Language, the very words which we speak and the effects those words have are the material for our discussion every day when we read literature. Over the last couple of weeks the importance of our choices of words has become very clear, and a matter of national debate as politicians’ language has been questioned.
Consider the statements below, prompted by the language used in a Parliamentary debate:
Brendan Cox, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox
I’m sure on reflection, it’s something that he would probably wish he hadn’t said (Johnson said the best way to honour Jo Cox was ‘to get Brexit done.’ She was killed by a far right extremist, who shouted ‘Britian first!’ as he killed her). I think it was sloppy language and the wrong thing to say, but I but I don’t think that he is an evil man.
What isn’t legitimate is to co-opt her memory or her beliefs for things that she didn’t believe in or didn’t say. I was thinking about how Jo would respond to it last night. She would have tried to take a generosity of spirit to it. And thought about how in this moment, you can step back from this growing inferno of rhetoric.
I was genuinely shocked by the the willingness to descend to vitriol, because I think it does long lasting harm. To have this debate descend into this bear pit of polarisation, I think it’s dangerous for our country.”
There is a willingness to jump out and decry the other side when they use language like ‘surrender’ or ‘traitor’ or ‘betrayal’. And I think that is inflammatory language. But as inflammatory are those people who have used the language of it being a ‘coup’ and ‘dictatorship’ and ‘fascism’.
I think both of those approaches are unacceptable. It is not just bad behaviour by one side of the debate. This is something which is infected our politics, and it’s this vicious cycle where language gets more extreme, response gets more extreme, it all gets hyped up … It creates an atmosphere where I think violence and attacks are more likely.
You can disagree passionately with people. But you don’t have to impugn their motives, whether you are a hard Brexiteer or a hard remainer, actually, what you have in common is a desire to do what you think is best for the country.
What isn’t acceptable is to demonize each other to build a culture of hatred to the other to create this tribal identity. Whatever happens with Brexit, the country is going to have to come together again. And we have to remember that, otherwise, we’ll be building a toxic legacy.
Paula Sherriff MP
I genuinely do not seek to stifle robust debate, but this evening the prime minister has continually used pejorative language to describe an act of parliament that was passed by this house. I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that we should not resort to the use of offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language about legislation that we do not like.
We stand here, Mr Speaker, under the shield of our departed friend [Jo Cox]. Many of us in this place are subject to death threats and abuse every single day. Let me tell the prime minister that they often quote his words – surrender act, betrayal, traitor – and I, for one, am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and that has to come from the prime minister first, so I should be interested in hearing his opinion. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself.
Boris Johnson PM
I have to say that I have never heard such humbug in all my life.
Jess Phillips MP
The use of language yesterday and over the past few weeks such as the surrender bill, such as invoking the war, such as betrayal and treachery, it has clearly been tested, and work-shopped and worked up and entirely designed to inflame hatred and division.
I get it, it works, it is working.
It is not sincere, it is totally planned, it is completely and utterly a strategy designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country.
When I hear of my friend Jo Cox’s murder and the way that it has made me and my colleagues feel, and feel scared, described as humbug, I actually don’t feel anger towards the prime minister, I feel pity for those of you who have to toe his line.
The people opposite me know how appalling it was to describe the murder of my friend as mere humbug.
I want to ask the prime minister to apologise and to tell him that the bravest, strongest thing to say is sorry – it will make him look good, it will not upset the people who want Brexit in this country if he acts for once like a statesman.
Calling me names, putting words in my mouth and in the mouth of my dead friend makes me cross and angry, it makes me scared even, but I will not react, the prime minister wants me to react so I join in the chaos that keeps this hatred and fear on our streets.
I simply ask the minister to request the prime minister, who’s notable by his bravery today, I ask him to ask the prime minister to meet with me in private with his advisers and some of his colleagues, and my friends from Jo’s family so we can explain our grief and try to make him understand why it is so abhorrent that he has chosen a strategy to divide rather than to lead.
As we see, language is aimed, and counts.
While the current debate about the language of politics is heated, it is not the first time. Here’s an interesting short talk on American political language, focusing on the word ‘President’.
Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, comments that the language of politics is so ‘shallow and threadbare’ that it has stopped ‘feeling like it has any truthfulness at all’. Hear his full talk here.
And let me give the final word on political language to President Trump. I offer you, verbatim, part of a speech he recently gave about the Iran nuclear deal:
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are — nuclear is so powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought? — but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us, this is horrible.”