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The three years since the vote to leave the EU have shown the heightened impact of speech on political culture and how that flows into society and community relations.
Everyone knows that the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ is nonsense. It’s the false resilience of a thick skin, an effort to demonstrate authority without vulnerability.
In a week where the words of a court judgment led to parliament resuming operations, one wonders whether it might not have been better for them to stay away a little longer. The three years since the vote to leave the EU have shown the heightened impact of speech on political culture and how that flows into society and community relations. It’s not so much that Brexit has created the hostility and polarisation of views, but that it has become a funnel for people to channel myriad frustrations – on either side of the debate – into political discourse.
In a political culture that operates on focus-group tested results, what has become apparent is the mainstreaming of a certain kind of political messaging that is frequently condemned or dismissed, but which those who deliver it believe will connect and persuade people who feel ill-served by those who reject it. Previously politicians wanted to be liked by as many people as possible to attract votes and win elections. Now it seems some of them have realised that there’s no point in being liked by people who won’t vote for them, so they use language which connects to their core supporters. The dismissal of this very language by some hardens their support from others. In this, politicians seek to speak over the heads of traditional media and directly to voters.
The terming of policies with inflammatory labels is not new, think of the Dementia Tax, the Death Tax, the Pasty Tax, and others, so in many ways Boris Johnson using the moniker ‘Surrender Act’ to describe the legislation requiring a delay or parliamentary approval of any other option is nothing unusual.
Likewise, political debate has frequently been aggressive and the use of dismissive language to describe opponents not unusual. But it seems that we have crossed a Rubicon, when that language extends beyond political campaigns and into public action against politicians. When talk of politicians betraying public opinion leads to death threats and brick through windows it’s surely a sign that rhetoric is not always rhetorical. This is what has been happening across the political spectrum for some time, the coarsening of our political discourse is not new. The simple equation of people who support Brexit as intolerant, even as fascist, is deeply unhelpful. As too is the portrayal of those who what to overturn the referendum result as betraying their country.
We can and should have robust political discussion without it descending into language which incites violence, or which minimises concern about such violence. Boris Johnson’s dismissal of Paula Sheriff’s concerns about the use of language was crass and unkind. It amplified the charge that he was refusing to listen to his opponents, and was only interested in magnifying dividing lines for electoral popularity.
The Church of England have released a statement declaring that recent use of language in parliament is unacceptable. But the problem is deeper than using words that inflame. It is the use of politics as a lightning rod for other disagreements.
The controversy around Brexit has morphed beyond its original scope and into a wider discussion of whether politicians are for the people or against them. The introduction of the Supreme Court into the debate this week has emphasised this, both by provoking vicious responses and by placing parliament back in the driving seat but without a clear destination. So politics has become too all consuming – indeed idolatrous – as we look to it for a kind of salvation at the very point it seems least able to deliver on it. We therefore lose faith in our institutions because we have asked them to do too much.
Sometimes words have consequences, sometimes more than they should, but that doesn’t mean we can pretend they don’t. The rise in taking offence is not limited to political debate, and is problematic for freedom of speech, but our response shouldn’t be to test this to the limit by provoking people, insisting that we are within our rights to offend. Instead we must model a better way.
We should be willing to speak truthfully, and argue robustly. We can’t pretend healthy disagreement is going to happen by accident, or that differences will be minimised if we sit down and have a cup of tea. But we also need to stand ready to critique those on ‘our side’ when they use language in a damaging way.
The casual use of foul language has become ever more common. It is somewhat ironic that The Times thought fit to use a light swear word in their headline covering the Church of England’s statement. The Liberal Democrats’ crude anti-Brexit election slogan should also not be ignored when we talk about the impact of our words on political culture. We have let go of any restraints or expectations of civility and this is what happens. It’s as Nietzsche alluded to when he wrote “What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?”.
So we should be kinder in our words and our actions. Not to avoid difficult conversations, but as a reflection of the goodness of God that dwells within us. In Luke 6:45 Jesus teaches: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
We should be kinder to those we disagree with, and more willing to stand alongside them when we can. As Brendan Cox, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox, commented: “The best way to honour Jo is for all of us (no matter our views) to stand up for what we believe in, passionately and with determination. But never to demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common.”
When Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, his final command was “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” This related to those who did not believe in Christ, but the lesson is one we should heed. The previous verse is perhaps even more instructive: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.”
Danny Webster, Media Relations director of the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom (EAUK). This article first appeared on the EAUK website and was re-published with permission.