The language we use is as powerful as a bomb

How are things looking from your vantage point?

We’re entering a phase where the language we absorb and extend towards each other is having a violent effect on our lives in very real, practical terms – crimes motivated by hate. Orwell famously wrote ‘If thought corrupts language then language can also corrupt thought,’ and as I write this, I can’t help but think of it in relation to our British government, and their favourite word of the moment: ‘illegal’. They would like it to be a criminal offence to ‘drive while illegal’ or ‘work while illegal’. Surely, no human being can be dismissed as simply an ‘illegal’ person. We’re all so worried about the binary division between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ news, meanwhile hate speech and derogatory language are in danger of eating their way into everyday parlance. A hate crime consultant, Joanna Perry, told me recently that there is good news – hate crime reporting has increased. This could be because solidarity efforts may have given people the courage to come forward. Bad news: in spite of statistics, there is still scepticism about hate crime. Columnists such as Rod Liddle or Brendan O’Neill dismiss it – they ask, does it really exist in our green and pleasant land? Aren’t minorities simply ‘bleating’ about this fictional problem so they can… and here there is nothing offered, in terms of completing the sentence. So they can get attention? Resources? These writers don’t explain why people would want to report fictional problems. The debate around Brexit started by Farage and allowed by Johnson and Gove gave permission to people who had racist and bigoted views to act on them. Before, the barrier of what we used to call ‘political correctness’ held them back, once it was removed, they felt they could act. The language we use is as powerful as a bomb in these circumstances.

How do you feel about what’s coming in 2017?

I wrote about the racism we experienced growing up in the seventies in my first novel Gifted, and in some way, that fictionalisation made me dream it away as history in my head. Now I am confronted with the spectre of it, there is some part of me that feels foolish, disastrously naive, but I know it can be overcome. There is an aspect of Britishness that is very admirable – something to do with ‘fairness’, something about giving enough respect to each other. I believe we can access that strain of our best selves again as a country, in spite of the economic pressures, and the terror caused by the government’s systematic withdrawal of key resources from those who need them most.

What can we do about it? (Practical advice is especially useful).

Contest this terminology of violence as it infiltrates the speech around you. Just make a resolve that you won’t accept it at work or play and stick to it, speak up every time you hear it, however embarrassing or disruptive it seems. We need to avoid the division of Brexit. Assume that however people voted, they didn’t vote for hate crime. We need to focus on the evidence, support efforts to find out about the problem. Parliament voted in hate crime laws and the government’s job is to implement them and to monitor the success of this implementation. We need clear, visible, correct, easy to access data on hate crime. We need a space to challenge, based on evidence, incorrect reporting and opinion pieces. How can we achieve this? Where is this space? We need to create it online and offline.

On the rest of the problems we face – do all of it- everything that you are thinking about – march, sign the petitions that you hear about from Hope not Hate or Liberty, give them time and money and in doing so, you will help to actually get policy changed, write to your MPs every time you think you should, comment on propaganda or hateful speech in the press, give time to campaigning charities and activist groups – man the phones, offer your signature skills to revitalise their websites, their transport logistics, their attempts at legal aid – any and all of it has impact right now, the huge mistake is to think otherwise, and to prevent yourself from acting for that reason alone.

We can do this.