Oppositional Identities and Offensive Speech

In this excerpt from a larger work, philosopher Trudy Govier examines whether if may be possible to overcome divisions by rejecting the labeling of others. She looks both at the main philosophical issues raised by treating others as a member of a category rather than a complete person, and at the coercive aspects of the post-genocide Rwandan government’s promotion of reconciliation. The larger article that looks at various more positive approaches for ending divisions can be found through a link at the bottom of the page.  


What are the solutions to the bitter and vicious conflicts founded on us/them thinking?   The answers are to be sought and found not in theory alone, for what will be promising will depend on circumstances of power, leadership, resources, and needs. Two responses are undesirable, given the assumption that one’s goal is to end or at least limit violent conflict. These are overcoming a division between two groups by constructing a situation in which they have a common enemy, and achieving a military victory over one group and repressing it so as to eliminate any expression of its ideology and history. About these approaches nothing will be said here.

One might seek to eliminate any discourse within which the problematic categories appeared.  This elimination of divisive ethnic categories is currently being attempted in Rwanda, where ‘divisionism’ is illegal and it counts as divisionist to speak of Rwandans as either Tutsi or Hutu. If we did not speak of Hutus and Tutsis, there would be no group ‘Hutu’ and no group ‘Tutsi.’ There would nevertheless be many individuals living in a part of Africa with the present geographic boundaries of the country we call ‘Rwanda.’ But people would not use these group categories in describing or identifying themselves, and thus, in a highly important political sense, there would be no Hutus and no Tutsis but only individuals.  The notion that social groups do not ‘really’ exist may be taken to mean that blacks, whites, Aboriginals, Hutus, Tutsis and the Chinese are not logically comparable to mountains and trees. The point seems to be the following: if we did not speak of material entities as ‘mountains’ and ‘trees’, they would exist notwithstanding. If we did not refer to Hutus, Tutsis, blacks, whites, and Aboriginals, many individual people would exist, notwithstanding. But these ethnically or racially defined social groups would not.[i]

One argument is that labeling is harmful because you diminish a person by seeing him or her only as representative of a certain category of people, rather than as a complete person. Labels blur over features of individuality and in so doing may separate people who are really compatible or lead to wrong decisions about individuals. Anthony Appiah said that concepts like ‘race’, ‘tribe,’ and ‘nation’ are illusory. But he offered no alternative to racial identification in the context of programs that might be needed to overcome oppression based on what people had regarded as racial categories. When we describe an individual, x, in terms of a category, C, the category has social meaning and carries with it assumptions that may create barriers for x. One might allege that labeling is incompatible with basic human respect which, on this account, involves recognizing that each individual is distinct from each other individual.  If we label x as ‘a C,’ we will interact with x as though he is a C and just a C, as though he is not an individual but is, rather, some kind of prototype of C-ness. 

On such an account, labeling is descriptively inaccurate and morally wrong. When a label attaches to a category of people who have been lower in a socio-economic hierarchy, disadvantaged individuals are labeled so as to signify their lower status in that hierarchy.  These people (‘blacks,’ ‘Aboriginals,’ and under Belgian colonialism, ‘Hutus’) then easily identify with each other, because they are treated in similar ways in the society in which they live. And as a result of social practice, they do come to share at least one attribute:  they are labeled in the same way. The social group is constructed by persons who employ the same categorical term to many different individuals. Their uses of the term to label individuals are real, and it is those uses that create the social group in question. Although groups are not real in the sense that they could exist as entities independently of social practices, they are real, given those practices. And that reality makes sense of the notion that their members can identify themselves as such and work against their own oppression.

