Ban xenophobic advertising

Richard Parncutt
August 2016

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012

The success of the far right

Imagine we are in Germany in the 1930s. The political far right is getting stronger because people are angry about the depression (unemployment) and the unfair treaty of Versailles. In their search for scapegoats, they find "the Jews", who as a group was no more responsible for either problem than any other group (such as for example "the Christians"). The popularity and rise to power of the Nazis is being driven by nationalism and antisemitism - both clearly irrational. The process will end with the Holocaust.

Switch to modern Europe. Far-right political parties are again getting steadily stronger, and the main reason is again that people are angry about their economic situation - unemployment, or the feeling of working hard for no return. The main cause of this economic problem is evidently the rising gap between rich and poor, which in turn is a consequence of neoliberalism, globalisation, and technology. Again, people are searching for scapegoats and finding them in the form of innocent minority groups (immigrants, muslims, asylum seekers). Riding on a wave of xenophobia, the popularitiy of the far right is slowly but surely increasing. 

The Holocaust really happened, and it can happen again. Here is a possible scenario: In coming decades, global warming will produce hundreds of millions of refugees, who will try to enter the rich countries. In their mortal desperation, they resort to violent means. The rich countries, ruled by the far right, will see no alternative but to kill them. This is one way in which the Holocaust can happen again, and there are others. What they have in common is a gradual increase in xenophobia, leading to a gradual increase in willingness to tolerate violence as a "solution" to the "problem". The process has already begun: many people already do not seem to care about hundreds of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

The failure of public education

In every country with a rising far-right party, there is a strong left-wing backlash. Thousands of people who care about their children, their country, and their world, are devoting their lives to stop xenophobia and racism. In countless public events, the public is educated about the benefits of intercultural openness and the dangers of the opposite.

We have made a lot of progress in this direction, but the progress of the far right is generally faster. That is because the far right takes advantage of human nature. We know about human nature from the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology. Researchers have demonstrated that it is human nature to try to identify "free riders" who are taking from society more than they are giving; to identify them on the basis of unreliable sources of information (e.g. gossip); and to admire and support strong leaders even if they are obviously corrupt. Far-right politicians know instinctively how to take advantage of these unfortunately aspects of our nature. They set themselves up as authorities and explain to people that specific minority groups are the cause of their problems. People tend to believe them, even if those politicians evidently have no qualification to make such judgments. 

There are many such qualified people, of course. They explain that the politicians are wrong and for example that the ultimate cause of economic problems is the widening gap between rich and poor, including the failure of the rich to pay their fair share of income tax. People listen to these explanations and seem to understand, then go back to their old instinctive response, which is to put their faith in rich or powerful leaders, and identify and reject powerless "free riders". The average far-right voter is aware of the sins of the rich, but does not take them seriously. Instead, they admire the rich for their ability to beat the system. If someone suggests that tax evasion is the ultimate source of our economic problems, given that a large proportion of all money in the world is parked in tax havens, people quietly understand and agree - but being mere human beings, they return in the direction of familiar, irrational, instinctive, nationalist-xenophobic obsequiousness. 

And when people find themselves in the voting booth, they vote for the far right, even if they know it is wrong, and even though when asked during a telephone poll who they would vote for they gave a quite different answer. Like naughty children, they know that we have secret voting, so no-one will find out whom they voted for. At least as long as there is no dictatorship.

A Martian observing this situation from afar would have noticed long ago that humanity is on the road toward another Holocaust. The signs are clear. The probability that the humanity's worst-ever crime will be repeated in some way is gradually rising, as public displays of xenophobia and racism become more familiar, and hence more accepted. Clearly, those humans need a strategy to stop this development before it is too late. Clearly, public education is not enough. 

Banning xenophobic advertising

The solution that I would like to propose is a ban on xenophobic advertising. By xenophobic advertising I mean any kind of advertising that is likely to increase the incidence or intensity of xenophobia among the general population (examples). I especially mean advertising whose intention is to promote xenophobia. 

The political far right has been using xenophobic advertising for decades to woo voters, and time and again political commentators have observed that their strategy was successful. Clearly, that has to stop. But a ban on xenophobic advertising should be more general than that. It should apply to any xenophobic advertising for any purpose, whether political or not. Within the category of political advertising, such a ban would apply to all political parties equally. If the far right wanted to accuse another party of xenophobic advertising and take them to court, they would be free to do so.

The immediate objection, that one hears time and again, is that it is not possible to decide whether a particular piece of advertising is xenophobic. The question is too subjective, so the argument goes, so how can a judge make a decision? The truth is that judges in courts of law are constantly making subjective decisions. I am no expert on this topic, but I do know that very time a judge tries to interpret a legal text when addressing a new case, the final decision has an important subjective element. Judges try to reduce that subjectivity by asking experts for their opinion and by consulting previous similar cases (precedents), but the subjectivity can never be eliminated. In this regard, a ban on xenophobic advertising would be no different from any other law.

When considering a specific piece of advertising and asking whether it is xenophobic or not, the important question is whether it might increase the rate or intensity of xenophobia among the general population. This question can be answered in two ways. One is to ask experts on xenophobia from both academic and practice. Academia includes humanities (history, cultural studies, ethnology) and sciences (psychology, sociology). Practice includes NGOs and governmental organisations. The other way is to ask people who might in the future become victims of that xenophobia. A judge striving for an objective decision would gather information from such sources and also consider precedents by comparing the results of similar court cases. 

A related question is whether those who are financing or promoting the advertisement might benefit from a corresponding increase in xenophobia. In the case of far-right parties, the answer is usually yes: the number of people voting for the far right tends to rise when the public becomes more afraid of foreigners (e.g. following a terrorist attack, or an immigration crisis). In such cases, a court of law may be able to establish a motive for using advertising to increase xenophobia, which in turn might justify a ban that particular advertisement.

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