October featured one of the worst weeks in American history for hate crimes.
Between Oct. 21 and 27, elected critics of U.S. President Donald Trump received mail bombs; a white gunman tried to gain access to a black church and failed, so he marched over to the nearby Kroger grocery store and gunned down two black people; and 11 people were slaughtered in a Jewish synagogue.
Hate crimes in the United States increased 57 per cent in 2017, according to a study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League. The Democrats blame Trump’s rhetoric for the increase in hate in society noting that hate crimes increased dramatically 24 hours after he was elected.
Well, they’re half right. It’s true that leaders’ rhetoric directly affects the levels of conflict in a society. A well-known, Mideast scholar, Daniel Bar-Tal, studied societal discourse before, during and after periods of violence, and he concluded that if the societal narrative consists of three specific themes, violence will continue. If the three themes are toned down, violence will tone down, too.
Where Trump’s critics are wrong is in thinking that he is the only leader with conflict-arousing narrative. Democratic leaders demonstrate similar themes in their speeches as well.
The three societal themes that stir the pot of hatred in public discourse are dehumanization of the opponent, victimhood and justness of one’s own goals.
Recently, both President Trump and Bernie Sanders gave fiery speeches resplendent with these themes. Trump dehumanized illegal immigrants by stating that they aren’t people – they are animals. Likewise, Sanders labelled Republicans as “cowards with non-existent ideas.”
Trump frequently plays up the victimhood theme by dramatizing how the media keeps attacking him and his followers to score points against him. Sanders continuously reminds his audience of how they and he are victims of the billionaire class.
Trump justifies his goals with catchy sales pitches like, “We are putting America first,” and “political violence must never be allowed in America and I will do everything to stop it.” By dovetailing his negative rhetoric with an overarching goal, he wins the approval of his audience but at the expense of spiking violence in society.
Sanders uses the same strategy. After pitting the billionaires against the working class, he bolts out a salesy statement like, “Democracy is not for sale.”
Everyone is asking the question, “how do we get these leaders to tone down the hate speech?” Well, maybe a little education on what not to say would be a good beginning. Then a little inspiration from transformational leaders like Gandhi would help: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
For those of us stuck on the couch watching the rhetoric of modern-day leaders, perhaps some Gandhi philosophy will help us steer clear from it all with this lovely quote: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
Dr. Sharon Ryan teaches ethics for UCLA Extension and Concordia University of Edmonton. Her dissertation on leaders’ narrative and conflict in society was nominated for an award in the United States in 2017 for making the most significant contribution to positive social change.