Opinion Articles

In Memoriam Jo Cox 1974-2016: attending to the well of public discourse

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In many places today, not only in the UK but throughout Europe and the world,  Jo Cox is being remembered on what would have been her 42nd birthday. It is right that History and Policy should also mark her passing today.

The cruel act of apparent right-wing political assassination of Jo Cox has shown us, as her husband Brendan’s dignified response spelled out, that the well of public discourse in this country, which should continually nourish our democracy, has become poisoned by division and hatred.  To honour her memory we, the citizens, need to address this problem urgently and effectively.  We need to devise an impartial new test of decency and respect in our public discourse that we can use to hold accountable those responsible.

A people who become used to divisive, hateful and even violent language may be under the illusion that they are only listening to words. George Steiner, however, pointed out long ago that when Germans in the early 1930s began to roar their approval of Hitler’s speeches telling them the Jews had done them down and should be exterminated, they initially mostly believed themselves only to be approving of sentiments, words floating in the abstract ether. But, having assented to those words collectively and in public, they were in fact assenting to the real deeds and material actions directly implied, as far as Hitler and his followers were concerned.

The history of the last 100 years has shown us that democracies can be vulnerable, most especially during times of economic stress when disappointed citizens subject to austere belt-tightening are susceptible to political opportunists encouraging them to place all the blame for their woes on somebody else. That is why I, for one, believe that the need to remain in a united Europe and to continue to build trust within a continent that has been so riven by conflict for most of its previous history, is the primary reason that history offers us to vote, as Jo Cox wanted us to, to Remain in the Referendum tomorrow.  As the Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, has said, the killing of Jo Cox was “only further proof of how quickly violent words can turn into violent deeds. On social media, you see people falling into parallel worlds that we can no longer get them back out of.”

History also makes clear that our democracies today do face novel challenges to their public discourse which we are currently failing to address. One problem is with social media’s mirroring effect. Extremists may quickly form the impression that disrespectful and perhaps violent views are normal- because they are among their chat- group peers. Added to this is the problem of the capacity to hide behind anonymity, which has been extensively abused by angry and cowardly individuals, mostly it seems males and often targeting females. We should not stop people talking to whoever they want but we can- and should- stop the anonymity which encourages trolling.  This is perfectly possible. It is not an insurmountable technological problem but a matter of political will. In June 2015, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an Estonian Supreme Court decision from 2009 stating that content hosts may be held legally liable for third-party comments made on their website. We can ensure responsibility for gratuitous material that is harmful, malicious or libelous.

Another major problem that must be addressed is any use in public discourse by political figures or by irresponsible newspapers of labels and stereotypes. These de-humanising linguistic devices and graphic images which refer not to people but to abstractions without faces or names are all too familiar to historians: ‘the lazy’, ‘the workshy’, gays, travelers, immigrants, foreigners, Islamists, Jews. These are intrinsically divisive terms which make it easy to impart disrespectful or even hateful messages. Another variant of this is to seize on an individual to encourage the reading public to think of them as exemplary stereotypes of an undesirable ‘type’. This is the trademark of the Sun and the Daily Mail in their gleeful search for welfare families or scroungers or negative stories about ‘immigrants’.  The Nazis had their stereotyped pictures of the hook-nosed Jew; and recently George Osborne and many others have drawn attention to the parallel between the now infamous poster unveiled by Mr Farage - and unwisely accepted for publication in both the Telegraph and the Express - and the sinister propaganda methods used in 1930s Germany.

Of course we must protect our vital democratic principles of freedom of speech and freedom of the press but that does not mean allowing politicians or the press to be unaccountable, morally and democratically, for the choice of language or images that they use to tell their stories.  Individual politicians and newspapers could and should be monitored by us, the citizens, for the frequency with which they use the divisive hate—language devices of labels and stereotypes. They could then be made to take responsibility for doing so. They will be completely free to carry on printing whatever they choose, but no longer with impunity for the linguistic poison they are delivering into our democratic life-blood. As the memorials are emphasizing today Jo Cox stood against divisiveness. A test, in honour of her memory, can be applied to public figures and to newspapers alike. How often does their language, imagery and reporting rely on labels and stereotypes to make its points? Citizens will then have a clear, evidence-based index of who is contributing to the humanity and respectfulness of our public discourse and who is degrading it.

No individual measures can be complete panaceas. But along with ending the anonymity of trolling, the Jo Cox test could go a long way to restoring respectfulness in our public discourse, especially for women in public like Jo. History confirms that to ensure true freedom of speech for everybody, we need to be vigilant in protecting it; the benefit will be a revitalizing inclusiveness for our vulnerable democracy and its public discourse.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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