Crossing the line: When emotion is pushed to the extreme

“In truth, all Tutsis will perish. They will vanish from this countryUntitled … They are disappearing little by little thanks to the weapons hitting them, but also because they are being killed like rats.”

RTLM broadcast

To deny this quote is emotionally charged seems somewhat impossible.

We are often left dumbfounded as to how some of the greatest crimes to humanity ever seem to occur. For me, the Rwandan Genocide was no exception. With a death toll close to 1 million lives, and branded as one of the most efficient genocides in human history, this ‘tidal wave’ of political and ethnic killings surely must have stemmed from something deeper than just an impassive act of random mass violence.

It has been my quest therefore to delve into what lies central to human existence: emotion. In particular, with radio as a medium of study, links have been recognised between language, action and emotion itself.


Radio in Africa is far-reaching and easily accessible. In comparison to newspapers or TV, the medium still today stands as one of the most effective means of mass communication both locally and across the continent… a trend that showed to be no different back in 1994. RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) ran during the period of the Rwandan Genocide, and has been the subject of study in regard to its extreme pervasive nature and supposed contribution to the severity of the genocide. Owned and controlled by Hutu hardliners, and abounding in rich verbal expression, the station became a tool of aggression against the Tutsi population- encouraging extermination, inspiring hatred, dehumanizing others, provoking mass violence and creating tensions within the already volatile Rwandan landscape (demonstrated in the above quote). It became a domain for extremists to voice their concerns and motives, and to persuade others of their same cultural group to adopt a similar mentality.

In doing research regarding RTLM, hate and the genocide, I found that ‘hate’ seemed to be the most prevalent when correlating emotion and the station’s existence. Whether it concerned the station as expressing the ‘sound of hate’, categorising the vocal expressions as ‘hate speech’ or the medium as ‘hate radio’, or whether the violent actions themselves were considered ‘acts of hate’; it begged me to question whether a richer emotional landscape made RTLM (and the genocide itself) so effective in its execution. Was it only hate that fuelled announcers to expose individual names of those to be killed? Was it only hate that further destabilized an already volatile political situation? Was it only hate that intended the broadcasts followed a certain systematic and planned order?

A look into Rwanda’s convoluted past suggests not.

The imposition of colonial power on Rwanda’s once harmonious co-existing cultural groups (the Hutus and Tutsis) showed to have damaging effects on the country’s political and social landscape. Splitting society down the middle with the racial identification of groups, and discrimination based on racism, the permanent imbalance of political power and social order now remained a dark cloud hanging over the country. With the advent of independence, the remainder of the 20th century became entrenched in violent attacks fuelled by revenge and resentment, with both groups harnessing rival yet plausible claims to their ‘own’ state control.

True to emotion theories by Peter Stearns (1985) and William M. Reddy (2001), sentiments such as anger, jealousy, revenge, suspicion, loyalty, fear and insecurity show to have developed deep, context specific roots within the social and political circumstances of Rwanda during the 20th century. With both these scholars exploring emotion within the collective, a certain acceptance and expression of emotion has the ability to become relative to a particular group, and in essence, become normality. With a recent history evidently entrenched in conflict, that many outside the borders of Rwanda, or even Africa, could not fathom, a possible logic emerged regarding the emotional expression that was ‘… expected, encouraged, tolerated and deplored…’ by RTLM during the genocide. It could be argued that RTLM, as an institution, somewhat played on this historical context, governing the mobilization and severity of a select few emotions deemed ‘relevant’ to the genocide.

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”

― Alan Wilson Watts

Pushing emotion to the extreme, the culmination of this internal sentiment, decades of racial and ethnic conflict, and a somewhat constant game of revenge created perfect conditions for the genocide that eventuated. Now established, RTLM was more than the words it preached, or the actions it encouraged… its effectiveness was largely about the emotions it stirred. However, it still perplexes me that these alternate emotions fail to hold as much agency when correlating the genocide and RTLM in a scholarly context.

Whilst the richness of Rwanda’s emotional landscape during the period of the genocide is quite evident, the key focus medium in RTLM provides significant uncertainties on the identification of emotion within this chosen context. It was discovered that radio alone could not be studied in isolation, due to: limitations of detecting emotion in vocal expression, the subjectiveness of emotion to the listener, and strong correlations between ‘hate speech’ and identifying the station as ‘hate radio’- a singular emotion-focused label that has somewhat created boundaries when interpreting correlations between RTLM and emotion. Nevertheless engaging with Rwanda’s historical discourse, and the linkages to emotion in which RTLM provided, one could begin to understand the logic behind why some of the greatest crimes to humanity ever occur, and how an intent to kill, especially with the Rwandan Genocide, can hold so much traction.

It is astonishing to comprehend the lengths human beings go to when emotion is involved.

Further suggested reading:

  • Benesch, S. “Inciting Genocide, Pleading Free Speech.” World Policy Journal 21, no. 2 (2004): pp. 62-69
  • **Gordon, G. S. “A War of Media, Words, Newspapers, and Radio Stations: The ICTR Media Trial Verdict and a New Chapter in the International Law of Hate Speech.” Journal of International Law 45 (2004): pp. 139-197
  • Mann, M. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Reddy, W. M. The Navigation of Feeling. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001
  • Scherer, K. R. “Vocal communication of emotion: A review of research paradigms.” Speech Communication 40 (2003): pp. 227–256
  • Stearns, P. N. “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotional Standards.” The American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (1985): pp. 813-836
  • ‘Straus, S. “What Is the Relationship between Hate Radio and Violence? Rethinking Rwanda’s ”Radio Machete.” Politics Society 35 (2007): pp. 609-637


**This article outlines the legal case that backs the emergence of ‘hate radio’ as intrinsically linked to RTLM. I found it such an interesting element to the emotion debate; a case I suggest reading up on!


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