When the social environment changes, there will no longer be any need or justification for its members to identify themselves as members of the same group. At that point, blacks will no longer be blacks, Aboriginals will no longer be Aboriginals, and so on. (One is tempted to recall here the withering away of the state at the Marxist end of history.)  People will no longer need to label each other or to make assumptions about each other’s lives based on labels.  Instead, they will be able to take philosophical non-essentialism literally in practical contexts, and base their judgments about each other on the experience, beliefs, needs, and interests of individuals as such.[ii]

Although there is much to admire in its moral presuppositions and concerns, this account cannot withstand scrutiny. The approach may be criticized as unworkable: it is a practical impossibility to acquire enough relevant knowledge about every individual person so as to interact with that person solely on the basis of his or her individual qualities. In its stress on knowing and responding to the person as a unique individual, and maintaining respect for persons in this strong sense, the account rules out far too much. The problem is that any descriptive predicate can be used to ‘construct’ a category, and through that category, a social group:  think of women, men, tall people, old people, young people, people living in rural Alberta, people living in suburbs, and so on. All people are describable by some descriptive predicates and as such potentially ‘categorized.’ Are we objectionably ‘labeling’ a person, and thereby committing moral and epistemic wrongs, if we say of him that he is a young man who lives in rural Alberta. If speaking in this way is going to count as wrong, morally and epistemically, then we will not be able to describe individuals by general predicates without committing wrongs. This implication is absurd and would restrict science and ordinary speech as well as social philosophy.   


Another tempting, though deeply flawed approach to oppositional identities is that of seeking to ban, not categorization as such, but those specific oppositional categories underlying a bitter conflict. A current example is the outlawing of ‘divisionism’ by the Kagame government in Rwanda. In media, education, and political discourse there are to be no more ethnic divisions, or regional divisions. After long years of conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, followed by the appalling genocide of 1994, a concerned observer could certainly understand why those governing a post-genocide state would wish to abolish ethnic categories. The categories Hutu/Tutsi are a paradigm of perniciously oppositional categories, one that supported a genocidal ideology rationalizing over 800,000 brutal killings.[iii] In the aftermath of that genocide, the Kagame government propagates an image of national unity and shared politics. Post-genocide Rwanda expresses norms of shared power, commitment to the rule of law, and as much freedom of expression as possible.  Rwanda’s Ambassador to the U.N. articulated these commitments, adding the comment that you cannot build a new country with old bricks (presumably old ethnic categories); you need new ones.[iv]

The idea of non-ethnicity in Rwanda is ‘We are all Banyarwanda’ (people of Rwanda). In post-genocide Rwanda, one is not allowed to mention ethnic identities, question the ethos of forgiveness and reconciliation, or point out that in its defeat of the genocidal Hutu interhamwe, the Tutsi RPF force killed some 25,000 – 45,000 people including many civilians. Community courts, the gacaca, function only to consider the anti-Tutsi genocide of 1994 and do not deal with allegations of violations by RPF or government forces. There is a law against ethnicism; authorized discourse does not allow ethnicity to exist.[v] A Tutsi member of Parliament, interviewed by journalist Constance Morrill, told her firmly, “We don’t have ethnic identities here.”  Who was slaughtered?  They were people “considered to be the Tutsi.” 

The Rwandan government aims to erase ethnicity, but still sometimes needs to appeal to ethnicity when seeking to establish its legitimacy and even when specifying its political goals. Interestingly, the underlying narrative about the genocide, from which the Kagame government gained its legitimacy and very considerable international support, is deeply dichotomous.  The very government seeking to legislate the end of ethnicity has depended on a dichotomous narrative within which ethnic identity plays a crucial role, to establish its own legitimacy. The foundational dichotomy in this narrative is between innocent Tutsi victims and guilty Hutu perpetrators.  This binary split is greatly over-simplified and omits to consider a number of highly relevant facts. There were some Tutsi perpetrators and the RPF, under Kagame, played a role in constructing the situation in which the 1994 genocide occurred.[vi] There were many Hutu victims; these were opponents of genocidal action attacked and killed for their opposition. There were also Hutu heroes, who sought to save Tutsis from the slaughter. There were Rwandans (the Twa) who were neither Tutsi nor Hutu, as well as many who (from inter-marriage) were both Hutu and Tutsi. These people were often compelled in the vicious struggle to identify as one ethnicity or the other. Commentators have mentioned an unwillingness in many quarters to criticize the Kagame government by acknowledging flaws that would disturb the founding dichotomous narrative and complicate the role of the innocent victim, supposed to be beyond criticism due to his terrible suffering. 

