Faces against Hate

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

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“Talking about racism and experiences of racism is uncomfortable, exhausting and yet necessary”, says Antonia Ganeto towards the end of the interview you are about to read. Reading about racism is exhausting too.

However, both are important as a look at the numbers of reported cases of racist comments posted online shows. Illegal cases of racist hate speech reported to the BeeSecure-Stopline increased by 127 per cent to 157 cases in Luxembourg in 2019 compared to the previous year. Last year, they grew by another 43 per cent to 226 cases. Prosecutor Dominique Peters gives context during a respect.lu conference: “Before 2015, there were fewer reports annually than there are in a month these days”.

The figures should be interpreted with some caution: The number of reported cases only describes how many cases were passed on to the authorities, not how many comments containing hate speech were actually written. The pessimistic interpretation would be that there are simply more cases. Bei t, because more people are spreading hatred, because they are online longer and more frequently, or simply because more people are using social media. An optimistic interpretation would be that more people are sensitised, recognise hate speech and know about the Stopline – which was created as a reporting point for such comments. Nevertheless: only what has been written can be reported. Hard figures are missing, not least because there are many legally enforceable incitements to hatred and violence in closed groups in which nobody forwards the comments and because the comments are filtered by hosts, so they never appear publicly at all. In the end, it is not about the exact figures, but about the people behind them, victims as well as perpetrators, and about the consequences that hate speech can have.

Experiences

Antonia Ganeto moved to Luxembourg from Cape Verde when she was five years old. The 51-year-old has a degree in journalism, runs the intercultural educational centre IKL and is the spokesperson for the Asbl Finkapé, a network for people of African origin. And she is a victim of hate speech – a role she admits to herself: “Admitting to being a victim does not mean giving up. It’s just that I want to draw attention to the impact of hate speech and everyday racism on mental and physical health and to look for solutions together”. Ganeto became the victim of racist and sexist comments after a photo of her was uploaded on Facebook. She is depicted holding a megaphone in her hand during the women’s strike on 10 March 2020. On it: a sticker reading: ‘Lëtzebuerg, du hannerherhältegt Stéck Schäiss’, the name of a play by the groupe Richtung22, which also owned the megaphone. “Our microphone didn’t work, so we borrowed their megaphone. Afterwards, the photo of me was uploaded on Facebook with the tagline: ‘The photo says it all’”.

Hate Speech Testimonial

While the photo – apart from an example of freedom of expression of another, non-depicted group – said absolutely nothing at all, people in the comments section saw the opportunity as a free pass to actually say anything. Ganeto recalls: “We let something like that into the country, back to the Congo with them. They come into the country and they are already pregnant and then they look for a white man. Come on, we’ll help them pack. Put them in prison, far away”. Well-known phrases. “I’ve lived here since I was five, I speak Luxembourgish, I work here and get told again: You are and will always be a foreigner. With these statements I was dehumanised and reduced to my appearance. A colour that was clearly given negative connotations. As a person, in an etnic and racialised way, I am seen as not belonging here and not equally entitled. But I am a Luxembourger, an Afro-Luxembourger!”

Victim work

“I was lucky that out of the many statements – one as bad as the other – there was one that met all the criteria to be prosecuted. When I found out, people congratulated me”. Ganeto’s ‘luck’ was that among the many comments that exceeded human limitations, there was one that clearly crossed legal boundaries. The tug-of-war between freedom of expression and discrimination, incitement to hatred or violence begins anew each time a comment is reported. When exactly those boundaries are crossed is regulated by law, which should actually offer no leeway. In practice, however, it is possible to write comments that cut to the core without being prosecutable. If a case is not considered to be prosecutable, says Ganeto, help remains absent. All this, despite the fact that even non-prosecutable statements are accompanied by the same symptoms for those affected, which resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder: nausea, headaches, anxiety disorders, increased blood pressure, concentration problems. “On my way to the trial, I was nauseous, I started crying, I just cried. Being familiar with the subject, I immediately recognised my inner child. My child who was traumatised in the 70s because it was physically and psychologically beaten up. This child who was helpless and angry. I was once again overwhelmed by this helplessness I felt at that time”.

The trauma was not caused by one or two comments, but by years of experience, big and small, direct and indirect, individual and institutional. “Collectively, they have had a significant impact on my life. Of course, my goal is not to declare everyone who experiences racism to be traumatised. That would be wrong as many people have enormous coping capacities and resources. Nevertheless, it is important to find an awareness and a language for the injuries that racisms cause in Luxembourg. I was told by the prosecutor’s office that there is a service that supports victims. I didn’t go there because I was afraid I wouldn’t be understood. It is extremely important that (safe)spaces are created, contact points for racialised people where they can talk to competent people who can specifically understand such experiences. In no way do I want to criticise the people who work at 'Aide aux victimes’, I just want to point to an organisational blind spot”.

Finkapé, of whom Ganeto is the spokesperson, an Asbl with the aim of promoting intercultural exchange, is currently working on a concept for such a contact point. However, Ganeto hopes that the project will be taken up institutionally as soon as possible. Social work through self-organisation on a purely voluntary basis is not a lasting solution to social problems and racism. “A universally known contact point for victim work must be established, with qualified professionals, including racialised employees, .“ says Ganeto This should also help those who have been exposed to hate speech that has been classified as non-prosecutable but has nevertheless left its mark.

