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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech

12 min read.

In the aftermath of the attacks by a white supremacist on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, led a campaign to remove hate speech from social media platforms. TRACEY NICHOLLS examines the obstacles facing the campaign and offers some solutions to tackling the “dark web”, which is increasingly becoming the incubator of racist and fascist ideologies.

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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech
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Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.

Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.

Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.

Why is this call different from all other calls? 

What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.

Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…

The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.

So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.

Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.

However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.

Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.

The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.

Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”

In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.

Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.

In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.

What then must we do? 

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.

Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”

Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.

Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)

While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”

We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.

If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.

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Tracey Nicholls is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Peace Studies, Soka University, Japan.

Ideas

The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda

Louis Allday writes how book publishing from the 1960s became an important weapon of strategic propaganda by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The new website Liberated Texts aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been suppressed or misinterpreted in the mainstream since their release. Allday argues that books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

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‘Brecht said, “hungry man reach for the book.” Why? Because to get rid of hunger, you have to get rid of the system that produces hunger, and to get rid of that system you must understand it and you can only do that by reaching for the book.’ ~ Prabhat Patnaik

In November 1965, the Deputy Director of the CIA was sent an in-house book review by the curator of the Agency’s Historical Intelligence Collection. Its subject was Kwame Nkrumah’s seminal work, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialismfirst published in London earlier that year. The review largely focussed on “The Mechanisms of Neo-Colonialism”, the chapter in Nkrumah’s book that was said to have most “caught the eye of the press” and was “of greatest interest to the CIA”.

Within the book, Nkrumah analyses in detail the techniques through which modern imperialist powers achieved the objectives they had previously accomplished through overt colonialism and identifies the United States as the worst offender in this regard. In doing so, Nkrumah named names and drew attention to the neo-colonial role of, among others, the CIA, US Peace Corps, USIA and USAID. The tenor of the review is largely neutral, but the author’s concern with both the book’s contents and Nkrumah as a figure more broadly are not hard to discern beneath its superficially objective tone. It concludes by reporting that copies of the book had been sent to a number of CIA departments including the African Division of the Deputy Directorate for Plans (DDP), the Agency’s clandestine service and covert action arm, for study and “whatever action these components consider advisable”.

Only three months later, in February 1966, Nkrumah was deposed as President of Ghana in a coup that was engineered by the Agency. The late June Milne, Nkrumah’s editor, literary executor and long-time confidante, believed that because Neo-Colonialism had demonstrated the workings of international finance capital in Africa in such detail, the exposure its publication constituted was “just too much… the last straw” and led directly to the decision to depose Nkrumah in a coup.

Milne’s speculation is well-founded, not only because of the undeniably explosive content of Nkrumah’s book, but because senior figures within the CIA were already well aware of the dangers of such material to US interests. In the words of its Covert Operations Director in 1961:

Books differ from all other propaganda media, primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium… this is, of course, not true of all books at all times and with all readers – but it is true significantly often enough to make books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.

As such, the Agency acted accordingly and developed an extraordinary level of control and influence within the publishing industry. Details of the extent of this reach were revealed to the public in 1975 by the Church Committee, a US Senate investigation into the activities of a number of US intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The most well-known revelations of this committee include details of the now infamous CIA-run programmes MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, Family Jewels and Operation Mockingbird. Less well known are the details it contains on the Agency’s clandestine control over book publishing and distribution which, as per the committee’s findings, enabled it to:

(a) Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any U.S. influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publications or booksellers.

(b) Get books published which should not be “contaminated” by any overt tie-in with the U.S. government, especially if the position of the author is “delicate.”

(c) Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability.

(d) Initiate and subsidize indigenous national or international organizations for book publishing or distributing purposes.

(e) Stimulate the writing of politically significant books by unknown foreign authors-either by directly subsidizing the author, if covert contact is feasible, or indirectly, through literary agents or publishers.

