Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Refugee Language - A Warning From History

Like many others, I'm sure, I have become increasingly disturbed by the kind of language being used with regard to the debate on immigration and the refugees in Calais. At first, I guess, David Cameron's use of the word 'swarm' could perhaps be forgiven as a momentary slip. A bad one, but not a deliberate one. There can be no such excuse for Philip Hammond's description of migrants 'marauding', though - after the complaints about Cameron's use of language, he can only have been absolutely deliberate in the terms he chose to use. Indeed, it seems like, far from apologising, he is standing by it and justifying it.

It's clear that from the Conservative government and from certain sections of the media there has been a very deliberate ramping up of rhetoric. The use of language is not only dehumanising, but it is quite clearly consciously and deliberately so. Of course, we as Liberal Democracts have been doing our best to fly in the face of this oncoming storm, and Tim Farron has done excellent work in taking the lead on both criticising what is going on and visiting the camp in Calais to meet refugees and aid workers for himself. We are trying to highlight the fact that these are actually real human beings in desperate need, not evil insects trying to descend on us and threaten our way of life, but however had we work it is unfortunately not going to be enough on its own.

The Conservatives seem hell bent on demonising refugees to the maximum, along with certain newspapers, and with only 8 MPs our message is never realistically going to command the attention that they can get. That shouldn't stop us, of course, but we do need others to get more involved in that battle (the Labour party for one - they haven't exactly been forceful in their admonishment of the Tories). Only today the front page of one newspaper is covered with a story specifically designed to whip up more trouble, firstly in complaining about the BBC's Songs of Praise daring to film in the Calais camp, and secondly by refering, right there on the front page, to it as a 'lawless migrant ghetto'. I'm sure I don't need to describe how utterly vile I think their behaviour is!

It is worse than that, though. It's not just vile language and vile behaviour, but it seems to be a deliberate furthering of a particular narrative and agenda. I can only speculate about what the motivation is in terms of the forward planning agenda, but those involved really need to heed the warnings from history about where such dehumanisation and scaremongering tactics can ultimately end up taking an apparently 'civilised' country.

Firstly, I would recommend that everyone get themselves a copy of, or watch online or whatever, the documentary series 'The Nazis - A Warning From History'. It is, I believe, imperative to understand what really happened in the inter-war period in Germany, and how those circumstances led to electing such a government, and how civilised people were able to turn a blind eye (or worse) to what was being done around them to fellow human beings. We can only ever avoid repeating the mistakes of history if we learn about it and understand it. What happened then CAN happen again, and we'd be utterly foolish and naive to assume that it somehow can't.

Now I'm not for a moment suggesting that the Conservatives have a specific planned agenda akin to that of the Third Reich (and I'm also well aware of Godwin's Law!), but they do need to be aware of what they are doing in terms of spreading the language of dehumanisation, and what that can lead a population to allow to be done 'in their name'. It has been noted, for example, that the word 'swarm', as used by David Cameron, echoes a phrase in Mein Kampf ("promiscuous swarm of foreigners"). I hope that was accidental, and I'd really like to believe that it was. It should still stand as a stark warning about what is going on at the moment, though.

Certain very popular newspapers have for some years been habitually reporting immigration, and anything that they kind find in terms of negative stories about Muslims in particular, in gratuitously and outrageously emotive language. They have been painting a very definite picture, and pushing a very definite agenda that 'Muslims' and what they refer to as 'Migrants' (because that sounds so much less human than 'Refugee') are a serious danger to our society and way of life. They have been pushing a narrative of 'Great Britain', that glorious bastion of unified and perfect civilised society, being under threat by the 'forced of darkness' coming from elsewhere. There is not truth to it, of course, but that doesn't matter - they are pushing that narrative as hard as they can, and the Tories (some Tories, at least - not all are guilty, and I was heartened to see their Scottish leader congratulating Songs of Praise on their decision to visit Calias) are increasingly not just falling in line behind them, but taking the lead for them.

Times have been hard lately in the UK - we all understand that. They have not, perhaps been quite as hard for most people as the constant barriage of Labour's 'cost of living crisis' narrative might suggest, and certainly they haven't helped to create anything like a balanced or hopeful view of where we currently are. When times are hard, people search for answers at the extremes of politics - that has been true throughout history. People want 'action'. They want 'answers'. they want someone to come forward with a simple and immediate solution to all of their perceived problems, given in emotive terms that promise to 'smash' the 'status quo', and so on. It always happens, and it always will.

