Hate and Literature – An Explosive Relationship
A team of researchers at Freie Universität studies forms of expression in abusive speech.
Sep 06, 2018
Defamatory poems, outrage on the Internet, hate-filled public tirades at demonstrations, and an American President who cuts down his critics on Twitter. Everywhere you look, it seems society is flooded with hateful outbursts these days. Why is that? And why now, specifically?
“For one thing, we live in a time that is shaped by powerful, surging social currents: the Pegida movement and the rise of the AfD in Germany and Trump’s political use of images drawn from hate speech,” says Robert Walter-Jochum, a scholar of literature at Freie Universität Berlin. “For another, the Internet and social media make it easier for hate speech to reach a wide audience, unfiltered and anonymously.”
As far back as antiquity, hate was already breaking new ground in verbal terms. It found its way into literature, even in the Bible. After all, Cain slew his brother Abel out of hate. Expressing hate publicly is not a new phenomenon. The only thing that has changed over the past 2,000 years is the media in which hate is expressed, says Jürgen Brokoff, a professor of literature at Freie Universität. He and Walter-Jochum are working together to study and analyze the forms of expression used in abusive speech as part of the Affective Societies collaborative research center.
In late May, the two of them organized a conference entitled “Hass/Literatur” (“Hate/Literature”) to highlight the interconnections between hate, speech, and literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. How is hate treated as a subject? Is literature itself an expression of hate? Or does it incite hate and promote hateful behaviors?
The scholars’ definition of “literature” was a broad one. They view literary language as just one of many articulation elements. Alongside novels, stories, and poetry, they also include tweets, blogs, and online comments in their idea of literature.
A closer look shows why. Hagen’s hatred of Siegfried runs through the Nibelungenlied, just as Martin Luther’s hate-filled criticism of the Catholic Church, Jews, and Muslims is found in the reformer’s writings. In “Wider das Papsttum zu Rom, vom Teufel gestiftet” (“Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil”) (1545), for example, he calls the Catholic Church “the Devil’s synagogue” and the Pope a “bloodsucker” and “Antichrist.”
Around 1800, famed German writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote a play entitled Die Hermannsschlacht (The Battle of Hermann) about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which took place between the Romans and Germanic tribes in the 9th century A.D. “In the play, Hermann, a member of the Cherusci tribe, stirs up his fellow tribesmen against the Romans and incites hate,” Brokoff says. “But the concrete background for Kleist’s work was the occupation of Prussia by Napoleon’s troops.”
At the start of World War I, true songs of hate directed at soldiers and members of other nations arose, including the notorious poem “Hassgesang gegen England” (“Song of Hate against England” by writer Ernst Lissauer, whose lyrics include the following: “You we will hate with a lasting hate, / We will never let go of our hate.” At the same time, and even before then, in the era around 1900, anti-Semitism is another way hate is reflected in literature.
“During times of crisis and times of war, literature has served time and again as a means of producing the image of the enemy and emotionalizing one’s own membership in a group,” Brokoff says. Hate for a shared enemy can bring people together as one group, a hard-pressed nation or one that feels threatened. Present-day crises involve more than just war or resurgent anti-Semitism. They include globalization, climate change, fear of foreign infiltration, and digitization – and they are expressed in posts on the Internet.
“The more complex the situation, the greater appeal expressing hate holds,” Walter-Jochum explains. “Hate is a huge simplifier. There’s no nuance, there’s no argumentation, and hate doesn’t even have any interest in solving a specific problem.” In today’s “post-factual” world, he says, facts are growing less and less important, as feelings trump reality.
Hate speech, spoken or written, is currently a hot topic of discussion in politics, in legal circles, and in society at large. How can scholars of literature contribute to this discussion? “In our project, we analyze all forms of degrading, debasing, disrespectful speech,” Brokoff explains. “We can’t bring social change that way, or help to cure deficits. But what we can do is raise awareness of how emotional societies and their modes of speech are.”
One key aspect of the work done by the collaborative research center, and especially this subproject, is to show that all political discourses have affective, emotional elements. Anyone who engages in discussion with someone who is not responsive to discussion at a rational level can repeat over and over how things should go from a rational standpoint – but the other person will never agree, Walter-Jochum says. That means political figures need to be aware of the affective channels that should be used for communication in order to keep from dividing society into separate emotional “bubbles”: “It is a fiction to believe that it is always the better argument, put forward rationally, that wins in societal debate.”
Literature offers many different ways to respond to hate, Brokoff says, from fundamentally taking it up as a subject and “thinking about” it to its own active forms of resistance, such as counter-speech. If there is anything good, or even socially productive, about hate, it is the fact that it always provokes a reaction, Brokoff explains.
Hate speech causes the person who is the target of hostility to take up a position and prompts others to show solidarity, setting a counter-movement in motion. New and creative forms of expression arise in the process, among them “hate poetry.” Taking inspiration from poetry slams, journalists who have been targeted by verbal attacks have recently begun inviting people to evening events at which they present the hate-filled messages they have received with passion.
A similar pattern of re-contextualization of hate speech is found in the recently published book Post von Karlheinz: Wütende Mails von richtigen Deutschen – und was ich ihnen antworte (“Mail from Karlheinz: Angry Email Messages from Real Germans – and My Responses”), in which Der Spiegel journalist Hasnain Kazim publishes his correspondence with readers who write him hate mail. Kazim was also involved in the concept of “hate poetry.”
“These are creative ways of responding to societal imbalances or insults,” Brokoff says. The “hate poetry” events brought a lot of laughter, incidentally. Hate has one unusual characteristic: It says a lot less about the target than about the person expressing it. Which can be unintentionally comic – and that, in turn, can be very liberating.
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Brokof, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of German and Dutch Languages and Literatures, Tel.: +49 30 838 556 56, Email: email@example.com