The destructive use of dismissive language in politics…

Two things coincided this week that led to this piece. The first was Thursday’s violence in Dublin. The second is the fact I’m about two thirds through Graham Linehan’s autobiography in which he details his fall from grace and into career isolation following his emergence as a critic of transgender ideology. Two very distinct issues but they had one thing in common, the use of language as a basis for avoiding debate of the issues underpinning both. Arnold Carton touched well on the issue in his most recent piece and I think there is much to be added.

Let me start by saying that :

  1. This isn’t going to be a discussion on Irish immigration or transgender ideology. I am not qualified to speak in detail about net immigration rates in the Republic. Not least because when I tried to research it there were far too many articles providing radically different – to the point of contradiction – data. This is simply a contention that people who feel strongly about these issues should be allowed to discuss them without being demonised or stigmatised.
  2. Anyone in any circumstances who burns a bus or loots a shop is a thug and a criminal. That applies to those who did so in Dublin last week. They were not politically motivated. This piece is not about them or their actions.

Where language comes into this is pretty evident. It’s the repeated use of terms like “far right” and allusions to fascism in those who have raised concerns about the level of immigration into the Republic. The reason these terms are used is simply to avoid debate for those incapable of indulging intelligently in it. Its even easier for these people to be demonised if they are working class and/or dispossessed. The implication is that these are uneducated, unthinking people who are being manipulated into following these “far right” bogeymen. It is inconceivable to the political class and vast swathes of the middle class that such people can have thought for themselves and identified problems facing them.

Yet for all that the Republic – and significant areas of the UK – has a highly publicised housing crisis that is leaving it impossible for many, many people to get homes in the areas where they see themselves as belonging. Clearly increased immigration is not the only cause of that as in the UK we are still living with the consequences of Thatcher’s legacy of selling off public housing for short term gain. But if there ARE other factors then its important for those in power to carefully and clearly explain them to the impacted classes, rather than dodge it through playing the far-right card. Personally I can see little evidence for the emergence of a significant far right mentality in Ireland , but there’s always a danger of these bogus statements eventually becoming self-fulfilling.

We saw this attitude in the UK in the period leading up to 2016. The case for the UK remaining in the EU was a compelling one and one based in facts and reality rather than the undeliverable promises dreamed up by Dominic Cummings and articulated by Boris Johnson. But quite simply David Cameron and the remain team didn’t even try to make it. They knew they were right and that was all that mattered. They dragged out Blair – a figure of contempt across the UK – and 3 people (Major, Kinnock and Ashdown) who had been roundly rejected by the electorate. On the assumption the electorate had forgotten who they actually were.  On BBC Question Time the week before the referendum the Leave camp had its big hitters confronted by the spectacle of an incoherent Eddie Izzard in a pink beret! Extreme arrogance!

I have personal experience of the Red Wall. In 2001 I voted Labour in the Bishop Auckland constituency I lived in. I nearly didn’t bother as we’d started to see through Tony Blair but most importantly because as an old Durham mining area decimated by Thatcherism a decade or so beforehand it was one of the safest Labour seats in the country. In the previous election Labour had a majority of 21k and 66% of the vote. But I believe in voting so I did, in the full knowledge that my vote wasn’t going to make a difference. In 2019 that seat returned a Tory with a majority of 8k and 54% of the vote.  That is replicated all over the North of England and no one is going to try to claim this is because all those tens of thousands of people carefully perused both manifestoes and decided that yes, Johnson, Truss, Hancock and co were just what post industrial Northern England needed. Au contraire. It was a straightforward eff you to a Labour Party that had moved from taking dispossessed working-class communities for granted to showing outright contempt and hostility towards them.

Remember Gordon Brown on the campaign trail in Rochdale in 2010. Having been introduced to an elderly Labour supporting woman he was recorded as saying “That was a disaster – they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? Ridiculous ……. she was just a bigoted woman.” Or Emily Thornberry nine years ago this week with her contemptuous white van and England flag tweet that led to her resignation from the Shadow Cabinet? We have our own issues with overzealous devotion to flags in Northern Ireland, but we are a territory with a major identity and sovereignty conflict.  The same can’t be said about Rochester in Kent. So Thornberry was simply sneering at the patriotism of people she is supposed to represent. Dismiss them and trivialise them and you don’t need to talk or listen to them.

So where does Graham Linehan fit into that? Firstly it’s a very compelling book in 2 very different part – part one of great interest to people who have an interest in great comedy and how it has been diminished, and part about how Linehan and others have been damaged and had their careers destroyed for taking a position outside the current city-based consensus on certain issues. In Linehan’s case his view that modern gender ideology undermines the rights of women and LGB people.  Where Linehan is relevant to this piece is the use of language about him to demonise and diminish him rather than engage with his position, even to refute it. We’ve seen representatives couple of our political parties in NI enthusiastically embrace the term “TERF” and even to align it to the term “Nazis” for the sole reason they even haven’t truly considered this issue or if they have they are incapable of truly understanding or articulating on it. So just attempt to stop others from airing their views and do your best to deprive them of a platform.

I’ve made sure to avoid bringing Northern Ireland into this piece as I don’t want to deflect or parochialise it. Also I think the gender issue is one for a different day. But if this increasing tendency by mainstream politicians to demonstrate their inability to coherently make their case isn’t addressed and reversed we will all be the losers at some point or another.

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