Utilising this immense influence, before the end of 1967, well over 1,000 books had been produced, subsidized or sponsored by the Agency. Of these works, 25 percent were written in English, with the remainder in a number of different languages published around the world. Sometimes these books were published by organisations backed by the CIA without the author’s knowledge, while others involved direct collaboration between the Agency and the writer.

Frequently, books were published in order to bolster the US imperialist narrative about enemy states, for example, the Agency produced a number of works about China that were intended specifically to combat the “sympathetic view of the emerging China as presented by Edgar Snow”. As the committee’s official report stated, an American who read one of those books, purportedly authored by a Chinese defector, “would not know that his thoughts and opinions about China are possibly being shaped by an agency of the United States Government”. The Agency’s concern extended to book reviews which it utilised to refute the attacks of critics and promote works that it had sponsored. On at least one occasion, a book produced by the CIA was then reviewed in the New York Times by another writer also contracted by the Agency.

In the time that has passed since the revelations of the Church Committee, technological developments have transformed the way in which people consume information globally. The internet has become a new battle ground of propaganda and has been subject to comparable levels of infiltration and manipulation by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The idea that books remain the most important weapon of strategic propaganda, as determined by the CIA in 1961, would now be contested by many.

However, the terrain of contemporary publishing implies that US intelligence agencies have not ceased to be concerned with the power and influence of books as objects of propaganda. Take one example, since the US’ proxy war against Syria began a decade ago, a raft of books supporting the imperialist narrative have been published, many of them by ostensibly radical and leftist publishers. In many cases, these books are then endorsed and reviewed by an affiliated network of magazines and podcasts, while other works that go against the hegemonic narrative are reviewed negatively or simply ignored entirely.

It is with this historical context and lamentable present reality in mind that the website Liberated Texts was recently established. The site aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been forgotten, underappreciated, suppressed or misinterpreted in the cultural mainstream since their release. Of course, not all of the works reviewed on the site will have been subject to overt suppression or silencing by imperialist intelligence agencies – the reasons why books that go against prevailing ideas usually do not receive the attention and readership they deserve are countless – but all remain relevant and deserve a wider readership. The same is true of works that do not get translated into English for political reasons, such as the late Domenico Losurdo’s study of Stalin, which his English language publishers, Verso Books, have refused to translate and publish in spite of repeated requests for them to do so.

The life stories of prominent revolutionaries and thinkers are littered with references to how reading individual books or authors changed the trajectory of their life, and notwithstanding the dramatic shift in the educational and media landscape that has taken place in the decades since the publication of Neo-Colonialism, books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

Liberated Texts seeks to provide a home for all those people who still believe that to be the case and want to write about books they feel passionate about and believe – whether they were published 100 years ago or in the last few years – remain relevant to the issues of the present moment and deserve to be read and discussed more widely.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Ideas

Decolonising Knowledge in the Medium of a Monolithic Language

Economic neologisms in the English language project an air of neutrality but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries.

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If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Matters of form, usually viewed as ornament, are commonly in fact matters of argument.
Deirdre N. McCloskey

This short article explores the construction of Economic Neologisms in English and their global impact on shaping implicit and explicit policies in countries around the world. I focus on how economic neologisms in the English language project an air of neutrality but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries. This is demonstrated through explaining the role of English as an organised system of thought, the nature of academic English in economics and its influence on developing countries, a recent example of the use of Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in Pakistan based on a misguided comparison with the US, and the limitations of interpreting other languages in English.

English as an organised system of thought

One of the great successes of empire, binding its economic and cultural usurpation of the colonies, was the proliferation of English as a global language and as the only “official” language of the world. The strength of this legacy has defied time; the diverse geographies, languages and cultures of India are more strongly overcome by the use of English today than by any local language, signifying how English, as the language of the colonial state, took precedence over the many languages of India.

Although the Francophone sphere has remained a well-preserved niche, this enclave is no match for the global stamp of English. Outside the colonies, English has very much overshadowed the regionalism of the European Union (EU). International organisations such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank continue to lean towards the ascendency of English, in spite of their charters of multiple languages. The rise of the Chinese language as a formidable opponent is uncertain.

