Fears of violence as war of words boils over

Inflammatory: Are Boris Johnson (left) and Jo Swinson (right) guilty of endangering MPs?

Does Britain have a national emergency of acrimonious language on its hands? The Speaker of the House of Commons thinks so. He has summoned party leaders today to blunt their furious barbs.

This time last year, a gunman targeted an African-American church in Kentucky in a hate crime; another gunman, shouting anti-Semitic insults, killed 11 people at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, and a third man mailed 14 pipe bombs to Democratic ex-presidents, members of Congress and other critics of Donald Trump.

After this spate of violence, many Americans wondered whether Trump’s hostile political rhetoric — attacking “globalists”, minorities, the media and Democratic “mobs”— contributed to the attacks. Democrats accused him of direct incitement.

Today, there are fears of something similar happening in Britain.

Last week, Boris Johnson inflamed the House of Commons by dubbing the Benn Act, which is supposed to force him to delay Brexit, the “Surrender Act” — rather as if Brexit were a re-run of World War Two.

When the MP Paula Sherriff referred to her colleague Jo Cox, murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2016, as she pleaded with the Prime Minister to refrain from using words such as “surrender”, he abruptly dismissed her concerns as “humbug”.

Yesterday, it emerged that West Yorkshire Police are investigating three serious threats against Sherriff in the wake of this exchange.

“People are parroting his words in the emails we are getting,” she says.

“You voted for the Surrender Act, they say. People are so angry — and the fact that we have a Prime Minister who is deliberately stoking up this toxic atmosphere is beyond irresponsible.”

On the Remain side, the leader of the Liberal Democrats had just spent three days of her party political conference using the slogan: “Bollocks to Brexit”. Words such as “charlatan”, “liar”, “hard-right”, “fascist”, “Nazi” and “thug” are regularly used to describe Johnson.

Anyone witnessing the debate in Parliament last Tuesday, when MPs were recalled after the suspension, could not fail to be struck by the vitriol and anger of the debate.

John Bercow, who as Speaker is in charge of behaviour in Parliament, is so worried that he has demanded an emergency meeting of party leaders later today.

A number of MPs, including former Tory minister Amber Rudd, have accused Johnson of legitimising violence against opponents.

Meanwhile, his key adviser said the term “surrender” would be used repeatedly throughout any election campaign. Dominic Cummings told a meeting on Friday he planned to “ram it down their throats”.

Does Britain have a national emergency of acrimonious language on its hands?

The dark side

“What nonsense!” say some. One of the glories of British democracy is robust vocabulary. The country that gave us “blood, toil, tears and sweat” — that gave us “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” (Winston Churchill) — cannot possibly now ban the military metaphor and censor the use of the word “surrender”, or the fine 18th century insult, “humbug”.

But there is a massive difference between passionate debate and the cynical use of focus-group-tested phrases to whip up anger and division, say others. The poison and intolerance that has infected our national political debate has to be cut out. If we cannot find a way to restore some respect and responsibility to our politics, the implications will be serious — not just for those in and around Westminster — but for all of us. Look at what has happened in the USA.

You Decide

  1. If all debates were really polite, would they be real debates?
  2. Are good manners sometimes the most vicious weapon of all?

Activities

  1. Watch both videos in the Become an Expert section. Now, write a short speech to be read out to MPs (including Boris Johnson) in Parliament tomorrow, telling them what you think of them.
  2. Research the history of parliamentary insults. (There is a rich history online). Make a list of your favourite five insults, and who said them, about whom and on what date. Share them with the class.

Some People Say...

“These are days of hurt, transformation and anger.”

Andrew Marr, BBC TV presenter, speaking yesterday

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Research shows that vilification (saying or writing unpleasant things about someone so that others have bad view of them) generally makes it easier to harm people without damaging one’s good self-image. Psychologists call process “moral disengagement”. Vilifying rhetoric has contributed to mass violence and even genocide when weaponised against minority groups, as in Nazi Germany, and in Rwanda and the Balkans during the 1990s.
What do we not know?
Whether words really lead to actions. Cause and effect are hard to establish conclusively, especially in individual cases. But researchers have good circumstantial evidence from the real world, as well as evidence from scientific experiments, concluding overall that rhetoric is probably not the main cause in most attacks — but violent, hateful language can inflame people who are already inclined towards violence.

Word Watch

Anti-Semitic
Hostile to or prejudiced against Jews.
Pipe bombs
An improvised explosive device, which uses a tightly sealed section of pipe filled with an explosive material.
Benn Act
The anti-no-deal legislation that compels the Prime Minister to seek a three-month extension to Article 50 if he cannot get a Brexit deal agreed by the end of the European Council on 19 October.
Humbug
Dishonest talk, writing or behaviour.
Charlatan
Someone who pretends to have skills that they do not.
Vitriol
Violent hate or anger expressed through harsh criticism.
Dominic Cummings
From 2007 to 2014, he was a special adviser to the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove. From 2015 to 2016, he was the campaign director of Vote Leave. In July, Boris Johnson appointed him the role of special adviser to the Government.
Acrimonious
Full of anger, arguments, and bad feeling.

Subjects

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