In Nineteen Eighty-Four, his unrelentingly bleak vision of humankind in thrall to a merciless totalitarianism, George Orwell relates how his mythical State of Oceania compels all its citizens to observe a daily “Two Minutes Hate” ritual. All citizens are required to watch a film denouncing the designated enemies of the all-powerful Party and work themselves up into a frenzy of hatred against them. The real intention of the ritual, naturally, is essentially to sublimate the people’s feelings of anger against those who control them towards external, and probably non-existent, enemies. It was and continues to be a standard control mechanism in authoritarian societies. Dictatorial Arab regimes have routinely used Israel and the Palestinian question, and increasingly rabid conspiracy theories against Jews generally, as a means of diverting people’s anger elsewhere. Closer to home, Robert Mugabe has long been able to deflect internal opposition to his misrule by invoking the legacy of colonialism and the bogey of Western machinations and exploitation.
In my understanding, though, Orwell was suggesting something even beyond all this. I think he recognised that at some primitive level, the drive to hate is something imbedded in the human psyche. By tapping into it, his all-powerful, all-knowing controllers systematically work the populace into a condition of berserk, brutish fury, a near-bestial state in which such higher human virtues of rational thought, tolerance, altruism and compassion are obliterated. In this way, the people themselves are brutalised, and as such are easier to control.
Has this profoundly dark aspect of the human personality been made any worse by modern electronic communication? One could argue, not necessarily. Looking back in history, one finds everywhere the same festering fears, prejudices and paranoia over imaginary forces of evil, with this all too often provoking hideous atrocities. Nor have such atrocities always come about through the perpetrators having been worked up into a state of irrational rage. What is truly horrifying is how often they have been carried out with calm, cold-blooded deliberation. All that is needed is for the victims to have been demonised and dehumanised before-hand, so that even torturing them to death evokes no pity.
For certain rogue individuals, merely believing themselves in the truth of racist or anti-Semitic ideologies is not enough; in addition, they seek to propagate their views to others, and in this regard the internet, Facebook, Twitter and other vehicles that have revolutionised contemporary mass communication have undoubtedly facilitated their ability to do so. No longer are the assorted racists, religious bigots or conspiracy theorists of the world forced to circulate their ideologies through peddling grubby underground pamphlets. Now, they can jostle for space online with the most respected intellectual publications.
Last year, the Mail & Guardian exposed the pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist views of Reserve Bank elected director Stephen Goodson. One of the far-right websites with which he was associated was Incogman.net, its homepage advises: “All you nation-wrecking Khazar Jews and Israel-Firster HasbaRATs, braindead White Multicults and Marxists, sicko Sodomites and Lezbos, perverted Pedophile Molesters, freaky Gender-benders, greasy Illegal Mestizos, cocaine-crazed and criminal Negroes — or whatever bizarre combination of the above — all of you scumbags had better beware that commenting here risks incarceration in my SPAMblinka concentration camp!”
Along with the constant stream of cyber hate, old-fashioned handwritten hate mail, invariably anonymous, continues to be received. Revolting as the sentiments expressed are, one feels after a while a twinge of sympathy for the sad, grubby minds that produce them. I personally have received at least 20 from one particular offender, whose most recent love letter included a compilation of all the Jewish death notices in The Star during 2012 that he/she had carefully cut out and was now gloating over as evidence of the Divine punishment. This particular individual is probably mentally ill; the same cannot be said for writers of other hate mail that I’ve seen, whose calculated, deliberate intent to wound is evidence of rational, if poisoned minds.
Amid all this hopeless contemplation of the sheer evil of which the human heart is capable, one thinks of the words of a great man, now on the brink of leaving this world, who by his example taught us otherwise:
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
This extraordinary passage from Long Walk to Freedom is surely something for us all to dwell upon and, to the best of our ability, strive to live by.