As the most dominant currency, English is not particular to race, but cuts across class and geography. Its exclusiveness is not so much in the basics of the spoken word but in the intricacies of how it fuels knowledge. People across countries can communicate on some basic level using minimal English, but the source of its inaccessibility lies in the dense articulation of the language as a specialised realm of knowledge production. This is not straightforward, since many academics from developed countries do not use English as a first language; on the other hand, many in developing countries have learned it from their earliest years of education. Nonetheless, a distinction emerges in the use of English, not simply as a language of communication but as an organised system of thought. The empire’s proliferation of language reproduced a structure of socialisation, which streamlined a linear set of ideas as opposed to embracing diverse and alternative systems of thought.

The Russian linguist V.N Voloshinov, explored the origins of language as an inherently social phenomenon, and saw language as the most efficient medium of capturing the dynamics of material changes. He described the “word” as the most sensitive index of social changes.” Importantly, for Voloshinov, the significance of words was not just limited to their representational role of capturing change but went beyond the symbolism, enabling a transformation, which added new dimensions and layers to a word’s original meaning.

‘‘[l]ooked at from the angle of our concerns, the essence of this problem comes down to how actual existence . . . determines the sign and how the sign reflects and refracts existence in its process of generation”

Voloshinov aimed to develop a theory of linkages between structure and agency in the framework of particular semantic frameworks. His emphasis here is on how signs are influenced; refracting the material and social existence of a phenomenon. The socialised impact of English, as an imperial language lies not simply in what it signifies but also in what forms its refractions take on. Patois and Pidgin English are some particular linguistic examples. Additionally, English has also been instrumental in exporting Anglo-American soft power to developing countries. This is visible especially in the formation and the role of media in developing countries. These derivative languages and effectively hollowed cultural influences are accompanied by the shaping of the global academic landscape, with English as the monopolistic medium for exploring knowledge. The consumption of the English language precedes consumption in any sphere of knowledge. In economics, the refractive role of English lies in how it shapes ideas and economic policies.

The medium is the message

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it. Concepts like “western enlightenment”, “scientific rationality” of the market and a consequent linear vision of growth, encompass a message of neutrality because the language embeds an exclusivity, canonising a singular system of thought. This canonisation is fuelled by ideologies, which seek homogenisation across geographies; the “Washington Consensus”, for instance, was exported beyond Washington but never as a consensus. In addition, compared to other social sciences, economic concepts and neologisms carry the potential of shaping the entire direction of scholarship. A brief look at any basic course in the history of economic thought verifies this.

The ascendency of neoclassical economics and its impact in transforming the entire discipline to become an imitation of natural sciences had a reductive impact on the scope of economics as a social science. For Philip Mirowski, the pursuit of projecting economics as a “science”, borrowing metaphors from physics and resorting to mathematical formalism, is rooted in the Western tradition of economics. By imitating natural sciences and giving a central value to empiricism, neoclassical economics transforms how metaphors operate. This is evident in metaphors, which constitute the conceptual basis and pedagogy of economics using natural laws but ultimately bearing little resemblance to the social processes, which constitute an economy. Statistical rigour and mathematical proofs thus often take a life of their own by validating a seemingly value-free concept.

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it.

If economics is considered as a repository of selectivity as well as of careful omissions, the responsibility of exploring the structure of metanarrative behind the curated message is a constant struggle for those outside this thought system. Other languages are inserted in the English language as loan words, strictly tied to culture (such as the Chinese concept of Guanxi or the Japanese business philosophy Kaizen). Words also sneak into English through a shared history of colonial/imperial experiences.  However, “foreign languages” have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms. Economic concepts in English on the other hand are canonised, refracted and socialised as the most objective and rational ways of determining other concepts such as efficiency, growth and ultimately, ways of living life. The usage of the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in context to the COVID-19 pandemic and its internationalisation as a “global policy” tool is of relevance here.

