Calling people cockroaches: limits of acceptable speech

By Savi Hensman
April 19, 2015

A recent BBC documentary powerfully depicted the plight of Christians in the Middle East, amidst threats by Isis and other forces.

At the end Douglas Bazi, a Catholic priest who had been tortured, pleaded with the West to offer refuge to those wanting to leave. "Open gates, give visas to my people," he said. "We have to provide them dignity and right life – not to prepare them to be sheep, again to be killed."

It was hard not to be even a little moved by the suffering of the children, in particular, and others fleeing persecution throughout the world. Certainly branding such desperate people as “cockroaches”, and not caring if they drown, would seem a strange reaction.

Yet after 400 migrants (probably including children) drowned in the Mediterranean after their boat capsized, Sun columnist Katie Hopkins wrote, “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad... the next minute you’ll show me pictures of aggressive young men at Calais, spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship.”

She praised the Australian authorities for threatening those seeking to reach their shores with gunboats and wrote, “Britain is not El Dorado. We are not Elysium. Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

She continued, “Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984?, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.”

Boats should be chased away, confiscated and burned, she wrote. “Drilling a few holes in the bottom of anything suspiciously resembling a boat would be a good idea, too, just for belt and braces” (presumably in the hope of sinking these and maybe drowning their passengers).

The reason for her hatred for people she has never met is supposedly because “I care passionately about British truckers and taxpayers in the UK.” But this makes little sense.

Those who first arrived in Britain fleeing persecution or seeking work are taxpayers too. Indeed many people living here are children or grandchildren of immigrants.

As for those who have arrived from eastern Europe and elsewhere in the European Union, who have been the target of hostility in some areas, they pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits overall. And they have acquired skills valuable to the UK through education paid for elsewhere. According to University College London research published in 2014, between 2000 and 2011 migrants from Europe made a net contribution of £20 billion to the UK’s public finances.

But logic is not the strong point of the article, which likens people to infection and pests (which some might read as implying that they should be exterminated, even if this was not the author’s or newspaper’s intention).

Not surprisingly, many people are outraged. Even among those who have serious concerns about immigration, many would steer clear of language which might suggest that some people’s lives are worthless.

It is also not certain that the article is legal. It is an offence against the Public Order Act 1986 to use words or publish material which is insulting and, having regard to all the circumstances, likely to stir up racial hatred.

There is a risk that, in the run-up to the election, dehumanising and possibly inflammatory language will increasingly be used. Targeting the vulnerable can be a way of winning votes. Yet there will be many people of all faiths and none who are repelled by such tactics, including Christians who believe that to care for the stranger, sick and hungry is to show love to Christ (Matthew 25).

Migrants are by no means the only people to be targeted by Katie Hopkins. Others not thought to be productive enough, including people with dementia, may also be written off as not worth keeping alive. “Dementia sufferers should not be blocking beds. What is the point of life when you no longer know you are living it? Bang me over the head”, she tweeted recently.

In an earlier tweet, she wrote, “A good dose of antibiotic resistant infection would do wonders to clear out hospital wards and the bed blockers who reside there. Bring it on.”

At times, some readers have been so outraged by her that they have threatened her, but this risks descending to the same level. It is more productive to keep challenging prejudice, indifference and misinformation about the vulnerable when these are promoted by politicians and the media. Free speech is important but there are limits to what is acceptable if everyone’s safety and dignity is to be protected.

* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.