Extreme hate has a neurological impact on human beings. Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist and founding director of the Sweden-based organisation ViolEND, recently told me about her ongoing research into “cult-hopping” among Islamists and neo-Nazis. Violent extremists frequently switched between groups, she said, “to satisfy the perpetual urge of violence.” She compared this urge to an addiction. “Neuroscience research has demonstrated that extremists prefer this dopamine-driven high from violence over other types of high from addictive substances like cocaine and alcohol. In the brain, this drive of violence addiction overlaps with the same neuronal pathways as the brain of an addict.” Citing data from US prisons that showed higher rates of recidivism among those who commit violent crimes, Shaikh said that, unless this addiction is “treated correctly through evidence-based measures, even the fear of prison will not deter people.” As India, with its young demographic, drowns in hate and violence, this is sobering news.
News itself has contributed to this dire situation, with the intense media focus on Islamophobic talking points, such as the consumption of beef and “love jihad,” or on Hindutva claims around the Gyanvapi Mosque and the Shahi Idgah, and numerous other copycat petitions. As a number of surveys have confirmed over the years, Indians have held on to old social identities, defined by caste and religious lines. This sense of separate identities has successfully been turned into hate for the Other. As Shaikh’s research shows, hate and violence take decades to overcome—and that, too, only if there are robust rebuttals. In India, such rebuttals must swim in the same infosphere that is flooding our public discourse with hate.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal, which forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, the only US president to ever have done so. The media played an important role in his exit. Today, commentators lament that there is little chance of the news environment in the United States enforcing similar accountability on a sitting president. The decline started with Fox News, which rushed to cover up the misdemeanours of right-wing politicians. Over time, the rise of Fox and its imitators has changed the common sense of that country.