New Year, polemic and asterisks

By Jill Segger
January 1, 2012

New Year was not kept in my childhood home. My parents believed that every day was the beginning of a new year.

And although they would attempt to avoid appearing singular by wishing neighbours a good year on the 1st of January, there was no first-footing, no alcohol-fuelled 'revelling' (do people 'revel' at any other time of the year?) and certainly no resolutions. It was expected that a gentle discipline over one's actions and thoughts would be exercised throughout the year and appropriate decisions taken as to amendment of life where necessary.

There was nothing joyless about this attitude. It served us well then and still works for me now. So the run of New Year celebrations generally pass me by. However, it is sensible to acknowledge that the turning over of one year into another has significance for society. There is something in us which seems to respond to a rolling over of calendrical digits and it is perhaps a good time to pause and consider responses which may otherwise go unexamined.

There is a growing tendency to vehemence and abuse between people who hold opposing views on the management of society. Political polemic is arguably necessary if ideas and policies are to be hammered out, but this too often degenerates into insult and epithet – only spend a few minutes on Twitter when some new government policy bites into what we may hold dear – and you will read expressions which might be better left unsaid and unwritten.

I have no quarrel with anyone who uses a sharp monosyllable on stubbing a toe or spilling coffee grounds into their new fleecy white bedroom slippers. But the multiple (though admittedly often creative) use of copulatory adjectives, the attribution of illegitimacy and the use of genitalia as personal definitions, is not just aggressive and ugly – it diminishes the very possibility of fruitful debate. This must never be allowed to take hold in our exchanges, however angry we may become, and there is plenty about which to be angry in the policies of this government.

I will own that I struggle with a visceral dislike of our “committed Christian” Prime Minister whose
administration trades arms and crowd control equipment with repressive regimes, supports armed conflict in the narrow interests of the UK and protects the interests of its friends in the City while hollowing out the lives of people who are sick, disabled or vulnerable through poverty of means or opportunity. There is something about David Cameron's face which does not agree with my eyes and I feel a constant temptation to fall into personal comment and even to use descriptions
of him which may relieve my feelings, but will in no way advance any argument I might wish to make. Anger is a good servant but a bad master.

The anger which many of us feel at what is being done to our common life is entirely justified. But it must be channelled and focused. The righteous anger of the prophets might perhaps serve as our model. There was nothing mealy-mouthed or cowardly about their denunciations of those who exalted the rich and powerful and sent the poor away empty, but they did not fall into the trap of indulging themselves the kind of verbal violence which is every bit as damaging as a fist in the face.

To call all members of a political persuasion “scum” (one of the commonly used epithets which can be rendered without asterisks) denies their individuality and – more importantly – the possibility of enlargement, amendment or transformation. They have been placed in a box with the lid firmly slammed shut, defined irrevocably by oppositional anger. This does not meet George Fox's exhortation that we should “answer that of God in every person”. That divine trace may be immensely difficult to locate, but I believe we must strive to do so if we are not to sink into vicious and violent futility.

That is my personal challenge for the year ahead. Pick me up on it if you catch me falling short.

© 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, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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