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 hold back 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.

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.

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.

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.

You Decide

  1. If all debates were really polite, would they be real debates?

Activities

  1. 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. This is a process psychologists call “moral disengagement”. Vilifying rhetoric (negative persuasive language) has contributed to mass violence and even genocide when weaponised against minority groups, as in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and in 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 evidence from the real world as well, as from scientific experiments, concluding 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.
Acrimonious
Full of anger, arguments, and bad feeling.
Robust
Strong and healthy; in the case of language, colourful and rich.
Focus-group-tested
Small groups of people studied or interviewed for their responses, especially in market research (for new products) or political analysis (for their political views and voting intentions).

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