WE still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling Parliament that half the Cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding: “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses.”
Political invective is not new and it must have a place in a free society, but words matter. I speak as a former professional linguist. Language is never neutral, and the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.
If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, it is only because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken of the corruption of the public discourse and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation.
I add that reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and “cockroaches”.
Jo Cox MP was murdered only 10 miles from where I live and I was there within the hour. Her attacker shouted slogans about “Britain first” while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate, or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action?
I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase “Britain first” and the assumptions that underlie it, but there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action – language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.
What is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and did the referendum of 2016 simply open a valve, or has the lack of any legal or political restraint sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This is not about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety.
Jess Phillips MP was openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed OK. People are voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.
Classic populist language, of left or right, uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective: it works. It is also apparently unaccountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom?
It is just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions, and the language is all of betrayal. The culprits, the enemies, are those who are not them. This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.
We are witnessing a trading in the language of victimhood. Everybody, it seems, is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard Brexiters by soft Brexiters; Remainers by Leavers and Leavers by Remainers; “the people” – whoever they are – by the “elites” and the establishment by the people; and apparently everyone by the BBC.
The ninth commandment is there for a purpose: do not bear false witness against your neighbour. Surely only satire could see old Etonian, Oxbridge-educated, senior multi-millionaire politicians complaining about “establishment elites” as if this term of abuse referred to someone else. But no one laughs, and they get away with it. It is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.
When politicians speak of the Prime Minister entering “the killing zone” and taking “her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble. The German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because, “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect”.
Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as “liberty” or “equality”, which have the power to move people without enlightening them.
We might be entering a dark age in these matters, but we can put our own house in order and lead by example; for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable, and by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful. We need strategies for addressing this, and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.
Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds. This is his speech to the House of Lords on the Conduct of Debate in Public Life.