The importance of asking "why?"

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes I get really intensely fascinated by a particular topic and start devouring information about it. My most recent such obsession has been around how susceptible big groups of people are to tyranny and media influences. I have been reading about the Balkans in 1991 and Rwanda in 1994. The first thing that struck me was how recently these events occurred. The second was how much peer-to-peer suffering was inflicted by citizens who had co-existed in relative peace with one another. These horrors were not just the result of an oppressive government turning on the entire population. Former neighbours turned on one another and entire villages and towns were wiped out overnight. If you are interested in how such tyranny can arise I would suggest watching this excellent BBC documentary called 5 Steps to Tyranny.

The story in Rwanda fascinated me for 2 reasons at the time. Firstly I remember it happening as a 10 year old but not understanding why it could happen and why no one adults around me were stopping it from occurring. Secondly I have family roots in the area surrounding Rwanda. My father is from Uganda and my maternal grandmother is from Burundi. My mother in law is from Tanzania too. I had seen Rwanda on a map many times and knew exactly where it was.

I have spent the last two years helping media outlets in SE Asia monetise their digital content and during that time I have developed a real interest in how journalistic content becomes the commentary of the society. Internet was not prevalent in Rwanda in 1994 but radio was and it was monopolised quickly by some Hutu powerbrokers. "Sometimes in April" is an excellent movie by Raoul Peck about the events of 1995 (see trailer above) - one of the central themes of the movie is how mass media was used to spread propaganda.
I found it incredible how one radio station that started out playing pop songs so quickly became a vector for distributing hate and syndicating violence against Tutsis and even against moderate Hutus. There was no tweeting or blogging to counteract the 1-way stream of hate that was being poured out from the radio and led to 1m people being killed inside a few months.

As a final thought, I think it is important to question everything around us and constantly check that it makes sense. This could from something as trivial as a group project at work through to something as major as genocide and widespread violence. I do not believe anyone should ever lose the right to ask "why?" before agreeing to co-operate, obey and join a movement. The 5 Steps to Tyranny below show how quickly things can change when ordinary people stop asking "why?"

5 steps to manipulating large groups into doing horrific things:

1. ‘Us’ and ‘them’: use prejudice to foster the (fictional) notion of the existence of superior and dominant in-groups and inferior and powerless out-groups.
2. Obey orders: insist that all people under your wing are to obey your orders.
3. Dehumanize the enemy: emphasize on making inimical factions look less than human.
4. ‘Stand up’ or ’stand by’: suppress dissenting or opposing opinions to your own.
5. Suppress Individuality: foster the development of group identities while suppressing the individual.