Media scholar Cherian George argues that political “entrepreneurs” in democracies can pervert the system set up to protect religious minorities by creating offense in the name of the dominant religion. This seems to be antithetical to the fundamental rights and beliefs in the three democracies he explores the United States, India, and Indonesia.
In Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy, George explores how public discourse inverts hate speech by creating offense against the dominant religion without having to resort to the dehumanizing and illegal calls to action against minorities or those whom they can manipulate as enemies to the dominant religion. He calls this “hate spin”, using constructed religious offense to satisfy political objectives through the chilling effect of placing claims of destructive existence on opposing views or beliefs.
A recent example of this was when ABC morning talk show host Joy Behar made a joke about American Vice President Mike Pence. Her joke was based on comments by former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who said Pence believed Jesus actually spoke to him. Behar, playing off Newman’s statements about Pence’s perception, made a joke about the Vice President hearing voices as an indication of his mental illness. Over the next few days, Fox News Channel criticized her statement as anti-Christian. At a board meeting, the CEO of Disney told investors Behar had apologized to Pence. The vice president stated, again on Fox, that she should use her show to apologize to the millions of Christians she had offended.
Using his media platform, Pence did what he could not do through government channels: he suppressed a dissenting critique about his mental state and leadership by claiming offense to a religious group. The chilling effect affected Behar and put Disney, the parent company of ABC, and its investors on the defense. By taking a comment about Pence’s mental health and presenting it as an insult to the dominant US religion, Pence acts as one of the hate spin entrepreneurs who deflects the personal critique and reforms it as an insult to the dominant demographic of the culture.
George writes that democracies have checks and balances in place to protect religious minorities from hate speech and violence. Built into the constitutions, laws, and culture, these protections can be subverted by establishing “offense” to the dominant religion. This allows for the mechanisms of the government, media, and social groups to further promote marginalization. Each of his democracies have different mechanisms and general cultures. Still, the base issue utilizes the same techniques to embolden their political base by exposing minority groups to the stigma of being a threat through difference.
Each of the main democracies demonstrates each country’s constitution and other laws that protect freedom of religion, free speech, and other concepts of “equality” in democracies. With extensive examples, many from other cultures, most of which are not fleshed out, George complicates the study. He shows how grassroots citizens and extremists in each culture normalize their “offense” while establishing a cultural threat. While the argument is believable, the writing privileges details over development. What this creates is a sense that he wants the reader to believe the conditions are somewhat universal.
A general reader might find many of his ideas revolutionary in how they frame political discourse as a reaction to and subversion of the cultural norms of each democracy. When focusing on India, George shows how the discourse of offense has allowed the creation of Hindu nationalism to occur in a country formed on a constitutional plurality that privileges minorities. When looking at Indonesia, he shows how Muslim political players have targeted Muslim minorities through intimidation and discrimination. In the US, he focuses on Roy Moore, protests against the construction of Muslim mosques, and Donald Trump’s campaign.
Hate Spin is formatted like a traditional dissertation, but the main idea seems to be pulled and twisted through several well-supported examples. Opening the book, George states no one has created a term for what he proposes to call “hate spin”. Rhetoricians may flinch, especially those who have read Kenneth Burke’s concept of “victimage“. While the concept in the past may not have been specifically limited to democracies, the fundamental rhetorical frame has appeared in theory and criticism for nearly a century in works as diverse as Burke to Judith Butler, and more importantly, it is shown to apply to more than religious intolerance.
The book elevates the claim without engaging much of existing communication studies scholarship. He promotes the idea of “offensiveness” as an essentialist concept. For example, he clumsily connects Roy Moore placing a Ten Commandments monument and the anti-sharia movement in Alabama to the civil rights movement as a cultural constant. He does not explore the levels of meaning, the major shift in political affiliations since the ’60s, or the unruly complexity inherent in the Alabama constitution. When the primary argument swings around identity and affiliation, it seems George dismisses rhetorical studies, performance studies, or philosophical readings that address the idea on a meaning-making level.
While Hate Spin does not present the most bleeding edge scholarship, that should not scare readers who are interested in how democracies allow, and at times support, the continued subjugation of minorities through agents who create group identity through their entitled “offense”. What matters most is understanding how the system and culture can be gamed through the manipulation and professed offense to the threatening other.