Sunday, December 21, 2008

Evaluating Conservative discourse based on The Eight Steps To Genocide

Do the comments made by Stephen Harper and his supporters during the recent political crisis fall under the rubric of hate speech or the incitement of genocide? Do past actions indicate a propensity to escalate discourse to dangerous levels if the stakes are high enough and the likelihood of losing is probable?

In his desperate efforts to hold onto power, Stephen Harper has used inflammatory statements and disingenuous descriptions of the way Parliament works that are highly unfitting for a Prime Minister. These have included stating that his opponents are trying to take power illegitimately.

From the
blog of a columnist who is, along with his paper, generally considered friendly to the Prime Minister (my highlights in italics):
The Conservative radio ad blitz, the boisterous denouncing-Dion rallies and the furious talk show rants will fan the flames of national disunity and elevate voter disgust to effigy-burning levels, but even the expected prorogue stalling tactic might not alter the sad self-inflicted fate of this seven-week-old Conservative government.
By going ballistic against the coalition for being unpatriotic because it had established links to the Bloc Québécois, Mr. Harper shows a convenient memory loss over his own attempts to partner with the Bloc, albeit in a less formal arrangement.
From the commercials mentioned in the blog post:

The Conservatives on Tuesday released radio ads accusing the opposition politicians of attempting to take power "through the back door," their latest sortie in the fight to turn public opinion against the proposed coalition government.

"This is Canada," the announcer in one ad states. "Power must be earned, not taken."...

"In the last election, just a few weeks ago, Canadians overwhelmingly said ‘no' to Stéphane Dion as Prime Minister," the announcer states in one spot. "Now, just a few weeks later, Stéphane Dion is trying to overturn the election he lost and take power through the back door."
Click here to listen to the second ad. A transcript of the ad reads:

In the last election, just a few weeks ago, Canadians overwhelmingly said "no" to Stephane Dion as Prime Minister. Now just a few weeks later, Stephane Dion is trying to overturn the election he lost, and take power through the back door.

Except this time it wouldn't just be Stephane Dion. This time the balance of power would be held by the separatist Bloc. Stephane Dion and the separatist Bloc — shouldn't you get to decide?

A paid message from Canada's Conservatives. ...

UPDATE: Even more succintly, Stephen Harper's Facebook page calls the coalition illegitimate:

It is the opposition’s choice to oppose the government. It is their choice to embrace Quebec Separatists. But not with out a mandate.

The Liberals, NDP and separatist must first face the Canadian voters.
Otherwise any coalition will be an illegitimate regime without any mandate to govern.

Mr. Harper kept up the incorrect references to the Bloc as separatists in his interview with Peter Mansbridge two weeks ago so this must reflect a deliberate tactic. His followers have picked up the thread. Ministers of the government have talked of going over the Head of State implying that the office of the Governor General is illegitimate if they disagree with them.

Based on the overall concept of
Hate Speech in Canada, it is difficult to clearly make the case. If we accept the Wikipedia entry as valid, these comments don't clearly cross the line:
In Canada, advocating genocide or inciting hatred against any 'identifiable group' is an indictable offense under the Criminal Code of Canada with maximum terms of two to fourteen years. An 'identifiable group' is defined as 'any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.' It makes exceptions for cases of statements of truth, and subjects of public debate and religious doctrine.
The Conservatives can claim to have avoided hate speech because their insults are against a political party rather than directly against an identifiable ethnic group and occurred during a political debate. But in situations like this, it is important to be clearly onside. It is sort of like the blue line. When you are well on side or truly off side everyone knows. If you are fooling around near the blue line, you can put yourself off side pretty easily. So it is a bad idea to imply that the elected representatives of an identifiable segment of the population located in a specific location are traitors.

Harper and the Conservatives need to be concerned that an extension of this rhetoric can lead to serious consequences. The world has seen these sort of tactics get out of hand in the past. To underline the seriousness of this it is useful to focus on the early stages of genocide.

