Simon Lancaster: A message to the Speaker - get your own House in order
Politicians often use language that dehumanises people to achieve their policy goals.
Twitter has announced that, in an attempt to ‘reduce the amount of abusive behaviour and hateful conduct’ on their site, it will permanently suspend any profile that ‘reduces someone to less than human’. First target in its line of sight are extreme racist white supremacist groups like Britain First and extreme racist white supremacist individuals like the President of the United States. The politicians who lobbied Twitter for this change will be celebrating their success. But their celebrations may be short-lived. For, if Twitter is really serious about upholding this new policy, it won’t be long before every politician in the country has their Twitter account suspended.
The spotlight at the moment is on how members of the public abuse politicians. But isn’t the real problem actually how politicians abuse the public? The truth is that politicians regularly depict huge swathes of the country as ‘less than human’, to use Twitter’s phrase. It is a key strategy of power. The more vulnerable the group, the more likely they are to be dehumanised. Conversely, the more powerful the group, the more likely they are to be deified.
There is, in fact, a whole hierarchy of humanity which exists in metaphor and which has been around for thousands of years. The metaphorical frames are clear and fixed. The sick are vegetables. The poor are dirt. Refugees are cockroaches. Jews/Muslims are snakes. Women are bitches. Black people are apes. Men are beasts.
We’ve heard these images alluded to many thousands of times during the course of our lifetimes by politicians, supported by the press and other powerful elites. And such abuse comes from politicians not when they are drunkenly languishing in the leather seats of their chauffeur driven cars scrolling through twitter after a boozy meal, it comes during sober and statesmanlike parliamentary debates when their words have been carefully and calmly considered and calibrated for weeks in advance, deliberately designed to ensure they strike with maximum effect.
Put simply, dehumanisation helps politicians achieve their policy goals. Would David Cameron and Philip Hammond have ever succeeded in convincing the House of Commons to extend bombing into Syria in that crucial debate on 2nd December 2015 if both had not used the key parts of their opening and closing speeches respectively to remind the house that the purpose of the mission was to cut off ‘the head of the snake in Raqqa?’
There was no literal snake in Raqqa. This was classic metaphorical dehumanisation – the same imagery deployed by Hitler against the Jews and Trump against muslim immigrants. And it was being used by our prime minister and defence secretary in the mother of all parliaments whilst they debated sending our troops into battle. And it didn’t stop there. In fact, during the whole of that parliamentary debate, there were 27 references to snakes, monsters and barbarians. It was powerful language and it worked.
Look at footage from Raqqa today. The whole city has been flattened. I mean literally. There’s nothing left. It’s Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Ground Zero. There’s nothing left. And let’s be clear. There is no evidence any real snakes were killed in this operation. But we do know that tens of thousands of civilians have died. And Da’esh remains as strong as ever.
It’s not just in circumstances of war that politicians resort to dehumanisation. Would Jeremy Hunt have succeeded in imposing such swingeing cuts upon the NHS if he hadn’t depicted various people with varying levels of need – you know, people dying of cancer, that sort of thing - as ‘burdens’? Would Lord Freud have been able to swing the axe on disability benefits if he hadn’t created the image of disabled people as a ‘bulge of, effectively, stock’? Would Theresa May have been able to keep a relative lid on levels of migration if Cameron had not invoked the image of a ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean'?
Medical services, disability benefits, refugee rights – these are all issues with literal life or death consequences where we might expect our politicians to start from the point that all life is sacred. In fact, they start from the point that the people they are talking about are less than human, presumably because that eases their consciences that their polices are effectively death warrants.
It’s not just politicians on the right who deploy such language. Politicians on the left do as well, but they are just a little sneakier about it. So, for instance, left wing politicians might not speak about poorer people as dirt explicitly but Sadiq Khan would happily talk about ‘social cleansing’. The language may be different, the imagery is the same.
Likewise Owen Smith spoke of Corbynistas as parasites during his leadership campaign, ‘trying to use our movement as a host body, seeking to occupy it, hollow it out, until its outlived its usefulness, when you throw it aside like a dead husk’. Jim Fitzpatrick, who is a leading proponent of the case for assisted dying, talked about sick people being in a ‘vegetative state’. This is an established medical term but, for those interested in the development of language, the first time sick people were depicted as vegetables was in a 1930s Nazi propaganda film called ‘Mission and Conscience’ as Hitler sought to make the case for euthanasia, which led to the involuntary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children.
Members from all political parties gathered in the House of Commons earlier this week to debate harassment in public life. As they did so, they were united in their view that MPs should be treated with respect, supremely unaware of the irony that they were treating the public with a complete lack of respect as they did so.
Amber Rudd repeatedly used the term ‘trolls’ to depict her abusers (they are ugly). Dominic Grieve said much of the abuse, ‘comes from people who may be a little unhinged’ (they are crazy). Anna Soubry highlighted there was ‘lots of bad grammar’ amongst her critics (they are stupid). Harriet Harman described a ‘toxic triangle’ (they are poisonous). Stephen Doughty described ‘a plague on all our houses’ when it comes to the fringes of our political parties (they are diseased). And Alec Shelbrooke called on social media companies to ‘remove that cancer in our society’.
Speaker Bercow concluded the debate with a rare personal and emotional intervention. ‘Members of Parliament are never mutineers. You are never traitors. You are never malcontents. You are never enemies of the people. You are dedicated, hard-working, committed public servants doing what you believe to be right for this country.’
Bercow’s speech has since gone viral. It’s a none too subtle attack on The Mail and we can all welcome that. But maybe, instead of playing to his audience, what he should have done was remind MPs why they are there.
Maybe something like this: "Let me remind all Members of Parliament why we are here. We are public servants. We are here to serve the public. And the public are never plagues. They are never cancers. They are never toxic. As long as politicians have a low opinion of the public, the public will have a low opinion of politicians. It is cause for celebration that Twitter is set to act against those who use dehumanising language. But maybe really the truth is that it’s time we got our own House in order."