Hate-filled words have consequences

Article @ Morning Star, published 18 June 2016

We rarely think of the consequences of words. Of the true consequences of suggesting, day in, day out, that the greatest threat to our existence is religion X, or that we were better before Y.

What harm could our ill-conceived opinions, our possible ignorance, our proselytising when demanding a return to “national values” and cutting back on immigration bring? What could, in this tolerant Europe of ours, propagandising hatred and fear truly lead to?

In England — mother of liberal democracy — never questioned words led to the death of an member of Parliament.

Jo Cox, 41 years old, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was killed this Thursday in broad daylight, on a busy street, by a fascist sympathiser.

The alleged murderer, named locally as Tommy Mair, subscribed to far-right magazine South African Patriot, in which apartheid was defended and white supremacy espoused.

Eyewitnesses recounted to various television channels that Mair, during the attack, had shouted “Britain First” or “put Britain first” — possibly a reference to the nationalist and Islamophobic group.

The same group whose leader, Paul Golding, turned his back during London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s victory speech.

The death of a young woman, a promising politician, a mother of two small children is in itself a tragedy, but Cox’s death did not take place in a vacuum, in a an absence of political context.

Cox was a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause, of the Syrian people, of refugees seeking asylum across Europe and of migrant communities in Britain.

Elected only last year, Cox used her maiden speech in Parliament to honour the ethnic and cultural diversity of her constituency.

On the day she was elected, it was in an Islamic centre that she delivered her first enthusiastic statements, her head covered respectfully, surrounded by supporters of various creeds.

In recent months, under the guise of the referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union, several groups (and not only those for Out) have used the most spurious arguments.

But particularly in the right-wing Brexit camp, there have been countless people embracing campaigns that directly oppose the principles Cox defended.

From Ukip we saw images of conspicuously ethnic minority masses allegedly trying to “flood” the country.

“The EU failed us,” read the latest placard for their Out campaign. A recently published (and quickly deleted) Leave.EU tweet had the words: “Islamist extremism is a real threat to our way of life” superimposed on a photograph of Islamic State soldiers.

The much debated “fear factor” used by the In camp was matched blow by blow by xenophobic oratory, impudent racism and militant patriotism on the more extreme wings of the Out campaign.

Cox was a Remain supporter. Her death came exactly a week before the referendum. Her death came in a period during which the volume of all political sides seemed to have been turned up to eleven.

Like a debate in which the participants interrupt each other screaming, hands waving frantically mid-air as the moderator placidly, inanely contemplates the scene.

Perhaps the most serious crime committed until Cox’s murder was the recklessness with which words have been used and the negligence of those supposed to moderate them.

Above all, perhaps, the way in which the way we treat others on the public sphere — be it in Parliament or in the media — has slandered itself, to the point that verbal abuse and scorn have become ordinary, unimpeachable.

And, how in this same way, the language of hate has been accepted under the guise of freedom and democracy.

As a friend of mine, perhaps not fully coincidentally a British Muslim, a northerner like Cox, said: “Those who push divisive and hateful political agendas in politics and in the media need to understand what their actions can lead to.

“Much speculation as to the details, but right now a husband has to tell his children that mum won’t be coming home. For nothing. Nothing.”

Cox’s murder can not be taken as a simple crime. It cannot be taken only as the act of a man with poor mental health.

After months of racist propaganda far beyond subliminal, Cox’s murder is an intentional crime, a political crime — the result of poisonous rhetoric that has been propagated across Britain without any real public opposition.

Because, you see, prejudice cannot be accepted as part of normal speech. It is to be thrashed, flattened, expelled from the public sphere. It is to be pointed at and said No to.

We have to see things for what they are. Concern for the consequences of migration must not always be racist, but anti-immigrant discourse is.

The desire for sovereignty will not always be xenophobic, but the language that has truly dominated the Brexit campaign has, openly and comfortably, been so.

I am from Portugal. History in that country taught us, at much cost, that silence is consent and that consented hatred turns dictatorship. It taught us that if we do not kill hate, hate kills us.

History came on Thursday to remind Britain of this very lesson.