The categories ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ were constructed over more than a century of history, with horrifying results. The idea behind anti-‘divisionism’ legislation is that if one can construct identities and learn that differences and different identities exist, then, by parallel reasoning, one can deconstruct those identities and learn that they do not exist. Article 13 of the Rwandan constitution deals with “revisionism, denial, and trivialization” of the genocide, all of which are legally punishable offences.  Article 33 makes the propagation of ethnic, regional, and racial discrimination or any other form of divisionism punishable by law. According to a 2002 criminal law, divisionism is

The use of speech, written statement, or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflict among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people based on discrimination. (Rwanda 2002a Article 1)[vii]


Any person who makes public any speech, writing, pictures or images or any symbols over radio airwaves, television, in a meeting room or public place, with the aim of discriminating <against> people or sowing sectarianism <divisionism> is sentenced to between one year and five years of imprisonment and fined between 500,000 and two million Rwandan francs <U.S. $1000 to U.S.$ 4000>, or only one of these two sanctions.[viii]

Thus the very idea of ethnicity is to be dissolved. History is not taught in schools, because without the Hutu/Tutsi categories, based on constructed differences, Rwanda’s twentieth century history would have been impossible. In education camps for returning Rwandans, people are taught about the myths of difference, oppressors, oppressed, and ethnicity.[ix]  Clearly, vast amounts of censorship and self-censorship are required to not speak of any Hutu/Tutsi divisions in Rwanda.

The Kagame government of Rwanda has received praise in some quarters and clearly it has functioned in an extraordinarily difficult situation. But even some who admire what the Kagame government has accomplished in post-genocide Rwanda admit that Rwanda is far from an open society.[x] The ban on divisionism restricts discussion and debate in areas that have been crucially important in people’s personal and political lives. One obvious difficulty here lies in the fact that the government’s ‘national unity’ approach is incompatible with individual memories of events.[xi] People will think of what they have experienced as Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa; if they cannot speak of past events using these categories, they will not be able to express their thoughts and feelings. To ban reference to such key aspects of history and politics is, in effect, to render impossible discourse about key events of the twentieth century, affecting millions of individuals. The restrictions are enormous in their impact and accordingly require considerable surveillance, interference, and repression. The restrictions on expression are formulated in laws that are vague and open to abuse. Critics of the Kagame government run a high risk of being accused of divisionism, genocidal ideology, or inciting tribal hatred.

In an essay on censorship and propaganda in post-genocide Rwanda, Lars Waldorf chronicles a number of abuses, including harassment of independent journalists, political opponents, western commentators, and some humanitarian groups. Groups harassed include the BBC, the Voice of America, Reporters without Borders, and Care International. Waldorf concludes his discussion by saying that post-genocide Rwanda shows just how easy it is to abuse hate legislation in post-conflict societies.[xii] There is ample evidence that Rwandan laws against ‘divisionism’ are restricting political discourse, are vague and open to abuse, and have been exploited to limit political opposition.

The notion that one can abolish perniciously oppositional ethnic categories by legislation is clearly implausible in practical terms. While the Rwandan case is profoundly important and of great practical importance, we would not actually have to consider its empirical details to reach the conclusion that legally abolishing us/them categories will be an ineffective approach to overcoming deep conflict based on oppositional social identities. That point can be established on the basis of general considerations. Stipulate that in a given society people identify themselves either as As or as Bs, and that the As and the Bs have engaged in a vicious and destructive conflict.  Let us further stipulate that during this conflict and throughout their lives, individuals in that society have had experiences as As or as Bs.  Sometimes, as As and Bs, they have been in conflict; many have been subjected to discrimination and violent mistreatment on the basis that they were As or Bs. Let us now suppose that there is some kind of peace settlement between the As and Bs, the violent phases of the conflict have been brought to an end, and people are in an aftermath situation. The members of these groups wish to construct a peaceful society, bringing to an end the animosity between As and Bs.  Let us now suppose that some among them are writing a constitution for the new society. They wish to end social divisions and begin to think of themselves as citizens rather than as members of ethnic groups pitted against each other. What to do?

