A year ago, I posted a Tweet which noted that “The Holocaust didn’t start in the gas chambers; it began with the rhetoric of hate.” The sentiment clearly struck a chord judging by the responses I received. Appropriately, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, on Saturday 27 January, is ‘The Power of Words’, exploring how verbal communication impacts us all.
During the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945, Hitler certainly used words to disseminate hate, creating prejudice and intolerance against the Jews, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of six million Jewish men, women and children.
People are easily influenced; the words people use, and the way people say them, have a profound effect on us. They can also tap into our desire to ‘fit in with the crowd’. If people are told that the majority of other people are doing something, or believe in something, then some – though not all – will follow suit to avoid being different, or singled out or ostracised.
This helps to explain why so many ordinary Germans supported Hitler’s Nazis and ultimately became participants – directly or indirectly – in the persecution and atrocities that occurred before and during World War II.
The Holocaust has become the paradigm against which more recent genocides, such as those in Bosnia or Rwanda, have been considered. Whatever their differences, they all have one thing in common: they began with the rhetoric of hate.
Yugoslavia was formed from three major ethnic groups between the world wars and remained relatively stable until the 1980s. However, when Slobodan Miloševic rose to power in Serbia, his nationalist propaganda fanned the flames of hatred among the people of Yugoslavia, which ultimately led to brutal war. During the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, it is estimated that around 100,000 Croats, 700,000 Albanians in Kosovo and a similar number of Bosnian Muslims were "ethnically cleansed" by Serb forces.
On another continent, similar brutality was being carried out. Between April and June 1994, it is estimated that 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a spree of shocking violence. The vast majority were Tutsi victims of an attempt by the Hutu group to gain control of the country.
With Hutu officials using radio to promote hate speech and justify the genocide, ordinary people were encouraged to take to the streets and exterminate Tutsi targets, lists of whom had been prepared in advance.
Even when they do not directly result in genocide, words of hate can be dangerous and can lead to violence.
In the last eighteen months, Donald Trump has brought his rhetoric of hate against Muslims and refugees to the office of the American President. Without any apparent thought for the consequences, he publishes offensive Tweets, injects his speeches with racist comments and verbally attacks anyone who disagrees with him. He is taking advantage of the many modern-day avenues, such as social media, for broadcasting his offensive messages – just as past purveyors of hated used soap boxes, pamphlets, radio and cinema.
In a November 2015 tweet, he said, “Eight Syrians were just caught on the southern border trying to get into the US. ISIS maybe? I told you so. WE NEED A BIG & BEAUTIFUL WALL!” A month later, he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This month, we have seen his extraordinary – and racially prejudicial – suggestion that the United States should try to attract immigrants from places like Norway instead of “shithole countries” like Haiti or El Salvador.”
In our own country we have witnessed how the rhetoric of hate has recruited extremists to the causes of appalling groups such as Isis and how, subsequently, this has given rise to Islamophobia, which has spread insidiously through communities, creating suspicion, distrust and even unprovoked attacks on innocent Muslims.
The media also plays a role in shaping perceptions and attitudes, including those towards Muslims, who are the subject of biased, even downright inaccurate, reporting. As a Muslim woman, I am brutally aware of the impact of Islamophobia and the struggles that many law-abiding, peaceful British Muslims have faced since the increase in terrorism by people claiming to act in the name of Islam.
Refugees from other countries often face similar prejudice, even when they are fleeing conflict in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Somalia. It is clear that many British people feel that refugees are not welcome, even when they make a valuable contribution to British society. In this instance, the media bears a heavy responsibility for the rhetoric of hate and suspicion that such people encounter.
I was a teenager when Britain assisted America during the 1986 bombing of Libya. I remember well how, as I stood at a bus stop as the only Muslim with my white school friends, the bus driver shut the door in my face and told me to go back to Libya. It was then I realised that in the future my faith (and my appearance) would be judged and would subject me to stereotyping and hostility.
If words can propagate hate, they can also be used to spread love, tolerance and understanding. They can be used to promote community cohesion and the belief that even if you don’t agree with someone’s ideals, or subscribe to their beliefs, it does not mean that you should not respect them, or even live alongside them in harmony. When I was hurt by the words of a bus driver all those years ago, my parents taught me that it is the way in which you respond with words that will define how well you survive and progress in this world.
As errors throughout history prove, what those in authority tell us is not always accurate. We have the right to question everything, to make informed decisions based on our own experiences and not just through others’ words.
The Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne Frank, questioned the importance of words in her diary: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”
How wrong she was. Yet, how right she was when she said, “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”
Anne Frank is – and will continue to be – a most remarkable personification of the power of words.
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