Guarding our tongues on violence and disorder

By Jill Segger
August 15, 2011

Purity and simplicity are quite rare qualities. When "pure and simple" is used to describe something which is in reality challenging and complex, it often accompanies the desire to mislead or to close down argument.

David Cameron's description of the rioting and looting which has taken place during the last few days as “ criminality, pure and simple” is such a usage. It is also part of a damaging trend towards intemperate and violent speech which has so disfigured our discourse over this distressing week.

Some of the expressions used to describe the looters - “feral rats”, “scumbags”, “animals” “morons” come from the unexamined anger of individuals who may have been personally and horribly affected by the loss of livelihood or home. (Here it is worth considering the irenic words and demeanour of Tariq Jehan who lost no material thing but suffered the killing of his dear son).

Other vicious words are more directly related to physical violence. The Conservative MEP Roger Helmer has called for offenders to be “shot on sight”. Callers to phone-ins have expressed a desire for vengeful actions that I prefer not to repeat.

Let there be no mistake - violent words reveal violence in the mind - and that is no condition for determining just action. We may, when angry, experience reactions which need to be scrutinised and brought under the control of reason and conscience. To fail in this is to act in a manner uncomfortably close to that of the offenders.

This kind of language engenders an atmosphere of vengefulness. It is the weather in which hatred and injustice will flourish and grow. We are already seeing the amoral knee-jerk tendency being acted out in disproportionate sentencing, in seeking to disadvantage what are already dysfunctional families by eviction and the removal of benefits – a stupidity which would be seen as the recipe for further crime by anyone not deafened by their own anger, and by today's alarming news from the Chair of the Bench of Camberwell Green Magistrates who has revealed that the government has given a 'directive' that all rioters are to receive jail sentences. Such setting aside of the separation of the powers of executive and judiciary which are central to our democratic balance should be a cause of deep concern.

In 1981, Adam Curle, the first professor of the School of Peace Studies in the University of Bradford wrote: “I am as much concerned with the human condition in general as with specific conflicts, which often represent only the tip of a pyramid of violence and anguish... I am concerned with all the pain and confusion that impede our unfolding and fulfilment.

"Often, of course, circumstances force us to focus on extreme examples of unpeacefulness. However, if we were to limit our attention to these, we would be neglecting the soil out of which they grow and would continue to grow until the soil were purified. In this sense the social worker, the teacher, the wise legislator, or the good neighbour is just as much a peacemaker as the woman or man unravelling some lethal international imbroglio.”

We are all neighbours, all citizens. Let us meet those responsibilities with the peaceful hearts and careful tongues which alone can make possible justice and transformation.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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