Interrogating the universality of economic neologisms: the value of statistical life (VSL)

The Value of a Statistical Life (VSL)  is normally used to monetise fatality risks in cost-benefit analyses and reflects the amount of money that a society is willing to pay for the reduction in the probability of the loss of a human life. This human life is generally, a statistical, hypothetical person on a population-average basis and refers to the hypothetical victim of a circumstance or of a policy or the lack thereof, and fully discounts class, ethnicity, nationality, religion or other characteristics that such a person may or may not have. It is designed as an objective, value-neutral concept to be applicable in contexts, where cost-benefit analysis would enable a synthesis or reach an objective resolution, to an empirical evaluation of saving lives.

As a statistical measure of predicting fatality risks, VSL, like Ogden tables, etc., is a construct and subject to the broader operations of how an economy is structured. This method of assessing risks to human lives is ultimately a valuation exercise and the underlying ethical concerns are tied to how capitalist systems perceive value and public utility. This is important since the construction and adoption of VSL in the US has a complex history, rooted in its origins in the Cold War.

These considerations remain unexplored, especially in the internationalisation of the concept. For example, VSL for climate change, calibrated to different contexts of developing countries, is in widespread use. These calculations do not address the fact that climate change in developing countries has been primarily led by accumulative patterns initialised and deepened by developed countries, rooted in the history of colonialism. For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes that pay no attention to history. Tailoring the VSL to country-contexts also raises questions about the criteria of implementing VSL based on mitigating fatality risk. Although VSL has its origins in the Cold War, it has not emerged as a basis for measuring the fatality risks of soldiers or casualties in recent conflicts, for instance in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and the invasion in Iraq.  Needless to say, in situations which are invariably related to the opportunity cost to human life, VSL is an objectionable measure.

“Foreign languages” have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms.

However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has revived the appeal of using economic modelling based on VSL. In a recent paper, Zachary Barnett-Howell and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak used VSL to advocate social distancing policies in some “developed” countries as opposed to others, in the developing world. Pakistan was one of those countries cited in the paper. The Government of Pakistan eased its lockdown on 9 May 2020, with the Planning Minister invoking this paper among other reasons to support the government’s policy stance. As a result of the ease of the lockdown, the infection count in Pakistan increased from 36,000 (April-May 2020) to 165,062 (June 2020).  A full account of the paper, its critique and the situation in Pakistan has already been covered succinctly by Khurram Hussain and also debated by academics and activists here (in Urdu language). Without repeating the details of their critique, I summarise the bases for the largely erroneous use of VSL in this case, as follows.

Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s estimated country-specific costs of mortality and use of VSL is based on another paper by W. Kip Viscusi and Clayton Masterman. The latter employed an analysis of data from the US Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) to value VSL, “to avoid hypothetical bias”. Referring to low to upper-middle income countries as “economies” as opposed to upper income “countries” Viscusi and Masterman conclude from a base US VSL of US$9.6 million, that different countries value human life differently. Following this paper, Barnet-Howell and Mobarak used this US VSL of US$9.6 million, to then discuss essentially Covid-19 policy recommendations, employing the VSL figures suggested for different developing countries.

A first problem with this analysis is that this value does not in any way reflect the value that the US society places on a human life vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, it is actually a representation of hypothetical costs to US policy makers and businesses, of making marginal improvements and mitigations to all those risks, be they in the workplace or by the quality of civic infrastructure and so on, which affect human life.  Aside from issues of monopoly pricing across the wider economy, the US has the most artificially inflated healthcare costs in the world. It would follow that VSL (if indeed a normal good as Barnett-Howell & Mobarak seem to be insinuating) would thus be equally over-valuated.

For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes that pay no attention to history.

