Protest, debate and thuggery: examining our own responses

By Jill Segger
January 11, 2019

We are right to be concerned at the ugly behaviour seen around Westminster in recent days. Some aggressively xenophobic groups, paradoxically adopting the attire of the French gilets jaunes, have shown themselves intent on intimidation. Their conduct should give us all pause for thought.

Calls for legal remedies are quite proper but must not blind us to the fact that this is more than a law and order issue. Our political culture is becoming polarised and debased on many levels and it is not difficult to point out destructive behaviour from elements of the political class and the mainstream media. The howling mess which is Prime Minister’s Questions; the mendacity and self-serving arrogance of some MPs; the callous indifference to the lot of people who are sick, disabled or insecurely employed; appalling headlines such as the Daily Mail’s front page depiction of High Court Judges as "enemies of the people" or a column in the Sun describing refugees as "cockroaches” – these are all cynical attempts to stir hatred and prejudice. Even where they fail in that intent, they play a part in coarsening the grain of our national conversation. It is no longer sufficient to disagree and to make a good case, firmly expressed – the standard format has become insult, obscenity and unreason, the aim of which is simply to shout down the opposing viewpoint.

The anger among people who have been failed by successive governments is understandable. The contempt in which they are often held has exacerbated long-standing amorphous resentments and focused them on figures as disparate as Owen Jones and Anna Soubry. The verbal abuse and aggressive jostling to which these two individuals have been subjected must not be excused or normalised. But it is important to acknowledge that neither Soubry nor Jones are entirely innocent of showing contempt towards those with whom they disagree.

Shortcomings in civilised behaviour are more readily overlooked when they are manifested by those with influence, good dress sense and a reasonable command of syntax. Another set of standards is often applied to the less privileged. But loutish and bullying behaviour is not the sole preserve of the street, nor does it grow in moral isolation.

What we have seen in recent days is frightening. It is important to acknowledge this or we will be danger of missing the meaning of our own alarm and disquiet. Watching the actions of the small, noisy and angry group led by James Goddard outside Parliament, my immediate response was one of disgust. But that is a response in which it is all too easy to take a kind of superior refuge and to pull up the drawbridge – the self-righteousness of the Pharisee in the Temple. In doing this, I do not only forget the obligation to recognise the Divine spark in every person, I make myself vulnerable to an inclination towards the short-cuts offered by indignation, to the ready-made epithets which blindside us to the real danger of what is happening.

The growing inclination towards political violence and a marked move towards strategies historically used by fascists does not – yet – mean that we are in the grip of that malign creed. However, ‘fascist’ has come to be widely used as an insult towards people, groups or behaviours with whom a speaker may disagree. This is rightly perceived as offensive and so the temperature is raised and hostility intensified. This is not an atmosphere conducive to listening or searching for a means of improving our communication.

Many of the groups prominent in threatening and harassing public figures are a loose amalgam of individuals attracted to far right fringe groups such as the EDL, Make Britain Great Again and Britain First. They could be considered the raw material from which Fascism is built. But history shows us that the real danger is the charismatic leader who is capable of cementing this material into an edifice. Neither Goddard nor Yaxley-Lennon are such leaders. They are chancers, gaming those who follow them by filming their activities for YouTube and using the medium as a base for crowdfunding their ‘work’. This will, fortunately, have a fairly limited shelf-life. Indeed, PayPal has already stopped enabling Goddard’s payments while Facebook has removed pages connected with him.

What should concern us, however, is the possibility of a far more potent figure emerging to build on what has been started here. This is why we must be clear in drawing boundaries, both for ourselves and for those who would try to conceal anti-democratic behaviour behind a cloak of free speech and right of assembly. These rights have both reciprocal responsibilities and consequences. None of us are immune from the poisoned fruits of incivility, intemperance and potentially lethal violence which grow on the trees of a diseased culture. Our freedoms depend upon being able to differ without descending into a cess-pit where public life and public space are polluted and politicians receive death threats.

Principled protest and passionate debate are part of the democratic tradition. On the street, in the Commons, on social media and in our private conversations, we all have a responsibility to keep our reactions under scrutiny and to debate within the boundaries of decency if that tradition is to be preserved.

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© Jill Segger is 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. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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.