After a series of right-wing terrorist acts in Germany, the role of far-right rhetoric in inciting violence is much debated. Forms of hate speech in particular have caught a lot of attention in this debate. Drawing on the concept of dangerous speech, this article illuminates why narratives of imperilment are more critical for understanding far-right violence than open hatred. By constructing myths of victimhood, they make violent action seem necessary – even if violence is not proposed explicitly.
Imagine the following: Person A is constantly trying to convince person B that person C wants to kill him. He underpins his allegation with plenty of information that seems to confirm the threat, pretending to be deeply concerned about person B’s well-being. In addition, he makes person B believe that no help can be expected from others; they are probably even in league with person C. Eventually, person B takes the initiative and kills person C to protect himself. After the fact, there is great dismay in the community, as person C has done nothing that justifies being killed. In search for the reasons, the role of person A becomes an issue. He, however, denies any contributory fault. Certainly, he made person B aware of Person C’s dangerousness, he confirms. But there was never talk of killing him. In fact, legally speaking, there can be no question of incitement. And yet one can hardly avoid to view person A as co-responsible for the crime.
A similar situation is represented by the debates regarding how far-right rhetoric contributes to extremist violence. In Germany, for instance, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is under fire, after a wave of right-wing terror shocked the public, including the attacks of Halle and Hanau, the assassination of conservative politician Walter Lübcke, and numerous assaults on refugee asylums. The party, of course, denies any responsibility, pointing to the fact that they don’t call explicitly for violence. In public, however, a widespread assumption is that the party convinces people – like person B in the example – that their existence is threatened by migrants and recent refugee policy. It is thus no surprise, many voices say, that some of them take action to render the agents of the alleged threat harmless.
From Hate Speech to Dangerous Speech
In research on political violence, there is a concept for this presumed connection between the construction of threats and the implicit legitimation of violence. It is called “dangerous speech” and has so far been overshadowed by the concept of “hate speech”, which is often mentioned when it comes to the black box of far-right rhetoric and violence. Dangerous speech is probably more decisive for right-wing terror than open hatred, even if it avoids violent rhetoric. As Susan Benesch says, it is particularly the talk of “a mortal threat from a disfavored or minority group, which makes violence seem not just acceptable, but necessary.”
Dangerous speech takes place when a group is ascribed particular cruelty. Where it is accused of threatening one’s own existence, it seems – as a matter of survival – opportune to take drastic action against it. After all, self-defence is the only norm that indisputably allows one to kill. For the legitimation of violence, hardly anything is thus more suitable than an “accusation in a mirror”: The dehumanization of the other justifies the brutalization of the self. Violent actions are therefore often accompanied by myths of victimhood. Classical fascism, for instance, once drew on such myths in order to justify extraordinary measures. Roger Griffin called this rationality “palingenetic ultranationalism”: in the face of imminent demise, the nation has to make uncompromising efforts to be resurrected.
Narratives of Imperilment
Today’s far right undoubtedly exhibits this rationality, too, when it tells stories of a “people’s death” (Volkstod) or “white genocide”. Such narratives of extinction are by far not reserved for the militant far right, but have also become popularized by its alleged moderate factions, for instance, when they speak of a “great replacement”. As unreal as this idea may be – where it becomes effective as “mainstreamed extremism”, it is very real in its consequences: Whether Christchurch or El Paso, Halle or Hanau, the perpetrators of these deeds all shared the notion that their community was doomed because of migration. However, this threat is quite abstract, since it actually means the loss of a cultural identity – and not a danger to life and health. It is thus often interwoven with narratives that stimulate the feeling of being personally threatened.
For instance, by merging numerous violent incidents with migrant involvement into a large picture of “knife immigration” (Messereinwanderung), the German far right creates the impression that no one is safe from so-called foreigner violence. These narratives of insecurity, in which tragic fates with identification potential are highlighted, are particularly emotionalizing. Read as harbingers of extinction, the abstract threat suddenly becomes tangible. But even these combined narratives of imperilment cannot do without further narratives. Conspiracy stories in particular function as argumentative support in the far-right’s narrative network. By accusing politicians and the media of promoting or at least concealing the threat, they help to establish credibility. After all, they imply that other sources than those confirming the threat cannot be trusted. In this way, a self-referential system of argumentation takes shape that is immune to contradicting information.
Wannabe Heroes Wanted
The dangerousness of far-right rhetoric results from the interplay of different narratives. Where audiences are made to believe that they are existentially threatened – not only in their identity, but also physically – a self-defence scenario is constructed, which permits or even demands violent action. The proposed solutions may not explicitly call for violence, but within the argumentative structure of the narrative network, it at least seems a logical consequence. This case of “scripted violence” is all the more true, since narratives of conspiracy undermine trust in the state. Where the authorities are no longer deemed reliable in protecting the population, the time seems right for heroes who save the community and clean up with traitors.
By citing insecure conditions (even if not real), the far right creates a real state of insecurity, since it stimulates the violent fantasies of those who believe in its stories. It may be true that hate speech on the Internet must be tackled more vigorously; and likewise, a tough response to right-wing terrorism by the authorities – as is customary with Islamist terrorism – is overdue. However, other measures are needed to break the dynamics of far-right violence sustainably. They would have to contain the spaces for post-truth content and conspiracy theories on which the far right’s myths of victimhood are based. This, in turn, raises the question of political regulation of social media – the space where far-right narratives of imperilment can circulate freely and are constantly reproduced.