We’re talking about language
posted on February 1st, 2011
Inflammatory rhetoric will always return to haunt us 

I might not be the person you’d expect to call for more measured rhetoric from “our side” in the current escalating cuts conflict but I’m going to.

Last year, when Camilla Parker Bowles’s terrified face was splashed across the tabloids to much hilarity after she was “poked with a stick” by protesters who attacked the royal car, an unexpected reaction I felt was sympathy for the old lady.

Of course the Establishment press ran with the story, a convenient rug under which to brush far worse abuses of peaceful demonstrators by police officers, as well as the wider and quite appalling hurt caused by the kettling tactic.

Even this week, after a weekend in which non-violent protesters were assaulted with CS gas on Oxford Street, the mainstream media will under-report and equivocate.

However on our side, in writing in support of protests and the concerted growing opposition to the Tory cuts, we absolutely must avoid the same trap of edging into vicious language in our reportage simply because we feel passionate.

The instant news cycle leaves us vulnerable to knee-jerk reporting, and some of us are falling down and crossing the line from journalism into bullying or schadenfreude.

I’m thinking first – though not exclusively – of fiery New Statesman on-the-ground blogger Laurie Penny’s vitriol and disdain directed at the yes, moderate pain of Parker Bowles. Penny crossed that line.

Parker Bowles and even Prince Charles are civilians in this struggle.

Over privileged and lifelong Establishment they may be, yet the simple fact is they didn’t make these laws.

If anything the royals are the only “celebs” in our modern culture who did not choose that role but had it imposed from birth.

Prince William has lived his entire life – from childhood, through the national theft of his grief after the death of his mother, to an impending wedding – in the global, unblinking spotlight.

I wouldn’t swap that in a million years for all the transparent privilege and wealth of his upbringing.

Attacking people like that is strategically stupid, in itself a distraction which risks alienating a vast swathe of non-politicised people also feeling the pinch of the cuts and learning what life can be like under the Tory boot. But more importantly it’s just plain mean-spirited.

When challenged on Twitter Penny did eventually accept this, acknowledging that “it wasn’t the protest movement’s finest hour,” but she still went ahead with her planned piece, nasty slaps to a bystander intact.

Now of course there’s no moral equivalence between this stuff and officers beating a protester to the point of possible brain damage, or the dragging of a disabled man out of his wheelchair and across the tarmac or the many other stories of abuse and ill behaviour.

But the instant social media reportage from the likes of Penny works best in vividly telling these tales, not creating an emotional reaction that allows their smothering in hyperbole.

Two wrongs don’t make a right and we must be better, not just as bad.

I recently had long cause to ponder my own more hyperbolic, angry words. A man I have long despised – allowing that to become personal, beyond mere fierce difference of opinion – is polemicist Christopher Hitchens.

I have in print fantasised appalling comic fates for Hitchens – usually at the hands of his brother – only stopping a hair’s breadth short of wishing death upon him.

Yet given his potency as a communicator, when Hitchens was diagnosed with very serious cancer he spoke and wrote with immense power, determination and no little grace about his illness.

You can’t unwrite what is published, especially in these exciting days of permanent, infinite public archive.

In the US last autumn Daily Show presenter Jon Stewart’s hugely attended Rally To Restore Sanity was supported by half-a-million US citizens asking for the more vicious, truth-bending sellers of personal attack rhetoric to be toned down.

Stewart was careful to target both left and right commentators equally, although the clear elephant in the room was Fox News Network.

And Stewart’s increased concern over the pervasive nature of violent or extremist metaphor in rhetoric proved tragically and fatally prescient at the start of this year with the Tucson shooting.

At the time of the Rally To Restore Sanity Stewart was criticised by two of the weightiest voices on the US left, Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann, for implying a moral equivalency between the violent right-wing rabble-rousing and left-wing commentators.

Their point was that in the US, left and worker movements have always been far more reasonable, less personal, more focused upon issues and simply more positive than the capitalist or social conservative small-government equivalent.

Can we sincerely say the same here in Britain?

Does our anti-cuts, anti-coalition rhetoric, however passionately and angrily expressed stop short of hectoring and bullying?

I don’t mean we can’t take the piss or be fiercely angry at individuals when they make choices that will ruin lives.

But let’s not crow over a frightened old lady, regardless of her background.

And I pledge to remember that too.

Comments are closed.

© Chris T-T 2008–2013
Sound Cloud
RSS Feed