The language of politics is becoming more divisive. Soundbites fall like stones in a pond and the ripples spread around the world at the speed of social media. It seems the more outlandish and provocative, the more likely they are to be taken up, liked, retweeted and shared. Every phrase is dissected by the media and, torn apart by a partisan audience. You are either with us or against us.
As David Brooks commented in his book ‘The Social Animal’ ‘People rarely revise their first impression, they just become more convinced that they are right.’ Politicians play to their own audience. They pick up on phrases, rework them to improve their stickiness and repeat them over and over again at any opportunity. They think it is clever and in many ways it is but it is also dangerous.
By way of example, the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019, otherwise known as the Benn Act is referred to repeatedly on the government side of the house as the surrender act. It is an act of parliament, put into law yet is undermined through the use of pejorative. Whether we like the bill or not it is the law of the land and should be respected as such.
Paula Sherriff, MP for Dewsbury, raised this very point in Parliament during a question to the Prime Minister ‘The Prime Minister has continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament passed by this house and I’m sure that you would agree Mr Speaker that we should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language about legislation which we do not like… with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day and let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words, surrender act, betrayal, traitor and I for one am sick of it.’
Johnson, in his inimitable style retorted with ‘I have to say Mr Speaker I have never heard such humbug in my life.’
It is not always clear when politicians speak to which audience they are trying to appeal and according to Hannah Arendt, in her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ ‘Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by ‘a world of enemies,’ ‘one against all,’ that a fundamental difference exists between these people and all others.’
These are dangerous times. It is incumbent upon all of us to reflect upon the language we use. Divisive and inciting words are the sticks and stones that will hurt and even kill people. History shows this and those in public life have a greater duty than any to moderate what they say.