Simon Lancaster: The PM has been using the same imagery as Katie Hopkins

Written by Simon Lancaster on 19 June 2017 in Opinion

People who blame fringe commentators for fuelling extremism are missing the point.

Perhaps one of the most chilling moments from last night’s attack on Finsbury Park mosque came after the event when the suspect could be seen sitting in the back of a police van grinning and waving to the cameras. It was extraordinary. It was like he saw himself a hero, to be celebrated and congratulated. He even blew a kiss to his imagined admirers.

What goes on in someone’s mind that they can believe that driving a van at innocent people on their way to prayer after midnight is committing good? What distortions have taken place in their thinking? How on earth does someone get to such a perverted view of the world?

When we’re talking about Islamic extremism, there’s always talk after the event of the secret training manuals, videos and web chats that precipitated their attack. Somehow, I don’t suspect the police will find much ‘radical’ literature at Osborne’s home; indeed, they don’t need to: radical islamophobic material can now be found all around us, in the everyday language of the mainstream press and politicians.

People who are blaming Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins are missing the point. These are people on the fringes of public discourse, widely recognised and vilified as extremists. And, when Katie Hopkins described muslims as cockroaches in 2015, she was rightly condemned and censured. We ought to be much more concerned that when the prime minister used the same imagery, no-one batted an eyelid.

Look again at the words she used in her speech outside Downing Street in response to the London Bridge attack.

"We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed… We need to prevent the spread of extremism… We must be far more robust in stamping it out…  We must come together, pull together and united we will take on and defeat our enemies."

This was far and away the most watched speech of Theresa May’s entire career. It went out live on all the main news channels and has since racked up 1 million views on YouTube. It was also reported on the front pages of every single one of the following day’s papers.

But 'breeding'...? 'The spread'…? 'Stamping out'…?

Really? It may not be as explicit as Hopkins - the prime minister is far more subtle and surreptitious in her language but, make no mistake, this is the language of genocide.

It’s the same language Hitler used in Nazi Germany. It’s the same language used by American G.I.s in the massacre at Mai Lai. It was also the same language used in Rwanda on RTML radio when ordinary Hutu citizens in Rwanda were inspired to pick up their machetes and hack down their Tutsi friends and neighbours in the public good.

Metaphors are not just innocent linguistic devices. They enable wicked people to justify heinous acts: from the wife-beater who calls his wife a ‘filthy bitch’ whilst pounding her with his fists, to the negligent council officials who don’t mind housing people in inhumane conditions because they see them as ‘scum’.

The trouble is that our brains are not very good at differentiating between metaphoric and literal imagery. The two blur. The metaphor manipulates our malleable minds and in so doing shapes the way we feel and act.

The French journalist Jean Hatzfield interviewed some of the Rwandan killers. Their words showed how the metaphoric imagery enabled them to feel good about being brutal murderers.

"We called them ‘cockroaches’, an insect that chews up clothing and nests in it, so you have to squash them hard to get rid of them. We didn’t want any more Tutsis on the land. We imagined an existence without them.... We had to work fast, and we got no time off, especially not Sundays. Everyone was hired at the same level for a single job – to crush all cockroaches."

During the election campaign, the prime minister proudly boasted that she excluded more hate preachers than anyone else. If she’s looking to exclude another hate preacher, may I suggest she doesn’t need to look too far to find one.


About the author

Simon Lancaster is a professional speechwriter and the author of Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership

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