For a long time it seemed that, at least in Europe, Humanism was the social acquis and social glue holding us together. It was 1978 when the Velvet Revolution hero, Václav Havel, wrote “[…] the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.” Thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, social fragmentation is on the rise and it is accelerating at an astonishing rate all over Europe.
The lack of humanism is fuelled by the lack of trust in social structures, including the economic and financial ones. As highlighted in our Social Rights Monitor – just released - although European economies are recovering from the impact of the crisis, our social reality paints a different picture with rising levels of in-work-poverty, increasing social and regional inequalities and precarious work being some of the most pressing issues. Civic Space is also under pressure from attacks on the work of Civil Society Organisations and restrictions on the freedom of the press.
These are the facts behind hate speech. And it is not a mere buzzword: it starts with what seem like a handful of oddball politicians stirring up hatred and it ends up with murders and physical attacks on whoever they have chosen as their scapegoats. From political representatives to migrants, the “enemy” of the people becomes the channel for unleashing social frustration.
The question is how did we end up here? There is only one answer: through the rule of democratic law. Rule of law alone is not enough. Authoritarian governments change the law or constitution as they like, because “the people want it/the people are with me”. We have seen it across the EU for years now. The erosion of the democratic and humanitarian consensus is a real threat which needs firm action to tackle it. Civil Society Organisations mobilise on a daily basis to stir our dormant good will across society. But political action must accompany this effort: social investment must be a core budget target and of course a mainstream policy. The cost of social fragmentation is not only societal, but also financial. Unequal societies cost a hell of a lot more than cohesive societies: Picket and Wilkinson’s “Spirit level” proved this years ago.
We should remember how fast the erosion of countries like former Yugoslavia led to war amongst people who had lived as neighbours for decades. Nationalism is the match that sparks hatred, which escalates uncontrollably when social frustration is so deeply rooted that it fuels the thirst for an enemy - any enemy – upon which to unleash it. The weaker the scapegoat, the happier the hater. Kristallnacht – or the Night of Broken Glass – on 9 November 1938 had the very same psychological roots as the burning of migrants’ shelters or houses, like in Germany or this week in Belgium. Words that seem just eccentric can turn into psychological tipping points and encourage “normal” people to act criminally. And they have no justification at all.
Today the internet is the echo chamber for all those who need fuel for their hatred. The debate about freedom of the internet and the necessary controls that some want to introduce is contradictory. However, the net is a public sphere - except the deep web - and democracies have to protect their citizens, not to survey them.
The political challenge is not between freedom and control, it is how to rebuild inclusive societies which beget the necessary societal glue and which allow for peaceful coexistence inside and outside them. It is a vast programme, and one on which we need to invest more in than our usual lobbying and advocacy action.