Saturday, 18 June 2016

Rhetoric has consequences, and we cannot stand by and do nothing.

The last few days have been truly horrible in so many ways. It has been one thing after another. The horrific events in Orlando, followed by the tragic murder of one of the UK's elected Members of Parliament, who was going about her normal daily business of serving constituents, as so many MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors and others do on a daily basis. 

I didn't know Jo Cox, but I know several MPs and other elected officials. It could so easily have been any of them. Staff and party activists, too - those who are out talking to people in the street, or knocking doors, or working in MP offices, or assisting or waiting at MP surgeries. I've met and chatted with many, from many parties, many times. It could so easily have been someone I've met. It could so easily have been one of my friends. It could so easily have been me, for that matter. All it might have taken would be to knock on the wrong door, on the wrong day, with the wrong message - that is a risk that all of us who are engaged in political campaigning take every day.

This is where the ever increasing rhetoric of hatred towards 'politicians' and the 'elite', and the 'political class' from the extreme fringes of politics has now brought us. On both sides - let's not pretend that this particular thing is entirely restricted to the right - look at what has been happening recently on the leftmost fringes, too, with the rhetoric being aimed towards the 'political elite' of the 'establishment'. Not just political disagreement, openly and even robustly expressed in a democracy (between human beings who can then go and have a chat/pint together, despite their different political views), but real, demonising hatred towards the whole group, regardless of the individual - that is what our public discourse has increasingly started to become. The language of hate. The language of uprising and revolution. The language of dehumanisation towards any who stand in the path of our ultimate victory, even if that is not what those using it really intend.

It seems that the attacker was mentally ill, but that's the thing with the rhetoric of hate, wherever it is aimed - it influences people who might not be able to see it as mere rhetoric and hyperbole, and not to be acted upon 'in real life'. That is why we always need to be so careful about such things.
A family is now without a wife and mother. Until this moment, though, and the sudden realisation of humanity that it has brought, to so many people she would just have been one of those 'politicians' from that 'elite' 'political class' - those people who are so often so hated.

Think about that.

As Alex Brooker pointed out last night on The Last Leg, we often moderate what we say in front of children, because we know they are vulnerable. In other words, we know they might take what we say as mere rhetoric far more literally than we intend it. We have to consider that there are also vulnerable adults in the world with, for example, mental health problems (and apparently the perpetrator in this tragic case is one such, though we don't know any details of what those were or how they might have effected their judgement) - those who might take what we say very literally, and consider it appropriate to act upon them in a way that we had not intended.

We ALL have a responsibility for this - not just 'politicians' and the media, but all of us who discuss these issues, comment on social media, and so on. The 'keyboard warriors' (and I don't exclude myself from that - I spend a great deal of time doing 'online' things as well as more 'active' things 'in the real world') have to understand that what they are doing is not some isolated little thing that disappears into the ether, not to be taken seriously, and not to be seen by people who might misunderstand or take things too literally.

We need, as a country, to do better by our 'politicians'. We need to remember that they are human beings, even if they are human beings that we disagree with vehemently. That is down to all of us, and includes not only 'keyboard warriors' and the like, but our media, and our politicians themselves - they can't absolve themselves from the responsibility for the type of rhetoric that they have been using against each other. It all has an influence.

Of course, it's not just the 'anti-political' rhetoric that we've seen on the rise recently - it's the more and more radical and angry poison that has been pouring out as we draw near to such an important decision about the future of the United Kingdom. It is the language of hate towards 'the other' that has become increasingly a part of our 'mainstream' political discourse. It's a spiral of rhetoric being whipped up deliberately by certain politicians and media outlets to further their campaign. This very week we have Farage's already infamous 'Breaking Point' poster being proudly unveiled - an almost carbon copy of German Nazi party propaganda images that has now been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. This is the kind of tactic that some of our politicians at the fringes are using to further their aims, but those 'fringes' have somehow now been accepted as 'mainstream' and 'acceptable', and have opened a can of worms that even they are not able to control.

Alex Massie puts it very well in his Spectator blog:

"When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen."

