable? Yet when asked to explain their statements, politicians on both sides were quick to say their words had been misinterpreted; taken out of context. If only we knew of their good intentions.

It is easy to fall into thinking that if only we more tightly defined hate speech, or, if only it had more painful legal consequences, then it would stop. Hate speech tends to do two things very well: it emboldens bigots and shows them that they have “strength in numbers”, and, it intimidates the target, most times making them fear for their lives. It is harmful. Hatred, after all, is like a gateway drug. It leads to harassment, discrimination, and many times, violence.

Even with this, the lines are blurry. Does the censorship of hate speech constitute an infringement of the freedom of expression? Is freedom of speech/expression absolute? Who decides what hatred is, exactly, and can we agree on one definition? When you ridicule or offend, is that hatred? Is it harmful? What of when you satirize or criticize? Most reasonable people can tell hate speech from free speech, but as we know, many people are not reasonable. Are we to rely on this test to determine which is which?

The restriction and punishment of hate speech, while ideal, equals fighting the symptoms, but not the disease. It does not tackle the bigotry that causes the hate speech – it merely outlaws it, and gets it out of our sight, without challenging it radically. It just moves below the surface. The only way to fight this disease in the long run, regardless of the perpetrator and his/her motive, is to meet it with sound rebuttals. Not only does this reach the perpetrator, it also reaches his/her potential audience. This is where education and debate come in – these are the most effective tools against hatred.

Schools, the media, public figures, and even members of the public, should rise up against bigotry, and instead teach understanding, a sense of empathy, and encourage solidarity. We must criminalize speech when it incites violence and murder, and punish it heavily, but the way that we will successfully fight cases and causes of hate speech is at the root. Education and debate not only convert those open to reason, but they prevent hatred from occurring in the first place. They also create a critical mass of people interested in living in, and maintaining, a good society. People willing to stand against hatred and all its manifestations. People who have something to live for.

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