Nationalist identity rhetoric often seeks to construct national identity by defining an image of the “cultural other.” Edward Said wrote in Orientalism that in nationalism every “us” needs to have a “them.” We define ourselves against each other and the groups to which we belong against the groups that are different from ours. In this process, those who are considered outsiders are frequently perceived as being wrong, morally degenerate, or irredeemably malicious; “we” are always the party of good while “others” represent evil. In order to create a strong sense of national identity, nationalist rhetoric not only needs the “cultural other,” but it also requires to create a symbolic scapegoat that acts as a perfect vehicle to rid the community of its ethical, hierarchical, and moral tensions.
Scapegoating serves to strengthen our sagging self-esteem by blaming someone else for our moral corruption, social inadequacies and our perception that life is slipping inexorably away. According to Richard M. Weaver, there is a natural tendency among humans to create an enemy because:
“there is a tribal need for a scapegoat, for something which will personify ‘the adversary.’ If a nation did not have an enemy, an enemy would have to be invented to take care of those expressions of scorn and hatred to which peoples must give vent. When another political state is not available to receive the discharge of such emotions, then a class will be chosen, or a race, or a type, or a political faction.”
George Mosse explained the close association between nationalism and sexuality, where minority groups are often scapegoated as being sexually deviant. That way the targeted group becomes the “outsider,” making them members of the inferior community, which, by its very existence, threatens the health of the society and the nation at large.
In the Indian context, the discourse of Hindu nationalist leaders such as Uma Bharti, M.S. Golwalkar, Sadhvi Ritambhara, V.D. Savarkar, and Bal Thackeray, to name a few, consistently scapegoat Muslims by depicting them as individuals with uncontrollable libido who rape Hindu women. In such discourse of scapegoating, the myths of an evil Muslim with an excessive sexual appetite (four wives, too many children, and raping of Hindu women and converting them to Islam) are consistently reinforced. These powerful images of Muslims raping Hindu women and forcibly converting them to Islam paint an ominous specter for Hindus. The issue of nationhood often ends up being discursively inscribed on the woman&’s body, as is the case with many of the speeches and writings of the Hindu nationalist leaders. Thus, when Hindu nationalist rhetoric scapegoats Muslims as a potential threat to a Hindu woman&’s/nation&’s safety and security, Hindu men are expected to respond by reasserting themselves to stop the pollution of the Hindu woman&’s/nation&’s purity and sanctity.
History is replete with examples of scapegoating of the “cultural other” where they served as a sexual deviant in nationalist identity rhetoric. For example, the Nazi rhetoric viewed Jews as a major sexual threat to the stability of the German nation. One finds frequent references in Nazi rhetoric to the oversexed Jew who is waiting to catch Aryan girls and rape them. Jews were not only constructed as sexual predators but they were also depicted as effeminates with cowardly and evil behavior whose presence threatened the very essence of masculinity as valorized under Nazism. Nazi rhetoric did not spare blacks either. They were portrayed as sexual predators whose “strength was barbaric, without order or direction, displaced into an overflowing sexual energy menacing white women.” Gays were also projected as sexual deviants who threatened the health of the German national body. Nationalist identity rhetoric frequently drew clear lines of demarcation on what was considered as the norm of masculinity and deviancy. It is these images of deviation or the countertypes that conjure up the specter of anarchy and chaos, which necessitates a call for action to deal with this perceived threat.
Very much akin to demonizing of Jews and blacks in German Nazi rhetoric, White colonial discourse constructed Blacks, Native Americans, and other colonized people as oversexed. For example, writing on South Africa, John Buchan warned of the procreative energies of the local people thus:
“The Kaffir, south of the Zambesi, already outnumbers the white man by fully five to one, and he increases with at least twice the rapidity….What is to be the end of this fecundity?
Living on little, subject apparently to none of the natural or prudential checks on over-population, there seems a real danger of black ultimately swamping white by mere gross quantity.”
President Theodore Roosevelt&’s nationalist discourse also depicted Native Americans as sexual marauders who could not control their libido and who lived in a state of moral recklessness and degeneration. For Roosevelt, Native Americans posed a major threat to the white man whom Roosevelt saw “as not taking part in a war against a civilized foe; he was fighting in a contest where women and children suffered the fate of the strong men …His sweetheart or wife had been carried off, ravished, and was at the moment the slave and concubine of some dirty and brutal Indian warrior.”
Myths of black promiscuity in the rhetoric of European Americans in the United States were quite prevalent. In such discourse, black virility was often projected as a threat both physically and culturally for European Americans. According to Sam Keen, in racist discourse of the Ku Klux Klan, the black male had an “insatiable lust for white women.” In his controversial essay “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer painted blacks as sexual predators who threatened the social and cultural fabric of white America:
“ the Negro, not being privileged to gratify his self-esteem with the heady satisfactions of categorical condemnation, chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what have you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom, an ethical differentiation between the good and the bad in every human activity from the go-getter pimp (as opposed to the lazy one) to the relatively dependable pusher or prostitute.”
Similarly, British nationalist rhetoric often played on the sexual threat from non-white immigrants in Great Britain. The Fascist leader, Enoch Powell exploited the fear of the British concerning the physical violation of white women at the hands of immigrants in his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. In the 1980s, nationalist rhetoric in England also depicted non-white immigrants as sexual predators attacking and raping English women.
These examples demonstrate that “countertype,” symbolizing sexual deviancy is often constructed in nationalist rhetoric to serve as a scapegoat. We scapegoat enemies not because we are intrinsically cruel but because purging our anger on an outside target helps unify the nation. History has taught us repeatedly that when political and religious leaders engage in scapegoating of the “cultural other,” there are always dangers associated with it because it has a high probability of ending in tragedy. The rhetoric of nationalism frequently constructs a scapegoat to function as an enemy of the nation who must be destroyed. It is only in their death that we are purged of threats to our nation&’s identity and unity. Thus, threats to our identity and group solidarity are cured through some kind of sacrifice that expresses itself homicidally in the slaying of scapegoats.
If the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia and in recent times in Central African Republic, Congo, and Nigeria, among others, teach us anything, it is that we cannot afford to ignore the rhetoric of scapegoating or treat it as being natural and commonplace among political and religious leaders. Nor can we disregard the principle of negation and scapegoating of the “cultural other” as mere rhetorical devices. The great literary critic and intellectual, Kenneth Burke, warned us against discounting the ritual of scapegoating as a “‘necessary illusion’ of savages and the masses…if we are to survive we must spread the ‘naturalistic lore that will immunize mankind to this natural weakness.’”
This is why it is imperative that critics become more active in exposing narratives that are designed to create nationalist identity by means of scapegoating. They must take concrete steps at an early stage in identifying rhetoric that seeks to build national or ethnic identity and group solidarity through hatred and xenophobia. Critics have a moral responsibility to deconstruct these messages and advise policy makers concerning the dangers of such discourse. The analysis of hateful nationalist rhetoric and identification of strategies of scapegoating the “other” is certainly the right, productive move that would help generate more humane ways of building nationalism and national identity. While critics may not be able to stop the violence that is perpetuated in the name of nation-building in every part of the world, the development and application of critical techniques that evaluate nationalist identity rhetoric certainly will help in identifying potential danger spots.
The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.