This situation is not true of other countries including emerging economies, in which different systems of goods and services pricings persist. Using this highly (and artificially) overvaluated US base VSL as a concrete foundation for “upper income countries” as the basis for an extrapolated comparison is thus unjustified.  Alongside having amongst the highest global rates of infection and deaths, the United States also has one of the highest unemployment rates, and attendant social unrest, as a result of the pandemic. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic shows that life in the US has become exceedingly cheap, and indeed far cheaper than one would have imagined merely a decade ago. The application of VSL in this manner assumes that monopoly pricing in the US is somehow a base condition by which to measure the rest of the world. Such attempts at valuation only serve to insinuate a global marketplace for human lives, almost imperialistically conforming to the norms of the American market and economy.

Interpreting methods

Methodological problems are often also problems of unchallenged ideas. Economic ideas, concepts and textbooks in English are translated and absorbed globally, in effect strengthening the canon as opposed to opening the space for careful examination. Translations are not interpretations. Describing the third world literature’s feeble attempts at expanding text in other languages, Aijaz Ahmad reminds us that a “mere aggregation of texts and individuals does not give rise to the construction of a counter-cannon . . . for the latter to arise there has to be the cement of a powerful ideology.”

Attempts at counter-ideology are made more complex by the fact that knowledge production in English reproduces the erasure of knowledge production in other languages; many academics writing in English in fact lose formal writing and speaking skills in their native languages.

For these reasons, decolonising knowledge in economics is a complex process since it entails excavating alternatives, which demands a reimagination of possibilities and limits. Being truly multilingual would mean equal attention to all languages. Separating the objectivity of the language from its message and pluralising and empowering pedagogical practices in other languages is a start.

This article was originally published by D-Econ. Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) is a network of students and scholars working to diversify and decolonise economics.
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Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed.

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Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling
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In an interesting judgment delivered earlier this month, the High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage. The facts of MW v AN were that the parties were married in 1990, separated in 2003, and divorced in 2011. The dispute centred on the fate of a house constructed at Nakuru. While the house was registered in the name of the male spouse (the defendant), the plaintiff argued that she had taken out extensive loans to finance the purchase of the land and the construction of the house. Moreover, despite having a job herself, she had been the sole caregiver in the family. The defendant, for his part, argued that not only had he bought the plot on his own, but had also been providing financial contributions towards the upkeep of his wife.

The High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage.

Justice Mumbua Matheka observed that Section 6(7) of the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, matrimonial property “vests in the spouses according to the contribution of either spouse towards its question, and shall be divided between the spouses if they divorce or their marriage is otherwise dissolved.” In Echaria v Echaria, it had been held by the Court of Appeal that where there was a “substantial but unascertainable contribution” by both parties, a default rule of equal division would apply. The question, of course, turned upon the meaning of the word “contribution”.

In this context, Justice Matheka observed that “contribution” would have to include not only tangible financial contribution, but also the “unseen” contribution of housework and care-work. In paragraph 38, she observed:

This other part of mothering, housekeeping and taking care of the family is more often than not not given any value when it comes to sharing matrimonial property. It is easy for the spouse working away from home and sending money to lay claim to the whole property purchased and developed with that money by the spouse staying at home and taking care of the children and the family. That spouse will be heard to say that the other one was not employed so they contributed nothing. That can no longer be a tenable argument as it is a fact that stay at home parents and in particular women because of our cultural connotations do much more work (house wives) due to the nature of the job . . . hence for a woman in employment who has to balance child bearing and rearing this contribution must be considered. How do we put monetary value to that process where a woman bears the pregnancy, gives birth, and takes care of the babies and where after divorce or separation she takes care of the children single handedly without any help from the father of the children. . . . Should this court take this into consideration when distributing matrimonial property where the husband as in this case is left in the matrimonial home where the wife rents a house to provide shelter for herself and the children? I think it should count, especially where the husband has not supported the raising of the children, has not borne his share of parental responsibility.

