Living Better: Vivek Venkatesh

How to untangle hate and get beyond polarizing conversations

Vivek Venkatesh is the UNESCO co-chair in the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism, and an associate professor, at Concordia University and he spoke at The Walrus Talks Living Better on Oct. 29, 2019.

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks Living Better on YouTube

Good evening. My name’s Vivek Venkatesh. To be quite honest I feel like a fraud speaking to you today about how my work might help us to live better. That’s because my research, my art, my creative writing, they’re all inspired by my hate. So living better through hate, that doesn’t really have a great ring to it. This being said, I do work on how to untangle hate, how to get beyond polarizing conversations and the constant othering that can fuel this hate. My teaching, my films, my performances are about creating spaces where we can engage in discussions about the issues at stake without these conversations degenerating into a series of personal attacks. I play in two bands, Landscape of Hate and Landscape of Hope, both of which provoke titillate, and challenge audiences to confront their conceptions of hate and all of this work is wrapped in a frame of social pedagogy.

This is a way of constantly reflecting and articulating your position in relation to other perspectives, including where you so profoundly disagree with the other. Imagine being so agile that you stop othering those with whom you disagree. In social pedagogy, not only should you not turn a deaf ear to those whose opinions are different from your own, you must seek to understand the rationale for such divergences in opinion, including where you feel a deep seated anger, resentment, and yes even hatred. So what can social pedagogy look like? Like this. Plural, this is a mobile app that we’ve designed and we’re using in workshops currently with youth from marginalized communities. So workshop participants, our youth collaborators use Plural to share multimedia stories that describe their experiences with discrimination, with how they cope with being marginalized. Unlike other social media platforms, Plural does away with the three features that define social media: liking, commenting, sharing.

Each story stands on its own, not reliant on the knee jerk reactions that are dominant in social media. This is social pedagogy in action. Learning to listen to multiple points of view and respecting the stories of those who are most often excluded. Youth who have used Plural with us, both in Norway and in Canada, have spoken to us about how they’re constantly searching for that search button, that share button, that like, where can I comment and they’re being forced to take a step back and think and reflect. It’s surprisingly much more helpful than succumbing to an oft vacuous and indignant outrage. I’m very proud of our work that shines a light on the insidious effects of hate. So why do I still feel like a fraud? In a way my work has also been driven by my own experience of being hateful and it’s taken me the better part of my adult life to come to terms with hate as a transformative emotion because I believe I’ve found my humanism by learning to hate.

So let me just take you back a little bit. The date I learned to hate June 23, 1985. On that day, my cousin Sukumar Chandrashekhar was on his way home to us in India from Canada. He just completed his MBA at the University of Saskatchewan. He died on the ill-fated Kanishka, India flight 182 that was blown apart by terrorists acting in the name of Sikh separatism. I was a precocious nine years of age and I was waiting at the airport for him and I doted on Sukumar. He was everything I wanted to be. Handsome, smart, gentle, loving. I hope I can be those four. He’d coax me out of my boyhood shyness and introduced me to the joys of reading fiction and I went through successive and iterative phases of sorrow and helplessness and loss and despair, but most of all I remember feeling really empty and I remember filling that emptiness with hate.

You see, I had a cognitive dissonance of sorts. A few months before these Sikh terrorists snatched Sukumar from me, I’d lived the horrors of the New Delhi riots following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards. My family harbored innocent Sikh families who were fleeing these rabid rioters. When Sukumar died, all I could think about was how ironic it was that the terrorists could not extend the same humanism to him that my family had extended to their brethren. My family taught me that the actions of a fanatical few don’t represent the whole, and that resilience to hate comes from accepting the other within ourselves. So today, 34 years after Sukumar’s murder, I realized that my hate has guided me to living better. I’ve committed my work to developing practical tools that give voice to those who suffer from being othered. That’s our brand of social pedagogy.

Social pedagogy is about drawing you out of your echo chambers and we all have them. These spaces that are inhabited by only those who share our opinions. This doesn’t mean that I propose that somehow we must be in constant conflict with one another, especially with those whose views are very different from our own. Social pedagogies instead, the means by which you can listen to multiple perspectives and spend time reflecting on the differences between the us and the them. This is important to understand for not only those of us who have to cope with the effects of discrimination, but also for those who dish out the hate.

Take for example, a key reflection of participants in a recent project where our team interviewed former right wing extremists. Amongst other things, we wanted to know how these extremists joined their fringe movements. What motivated them to stay? All of these participants recounted how when they were young they’d been exposed to hateful rhetoric about the other and they all regretted not having the familial and communal structures that might’ve helped them to see the error of their ways. To think of where I might have gone should I have given into my hate. Hearing divergent opinions, peeking over to inspect the other side of the fence, going beyond your comfort zone to hear another viewpoint.

This is social pedagogy. I think often of Sukumar and the 328 others who perished on the Kanishka and yes, sometimes I still hate those who killed him, but I’ve learned to listen beyond the cacophony of indignance and to not fall into the trap of arriving at a consensus through a dilution of viewpoints. Instead, I’ve learned to take a step back, to listen, and to not give in to the vapidity of mere outrage. So I’m not a fraud. Understanding hate does make for living better. June 23, 1985 I discovered my humanism within my hate. Thank you.

Vivek Venkatesh