The rhetoric currently swirling around British politics is poisonous. Roll-back to 4 November 2016 and readers woke up to the branding of three Supreme Court judges as ‘Enemies of the People’ on the cover of the Daily Mail, naming and shaming those apparently so vehement in their attempts to thwart the will of the British people. Opening Twitter gives way to a wave of similar language, blaming individuals on both sides, Remain and Leave, for our current predicament.
A couple of years ago, at the start of my endeavours into student journalism, my grandad gave me a pull-out from The Telegraph. On the front reads the mantra “Words are powerful. Use them well.” That mantra now sits on my bedroom wall, reminding me of the importance, but also the precarity of public language. Many of those involved in this drawn-out debate would do well to remember it.
On Saturday (17 August), Owen Jones, a prominent columnist for The Guardian and Labour party activist, was attacked outside a pub in London. Jones is well-known for speaking out candidly about issues such as class and inequality, and is unafraid of calling-out those he disagrees with. He is well within his rights to do so in our culture of free speech. Yet, the attack of such a prominent journalist triggers alarm-bells in my mind. What Jones writes or says may not always be correct or sit well with those on the opposite side of the equation, but his right to hold and express his opinions does not warrant a violent response.
The use of powerful language to whip up hatred and incite violence against another individual or group has no place in a functioning democracy. Still, it is flourishing in the corner of the internet designated to Twitter. Just last week, Arron Banks, the well-known Donor-in-Chief to Leave.EU was reported by Caroline Lucas for a dreadful Tweet directed at Greta Thunberg. Such irresponsible comments could have serious repercussions for Thunberg and demonstrate a use of words which is far from wise. Regardless, Twitter failed to hold Banks to account, responding that his loaded choice of words did not break any of the site’s official regulations. Surely, such a pointed statement is exactly what should have been flagged up?
Violent and aggressive language has become somewhat pervasive among high-profile Twitter users. Andrew Adonis, an arch-Remainer and a member of the House of Lords, used grotesque, offensive and potentially triggering imagery to mirror his outrage at the potential for a no-deal Brexit in a since deleted Tweet. His choice of words was completely without thought of their potential consequences, and demonstrated a misplaced understanding of the power of such visceral and explicit language.
Free speech is a precious commodity, that we in this country often take for granted. Yet, it must not be mutually exclusive with responsibility. It is important to maintain a healthy culture of debate and discussion. But it is when that discussion takes aim at a particular individual, incites hatred or violence towards a particular set of views, or sees the use of pointed language without thought for the consequences, that this precious commodity begins to be threatened.