Furthermore, this would have to be determined by evidence:

It is time that parties took time to give evidence, sufficient enough to support the value to be placed on the less obvious contribution. It is unfair and unjust for one party to be busy just making their money (the ‘seen’ income) while the other is doing two or three other jobs in the family whose income is ‘unseen’ and then claim this other one did nothing. This attitude is so entrenched we still hear women especially who are housewives say: sifanyi kazi (literally I do not do any work) simply because they do not leave the home to go earn money elsewhere.

Consequently, Justice Matheka held that notwithstanding the fact that the matrimonial property was registered in the name of the husband, the maximum “equality is equity” would apply, and that consequently “the property be valued, sold and each party have 1⁄2 share of the proceeds of the sale.”

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework, within the context of domestic relationships; as has been well established by now, across the world and across societies, within the institution of the family, the burden of such work is gendered in nature (see, e.g., The Second Shift) – and often, unseen and unpaid domestic work by the female spouse is what “frees up” the male spouse to enter the labour market and engage in the kind of financially remunerative work that, ultimately, results in (for example) matrimonial property being bought with “his” money, and therefore registered in his name. Thus, departures from traditional notions of property are essential in order to do justice in and within the institution of the family.

It is important to contextualise this judgment, both within the framework of Kenyan and comparative law. In Kenya, the default position used to be (as in many other countries) that only financial contributions were to be taken into account in calculating respective shares in the matrimonial property upon dissolution of marriage. Explicitly seeking to change this, the Kenyan Constitution of 2010 contained Article 45(3), which – borrowed from CEDAW – states that, “Parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights at the time of marriage, during the marriage and at the dissolution of the marriage.” In her book, Equality in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution (2021), Dr Victoria Miyandazi notes that the intention behind Article 45 was, inter alia, to address “harmful practices such as . . . unequal claims to matrimonial property upon divorce.” In Agnes Nanjala Williams vs Jacob Petrus Nicholas Vandergoes, the Court of Appeal directly applied Article 45 between two private parties to mandate an equal division of assets between the spouses, even in the absence of a statutory framework (“horizontal application of rights”).

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework.

This position, however, was arguably overruled by the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, which required judges to take into account the relative contributions of the spouses (as indicated above), but also explicitly specified that the word “contributions” included “domestic work, childcare, and companionship.” The Matrimonial Property Act was challenged by the Federation of Woman Lawyers on the basis that the displacement of the 50 per cent rule in favour of “non-monetary contributions” would restore the gendered inequality within marriage, based on the difficulty of calculating non-monetary contributions. This challenge, however, was rejected by the court.

In that context, the judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”, and allays fears that judiciaries that might not have entirely broken out of patriarchal norms will use the vagueness of the statutory clause to devalue housework or care-work.

Furthermore, this is a position that has been advanced by progressive courts across the world. Perhaps the most outstanding example is New Zealand, where the Property Relations Act of 1976 established a presumption of equal sharing at the time of dissolution, and specifically provided that financial contribution was not to be treated as weightier than non-financial contribution. In numerous judgments interpreting the Property Relations Act, the New Zealand courts have interpreted it with a view towards fulfilling the statutory purpose of achieving the “equal status of women in society”, holding, for example, that wherever the provisions of the Act were ambiguous, the default presumption would be in favour of the property being matrimonial/joint (and therefore, subject to equal division).

The judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”.

Indeed, Justice Matheka’s language is also remarkably similar to a 1992 judgment of the Colombian Constitutional Court. In Sentencia No. T-494/1992, the Constitutional Court was considering the eviction of a widow from the matrimonial home; the widow’s non-monetary contributions had not been taken into account in determining whether or not she had a legal interest in the home. The Constitutional Court noted that such a position would have the effect of “invisiblising” domestic work, and deepening inequalities within social relations. The court went on to question the “artificial” distinction between “productive” and “non-productive work”, and noted that refusal to factor in unpaid domestic work would violate the Colombian Constitution’s guarantee of equality and non-discrimination.

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court, thus, joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed; and it also, I submit, advances the goals of Article 45(3) – itself a fascinating constitutional provision. For these reasons, it deserves careful study by students of comparative constitutional law.

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