1. The early stages of genocide
Genocide Watch, a group whose goal is to
build an international movement to prevent and stop genocide
has published a summary of the eight steps along the path to genocide. (The website is very interesting.)
Genocide is a process that develops in eight stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The process is not linear. Logically, later stages must be preceded by earlier stages. But all stages continue to operate throughout the process.
1. CLASSIFICATION: All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi....The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions.
2. SYMBOLIZATION: We give names or other symbols to the classifications. We name people “Jews” or “Gypsies”, or distinguish them by colors or dress; and apply the symbols to members of groups. Classification and symbolization are universally human and do not necessarily result in genocide unless they lead to the next stage, dehumanization.
3. DEHUMANIZATION: One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group. In combating this dehumanization, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech....
Examples of these early stages are readily available. For example, this website provides a summary of the incitement of recent episodes of genocide(My emphasis in bold).
Incitement to Genocide
Incitement is a hallmark of genocide, and it may be a prerequisite for it.
Each modern case of genocide has been preceded by a propaganda campaign transmitted via mass media and directed by a handful of political leaders. If such campaigns could be stopped - or their masterminds deterred - genocide might be averted. ...The anti-Croat and anti-Muslim messages transmitted on Serb television were 'very cogent and potent,' ... 'It was a message of urgency, a threat to your people, to your nation, a call to arms, and yes, a sort of instruction to go to war for your people.... It pushed and pushed. It was rather like a sort of hammer bashing on peoples' heads, I suppose.' ... Prime Minister Jean Kambanda (who later entered into a plea agreement in which he admitted to inciting genocide as well as other crimes) gave a speech over RTLM in June 1994, urging the station to continue inciting massacres and calling it 'an indispensable weapon in the fight against the enemy.'
What evidence is there that the Conservatives use, consciously or not, language that could eventually lead to genocide if unchecked?
  • Are there aspects of Canadian society that reflect the first stages of genocide?
  • Is there evidence that the Conservatives are willing to go further along the path towards genocide?
  • Did they use media proxies and official Party outlets to dehumanize opponents?
Stephane Dion, a Liberal leader, that the Conservatives had belittled through millions of dollars of advertizing as being "Not A Leader", who had his loyalty questioned by a member of the Conservative "War Room" because his mother was from France, who was ridiculed for his command of the English language and for being a university professor was systematically dehumanized. The most obvious example was an animation on the Conservative Party website in which a bird defecates on him. This was designed to signal that Dion was less than human. A Youtube of this animation is shown below:

This website also contained a drawing of Michael Ignatieff brandishing an AK 47 in the lower right hand corner of a blackboard. Before a widespread protest caused the website to be taken down, it has been reported that if the image of Ignatieff was clicked on, it would shoot at Dion. (If any one has a citation or copy of such an animation, I would appreciate a link to include in an update). As shown in the last link and here, the website also included a graphic suggesting people had been shooting at Dion and several prominent Liberals.

Towards the end of the campaign,
CTV, a television network that has been the subject of several criticisms of pro-Conservative bias, broke several media ethic rules to broadcast an interview with Dion that paints him as being unable to answer a question in English. This is in spite of Dion's excellent performance in the English debate. The Conservative campaign made certain that the media could have access to Harper to get their point across that Dion does not have sufficient English skills to be Prime Minister.

Some might feel that this is evidence of boys in the war room getting out of hand during the heat of a campaign and is nothing like the examples given. The issues can be fuzzy in the inital stages. But there is a pattern here and if unchecked, how far will they be willing to go?

If there is such a thing as Canadian exceptionalism, it would likely manifest itself in a belief that we live in a peaceable kingdom and are, as a society, immune from the violent tensions that plague other countries. While we are blessed in many ways, Canadians are not free from these human tendencies. Other politicians recognize this and for this reason have restrained themselves, regardless on personal animus and the intensity of the debate, from taking the debate this far.

The government of Stephen Harper is fading away. His dream of reshaping Canada is dissipating with it. He has a choice. He can fight this in the only way he can see open to him; by demonizing segments of the country as traitors and risk taking us further down the road to genocide. Or he can accept the inevitability of his fate and lose with grace. If he decides to fight by inciting hatred, he risks being known around the world as being in the same category as
Kambanda, Pol Pot, Hitler and Milošević. If he chooses the latter path he will be soon forgotten outside of Canada and within Canada he will be categorized as a lesser Prime Ministers such as Bennett and Meighen. If he were to ask for my counsel, I would recommend he should be relatively happier for the comparison to Bennett and relative anonymity than the greater infamy of the other outcome.

While the acts of the Conservatives under Harper are odious, they are not alone on this sort of speech. The targets of the Conservative slander have supported a separatist movement that
has its own stains. These include the antisemitism of
Lionel Groulx and claims that "money and the ethnic vote" cost the PQ the 1995 referendum. This sort of demagoguery must be opposed whenever it raises its head.

If you are interested in reading more on this, the Orcinus blog has more on the phenomenon of "eliminationist" rhetoric in the United States.Recommend this Post


sassy said...

Thanks for this post, lots of food for thought

Constant Vigilance said...

Thanks. It was a tough one to type out but it was going to bug me until I posted on it.