Can state authorities reasonably hope to legislate the A/B categories out of existence? Clearly the answer here is negative.  People will continue to think of themselves in terms of the ways in which they have been identified and have lived; they will recall and reflect on their past using the categories that did so much to shape it. As human beings, their meaningful lives are extended over time.  To make it illegal to talk so as to express their feelings and thoughts will render honest discourse impossible. It will require repression and intervention and be open to abuse. The results are bound to be counter-productive so far as building a new society is concerned.  It is reasonable and desirable to educate in terms of unity, inclusiveness, tolerance, and reconciliation. But given that human beings think and lead their lives using categories that emerge from their past experiences, it is not possible to eliminate discourse involving those categories by resorting to the coercive power of the law. Nor is it desirable to try. The goal of ending animosity is commendable but should be pursued by non-coercive means.

[i] These are my own

[ii]  Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House (Oxford:  Oxford University Press 1992); Langston Hughes, Something in Common and Other Stories (New York:  Hill and Wang 1963); and Erving Goffman, Stigma (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall 1963).

[iii] For an authoritative account of their construction, the locus classicus is Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers:  Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press 1998).  I summarize and comment on his arguments in Taking Wrongs Seriously:  Acknowledgment, Reconciliation, and the Pursuit of Sustainable Peace. (Amherst NY:  Humanity Books (Prometheus) 2006.)  Appendix Six.

[iv] Joseph Nsengimana, Rwandan Ambassador to the United Nations, Statement to the U.N. General Assembly, March 19, 2009.

[v] Constance Morrill, “Show Business and ‘Lawfare’ in Rwanda:  Twelve Years After the Genocide,” Dissent, Summer 2006.

[vi] The victim/perpetrator dichotomy is discussed in Govier, Taking Wrongs Seriously. Allegations that Kagame was responsible for the shooting down of a plane on April 6, 1994, resulting in the deaths of the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi, were made by a French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere in a report issued on November 17, 2006.  These are described in Robin Philpot, “Nobody can call it a ‘plane crash’ now,” Counterpunch, March 12/14, 2004. Kagame has denied all involvement.  It remains a mystery who was responsible for shooting down of the plane, which immediately preceded the beginning of the genocide.

[vii] Cited in Lars Waldorf, “Censorship and Propaganda in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” International Development Research Centre (Canada), Document 14. Accessed May 20, 2009 at http://www.idrc.ca/rwandagenocide/ev-108305-201_I-DO-TOPIC.html.

[viii] Cited in Waldorf, Op.Cit.

[ix] Rene Lemarchand, “The Politics of Memory in Post-Genocide Rwanda,”  University of
Florida. Accessed online, May 2009. See also Chi Mgbako, “Inganda Solidarity Camps:  Reconciliation and Political Indoctrination in Post-Genocide Rwanda.”  Harvard Human Rights Journal 18 (Spring 2005).

[x] Philip Gourevitch, A Reporter at Large, “The Life After,” New Yorker, May 4, 2009, page 37.

[xi] Mgako, Op.cit.

[xii] Waldorf, Op.Cit.


To read Trudy Govier’s complete article. “Opposed Identities: Exploring Some Alternatives”, click here.


Professor Govier has also graciously permitted Inspire Solutions to post another one of her thought-provoking articles, entitled “Invitational Forgiveness as a Peace Initiative: The Case of Suicide Bombing”; click here.


Trudy Govier is a Professor Emeriti from the Philosophy Department at the University of Lethbridge and is the author of a numerous books, including Forgiveness and Revenge (2002) and Taking Wrongs Seriously (2006). Her 2002 book, A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about Terrorism, is an ideal book to encourage college students to reflect on vulnerability, evil, revenge, power, justice, courage and hope, among others. 







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