Antonia Ganeto

The author of the statement against Antonia Ganeto was sentenced to a fine of 1,500 euros. Ganeto feels that this punishment is not very effective: “Symbolically, justice should not be expressed through money. I know it must be a lot of money for the person and he must be very angry, but what’s the goal here? I know it sounds utopian and naïve, but I would have hoped for a sentence sentence that would have made him reflect on his attitude and actions”. The prosecution had unsuccessfully asked for a three-month suspended prison sentence in the case, supplemented by a visit to the Centre contre la radicalisation Luxembourg (respect.lu). Their new project ‘Dialogue instead of hate’, inspired by the successful pilot project of the same name in Austria, is actually intended to enable self-reflection in precisely such cases.

Perpetrator work

“We are in initial talks with nine people who have been referred to us”, Karin Weyer confirms while sitting on an armchair between musical instruments – “For music therapy” she says with a smile. She has been Chargée de Direction of the Centre contre la Radicalisation since it opened four years ago. Probation sentences are rarely imposed, punishment mostly takes the form of fines, says the trained psychologist, : “Then people are angry for a moment and that’s it”. In many cases, she says, the prosecutor’s office gives people the option of going to the centre instead of pressing charges. Laura Beckers, a trained criminologist, sums up the concept: “The idea is to offer an alternative to punishment”. The focus is on reformation. Hate speech – which is actually not a criminal offense, but an umbrella term for a whole series of individual punishable offences such as incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination – is defined here as ‘group-related enmity’. “It is precisely this ‘group-relatedness’ that the staff at respect.lu try to use as a measure against hate”, says Weyer. In a total of six three-hour modules, the employees talk to people about discrimination, media and discourse skills, freedom of expression and its limits, and the background to the crime. At the end of the process there is a ‘change of perspective’, an exchange between the person and a member of the group against which he or she has spread hate: “After half an hour of conversation, the person is no longer anonymous. They have a face and are no longer part of an undefined group. This leads to a cognitive dissonance, an internal contradiction. It is mentally difficult to be confronted with an individual and dehumanise them at the same time”, says Weyer.

While the method is still relatively new, the team refers to positive experiences in Austria. Nevertheless, according to Weyer, it was always clear that the project would not be easy to implement, especially the last module: there were many questions, first and foremost: who can talk to these people? “In the past year, we contacted groups that are potentially victims of hate speech. We were often referred to people with psychosocial backgrounds who had been active at counselling centres before”. In this case, the preparation was relatively easy. However, people who did not have this background sometimes turned us down. “Rightly so”, says Weyer: “Everyone has the right to say: ‘I don’t want that’. No one has to expose themselves to this situation”. Nevertheless, feedback was received from all sides that it was important work. Pre-recorded video calls could provide an opportunity to protect the contact person, but at the same time encourage self-reflection. “Visits to places associated with the group could serve a similar function”, the director elaborates: you could take people to a mosque or a synagogue, for example, or events like the Festival des Migrations. “It doesn’t always have to be a direct conversation, the well-being of everyone involved always comes first”. While working with these people is often a long road, she still believes that it is basically always possible to help a person, even if it is not always easy to find the right approach.

Social work

Ideally, neither perpetrator nor victim work would be necessary. While it will be a long way before racism is a thing of the past, this should not deter us from working towards it. Bernard Gottlieb, President of the Asbl RIAL (Recherche et information sur l’antisémitisme au Luxembourg), believes that educational work plays a central role. “I ask myself: do people actually have a precise idea of what racist or antiemitic statements are?” After all, you always hear that there is no such thing in Luxembourg, that certain statements are not antisemetic or racist. In my opinion, there is a great deal of ignorance. “In order to talk productively about the problem, a clear definition is necessary. In practice, however, this is not always easy. The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), for example, has developed such a non-legally binding definition with eleven examples of antisemitism. This is supposed to function as a guideline, which has already been recognised by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). Here in Luxembourg, only parts of it have been recognised so far, says Gottlieb, who regrets above all the absence of the concrete examples that are central to the IHRA’s text: “No educational work can be done with this terse definition, because the examples are eminently important. They are concrete and explicit”. Without those, conversations about the issue would become complicated or even impossible. “Nevertheless, the text is being recognised by more and more international organisations”, says Gottlieb: “With the examples, it can help give a clear picture of what antisemitism actually is. Recently, the IHRA published another definition on discrimination against Sinti and Roma”.

 

  • The IHRA's non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism

    “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

    Examples:

    • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
    • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
    • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
    • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
    • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
    • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
    • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
    • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
    • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
    • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
    • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

While collecting data remains difficult, Gottlieb suggests doing whatever is possible: “Private individuals, but also the media companies whose articles people are leaving comments to, should report violations to the BeeSecure Stopline or the RIAL”. In order to get an overview of the situation, it would also be a big step if the media’s team of moderators of the media would create a concise document in which they record how many comments they remove and for what reasons. “In schools and in upgrade training courses, not only historical events should be talked about, but also current prejudices and forms of discrimination”. Karin Weyer of respect.lu complements the educational demands with a call to promote critical thinking and media literacy. This may lead to students questioning their current environment, but respectful dissent must be encouraged. “Awareness-raising work and dealing with controversy can help preventively, early respectful interaction turns into implicitness later on”, says criminologist Beckers.

In order to be able to actively work towards these goals in the future, both Ganeto and Gottlieb would like to see closer cooperation with the government. “We have the expertise, the experience, the background knowledge on the topic. We experience the problems directly”, says Ganeto, “that’s why I would like to see decisions in the future not only made about us, but with us”. Gottlieb agrees: “At the beginning of last year, the government decided to set up a ‘Plan national de la lutte contre l’antisémitisme‘. Mr Bettel assured us that members of the Jewish community would be involved. The publication of the plan has been postponed to the end of the first quarter of 2021, so it’s about time someone came up to us so that we can tackle the problem together”.