Of course, it's not just those on the right who are discovering this eternal truth - the Labour party's current woes in the leadership contest demonstrate that people are increasingly turning further and further to the left, too. Indeed, even within the Liberal area of politics there seems to be something of a trend among some people towards a more radical and emotive 'Libertarian' approach. Everyone just wants the all the problems to be solved, and everyone's looking for a quick and easy solution that appeals to them on an emotional level.

This is nothing new, of course - returning to the German example, it's no accident that the party who eventually gained power there first had to defeat the forces of radical communism, and secondly had to appeal to those of a more socialist mindset in addition to what you could say was their most likely far-right support base (and the party's formal name was no accidental choice).

When times are hard, as they have recently been, everyone wants a saviour, and everyone wants a scapegoat. The more extreme parties try their best to provide that, of course, but the more 'mainstream' parties need to resist the temptation to combat that by simply becoming more and more extreme themselves. Labour are struggling with that at the moment, and it will be interesting to see how that turns out. More worryingly, though, the Tories are really not resisting that temptation to lurch to the extremes very well at all, and they need to do very much better.

I don't think they have really thought through what they are doing, and what the results of it might be. They need to look at history, and realise what happens if a narrative of dehumanisation manages to win the day. On the whole people are, I believe, naturally reasonably tolerant of other people, and reasonably willing help other people in need, but if what they see end up in their mind not really being human beings at all, but dangerous hordes of 'undesirables' threatening their way of life, they can become something else entirely. The history of Germany in the 20th Century proves that beyond any doubt, and it's not the only historical example by any means (look at the history of the British Empire, for example). Civilised and culture people CAN be turned into something else by the rhetoric of dehumanisation - that is something proven by history, and something that we should all make ourselves aware of.

There is an agenda being followed that is telling people that it's OK to resist and hate these 'subversives' and 'not really human beings' and 'those who don't think like us' and 'those who want to destroy our way of life'. There is a narrative being created around a myth of our own 'superiority' and our own 'great civilisation' and our own 'traditional way of life', and the need to preserve these in the face of 'threats' from 'the other'. It is not a new idea, but it is an idea that really should disturb us all. We have seen how it can end up. I don't suggest that the current government have such ultimate effects in mind as they pursue this agenda, but they are opening the door to something that they might not be able to stop, or might even become swept up in furthering ever more as time goes in.

Government ministers have a duty to provide leadership on this kind of issue. To have the people who are supposed to be leading not only of country but its international diplomacy pandering to the language of dehumanisation is beyond just being vile and despicable - it opens up a whole new chapter from anything that has happened in recent UK history. When Enoch Powell delivered his infamous Birmingham speech, he was not a figure with the prominence of the Prime Minister or of the Foreign Secretary, and his speech did not have the impact of the more subtle furthering of the narrative being currently employed. What is happening now is something different and new - not an isolated case of a 'renegade radical', nor an opposition party attacking the government of the day, but a program of dehumanising language coming from the government itself, as well as large sections of the popular press. This is something that people really should be deeply concerned about - we need to step back, open our eyes and see what is happening around us.

There are groups poised to capitalise on the effects of this narrative, of course - Britain First, the EDL, the BNP, and so on - I'll leave you to decide for yourselves which particular groups and/or political parties may have the kind of agenda (hidden or otherwise) that sees them delighting in the current rhetoric. Currently they are mostly a fractured set of splinter groups, and none of them show any realistic prospect of forming a government any time soon, or even being a serious parliamentary force. We need to be aware, though, that that is not a new thing either, and such groups can rise dramatically if the circumstances are right for them. We can never be complacent about their apparent level of support.

The UK now stands on the brink. It is not being caused by a few refugees fleeing war-torn countries, nor by people from other EU countries coming here to find work, nor by any religious group. Our society and way of life is not under threat from 'foreigners' who seek to destroy it at all, but by our own people seeking to blame 'foreigners' for everything they see as being wrong today. We need to be aware of this, and we need to fight against it with every inch of our being. History shows us the dangers, and if we don't listen to the lessons from history we can and will repeat those same mistakes. We need to remember where we know this kind of situation can lead - we need to remember what can happen when we create in people's minds the idea of the 'untermensch'. It really is that serious. I cannot describe the extent to which the idea of repeating the same mistakes in 21st century Britain fills me with dread as a human being.


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