In a recent discussion of the virus of hate speech that is plaguing the public sphere, a lawyer was reported as saying that there are more important issues worthy of attention. Now, that could amount to underrating the power of ideas as a motive force of history. The power of words and how they are deployed should never be treated with levity. Words could be a tonic for the soul; words could also be irresponsibly employed as weapons with lethal consequences. During World War II, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proved to the world how words could be deployed to fight anti-fascist battles at the most critical moments. On the other side of the divide, German Nazi Leader Joseph Goebbels deployed hate speech against the Jews to prepare the ground for the Holocaust in which more than six millions were murdered. So the merchants of hate speech are toying with fire! It is, therefore, in the interest of the social order that the government and the people assume the responsibility of preventing destructive deployment of words.
Contrary to what the purveyors of hate speech in our midst say, there is nothing indeterminate about prejudicial and inciting statements against a group of people. Socially destructive words are embodied in such a demonisation. Besides, there is no contradiction between the rebuking of hate speech and freedom of speech as defined in the 1999 Constitution. In fact, an organisation campaigning against hate speech, the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, has put the matter unambiguously like this: Hate Speech is Not Free Speech. Just as freedom of speech cannot be pleaded to inflict noise pollution on the environment, so also can the right to free speech be claimed for incitement of a mob to mass murder. When a person or a group of persons commit a crime and you go beyond condemning the crime to speak against the religion, ethnic group or gender of the offender, you are in the process committing a crime of hate speech. To spread lies, prejudice and incitements against a religion, ethnic group or gender is a clear hate speech making. The media is replete with an amazing lack of sense of responsibility in this respect. When some cattle herders invade farms and kill the owners, their criminal act has nothing to do with their claimed religion or ethnicity. The murder is committed in the cause of an economic activity of seeking grazing land for their cattle. It is wrong, therefore, to report the crime with the headline: “Muslim Fulani Herdsmen Kill Farmers.” Such reportage is unhelpful in tackling the problem. Those who commit crimes should be prosecuted and punished according to the law and more definitively agricultural policy should be implemented in a way to modernise livestock production. Instead of focussing on the solution of the socio-economic problem, attention is diverted by those fuelling religious and ethnic incitements. After all, when armed robbery and kidnapping take place you don’t read headlines such as the following: “Yoruba Armed Robbers Arrested” or “Igbo Kidnappers Demand Ransom.” Yet every criminal in Nigeria has ethnic and religious identities. There are armed robbers, assassins and kidnappers from Christian homes; no one has accused Christianity of promoting armed robbery or assassination. It would, of course, amount to making hate speech to do so. When a man commits a crime, he should be made to face the wrath of the law as Mr. X or Mallam Y; he should not be identified as a Christian or Muslim. It is also utterly diversionary calling him Fulani or Yoruba. At the root of the problem is the fact that politicians thrive on the manipulation of ethnicities and religions. This has worsened the politics of identity. The cost of this to the polity and society is enormous.
Doubtless, freedom of expression should be the armour every citizen needs to participate fully in the conversations about many issues. However, the atmosphere is increasingly polluted by hate speech-mongers waving the flag of free speech. The pollution of the public sphere has been enhanced by the relative anonymity offered by the social media. Some of the discussions taking place in the social media are laden with hate speech. Some are downright primitive in content. For every topic under the sun there is invariably recourse to an attack on the religion and ethnic origin of the person on the opposite side of the debate. Curses and abuse are substituted for facts. Logic and civility have no place on some Internet forums.
To be sure, it should be acknowledged that this is a wider sociological affliction confronting humanity. The warriors in the cyberspace are operating in a global environment in which a post-truth age has been infamously proclaimed with ominous moral outcomes. Those in power in the United States are already legitimising what they call ”alternative facts” in contradistinction to the fact known by everybody else. Racism, bigotry and misogyny have been normalised in the most powerful quarters in the world.
There is already an immense influence of these morally and culturally destructive global currents on Nigerians across generations. The fog of hatred has blinded many participants in what is supposed to be a vigorous and enlightening debate. Hence, the debate generates more heat than it sheds lights on the issues.
Last Wednesday, a lawyer and public intellectual, Mr. Fola Arthur-Worrey, did an efficient job on this page of disabusing the minds of members of the public against the bogey of Islamisation of Nigeria. The former Solicitor-General of Lagos State strenuously argued with facts and logic that since 1960 no government in Nigeria could be reasonably accused of making Nigeria an Islamic Republic. However, this great effort at clarification generated enormous bile given the tone and tenor of the responses to Arthur-Worrey. It is remarkable that nobody disputed the facts stated by the lawyer. Not even “alternative facts” were offered. All that Arthur-Worrey got were abuse, insults and curses. For instance, someone wrote that Arthur-Worrey “is naïve.” Well, those who play with the fire of a religious war are worse than being naïve; they are reckless manipulators of public opinion. They do so for their selfish interests. The problem facing Nigeria is poverty. The problem manifests as hunger, ignorance and disease. The problem is not about doctrines. There is no conflict between Islam and Christianity. Similarly, those who dismiss proponents of national integration as naïve are themselves dangerously naïve; the separatists are yet to come up with a formula for a bloodless disintegration of Nigeria. Being ahistorical in their approach, they underrate the material basis of the integration of Nigeria as they peddle their message of hate. The material interests involved transcend ethnic sentiments. A productive conversation about how to correct the structural distortion of Nigerian federalism is possible without the poison of hate speech. You cannot t bring about positive changes with hate speech; the result of hate speech is often in the form of mass murder perpetrated by those manipulated advocates of hate.
Free speech should be defended at all times; but there should be no place for hate speech at any time.