This morning the accused gave his name in court as 'Death to traitors, freedom for Britain'.
Think about that.
This is where our current political discourse has now brought us. Perhaps we are, in a sense, at 'breaking point', or at least at a turning point. A turning point that will decide the future direction of the country, and that is a future that worries me deeply, particularly as someone who has spent some time studying history. As I have said previously, in particular in my 'Refugee Language - A Warning From History' post, if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it. Ask yourself this question:

How did a cultured, civilised nation like Germany elect a group like Hitler's Nazis?

Personally, I cannot answer it better than with the words of Michael Rosen

"I sometimes fear that 
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 
worn by grotesques and monsters 
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 
It will restore your honour, 
make you feel proud, 
protect your house, 
give you a job, 
clean up the neighbourhood, 
remind you of how great you once were, 
clear out the venal and the corrupt, 
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying, 
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

Think about those words. 
Then think about these words, from Hermann Goring:

"...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Really think about them - in the context of where we are in the UK today, and in the context of what some of our politicians are saying and the kind of tactics they are employing, and in the context of the kind of rhetoric that they are using to attract the popular vote from those who feel disenfranchised, worried and fearful about their futures (mostly those who have suffered most from the economic hardships of recent years). "It works the same way in any country." We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow 'different' and 'better' than the German people were in the 1930s. We are not. We can have our emotions manipulated in the same way, and we can start down the same political path as a country. We need to be aware of that.

I have, I confess, spent parts of the last few days thinking 'what's the point?', and I know I'm not the only one. Indeed, I have asked myself whether I have reached a 'breaking point' where I feel I can do no more, as what I believe in gets more and more submerged beneath the apparent tsunami of fear and hatred. All around me I see the UK descending into something that I thought, or hoped, that I'd never see. All around I see a rise in extremism from the political fringes - a return to the mainstream of the kind of opinion and rhetoric that had previously long since disappeared to the very fringes of our politics, where it was derided and laughed at, and treated as an irrelevance. A hateful kind of politics, where fear is something to be positively exploited for votes - be it fear of  'the other', or the fear of the 'elite', or fear of 'disaster', and where the political ends seem to justify any means whatsoever. This is not something that I think has been entirely limited to one side of recent debates, even though the fear being promoted by one side has such particularly dark and and hateful elements and potential connotations. 

There is a point, though. There is always a point, and it probably best explained in simple terms by this quote from John Stuart Mill:

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
It is very important that even this should be qualified in the current context, I think. It isn't about 'bad men' - humanity is not so simple that there are 'good people' and 'bad people'. It is about bad things happening to the world if we stand by and let them happen without trying to intervene. It's about human beings who may be misguided, or who may be wrong, but who are not 'inhuman' or 'subhuman', and who don't deserve to be treated as such, no matter how wrong or dangerous we believe their ideas might be. It is all too easy to respond to hate with hate, and we have to avoid doing that. We now know the possible consequences all too well.
Even if we ultimately fail in our endeavours, we cannot just stand by and do nothing. We cannot, so to speak, fiddle away while Rome burns (I'll leave out the questions of historical accuracy of that specific 'event' - you know what I mean, I'm sure). We must stand up to hate, and we must stand up to the promotion of fear as a political device, and we must at every opportunity point out what is wrong with what they are doing and saying, but we must do so in the full realisation that those we oppose are also human beings who must be treated as such - to do otherwise would be to give in to the very thing that we are trying to defeat. We must stand up to lies with truth, and we must stand up to emotive and reactionary rhetoric with a calm presentation of evidence. We must continue do so, even if nobody listens or finds our message emotionally attractive, and even if we always feel like we are swimming against the tide. 
As Diane Grant put it, "It's better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction." I do feel like the UK is currently going in a very, very wrong direction politically at the moment via the politics of fear and hate, and I will continue to stand, as calmly and rationally as I can, against that, even if I am doing so alone, and even if nobody is listening, and even if I am doing so ultimately in vain. I know that I'm not quite alone even if it feels like the opposition are much stronger at the moment, and I hope that ultimately it will not be in vain - only time will tell, though.

I can do no better than to finish with a few words from Brendan cox, the husband of the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox, in his moving tribute to his wife and mother of his children:
"...that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous."

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