If I had a penny every time I heard someone saying that Bolsonaro’s violence “is just talk”, “it’s not to be taken seriously”, “it’s lip service”, I would have been richer than Elon Musk, even with current inflation. This kind of talk assumes that there is no real relationship between what a political leader says and the attitudes of his followers. The president himself seems to believe this – shortly after being stabbed in 2018, he tearfully declared: “I have never harmed anyone”.
There are good empirical reasons to believe that the premise behind this reasoning is wrong. Violent political rhetoric produces violence. The brilliant idea of throwing a man with mental problems in a makeshift gas chamber, which shocked those who still have an ounce of humanity in this country, obviously did not come from Brasilia. But it seems that political leaders like Bolsonaro help create environments in which this sort of thing happens more often.
The psychological mechanisms behind this are well known. There is no modern genocide that has not been preceded by a campaign of dehumanization and demonization of the “Other”, the enemy, the foreigner. Nazi cartoons and films comparing Jews to rats are the most famous example.
The practice, however, is much more common than one might think. The massacres of the 1990s that devastated Rwanda, in East Africa, were only possible because radio programs encouraged members of the Hutu ethnic group to “kill the cockroaches” – those who belonged to the rival ethnicity of the Tutsis. This kind of practice piggybacks on a much older cognitive reflex of our species, responsible for the universal tendency to divide the world between “us” and “them” using elements such as physical appearance, language and behavior.
Just as important as fixing a dehumanized image of the enemy in the minds of the group of followers is desensitizing them. That is, constantly hammering out violent messages, turning them into a kind of background noise in political discourse, makes this type of thinking seem increasingly natural and acceptable. A 2017 study led by Wiktor Soral of the University of Warsaw showed how this can happen in practice. In interviews and experiments with hundreds of Poles, Soral and his colleagues found that people exposed to speech that incited hatred of immigrants tended to develop more prejudice against foreigners and to support harsh anti-immigration measures.
What about direct actions? James Piazza, from Pennsylvania State University (USA), mapped the use of hate speech by political leaders and the occurrence of episodes of domestic terrorism (that is, practiced by inhabitants of the same country) in more than 130 countries, between 2000 and 2017. The results, published in March 2020, indicate that these acts of terror are almost ten times more common in countries where politicians routinely use this type of speech (an average of more than 107 incidents per year, against only 12 in countries where hate speech never or rarely appears in the speeches of politicians).
Ideas and words have consequences. Police brutality is as Brazilian a product as feijoada, but it has never been so celebrated and encouraged as it is today, thanks to the work and grace of a figure who built his political career on the illusion that “killing a vagabond” is public safety. He is at fault in the registry.
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