The Naked Emperor &The Language of Offence
Angela Rayner’s comments show that we must disturb the present to improve the future, says Reverend Joe Haward
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, was this week reported to have called Conservative Party ministers, “a bunch of scum”. When asked about her comments, Rayner said: “I think that Boris Johnson is a racist, misogynist, and homophobic guy who needs to apologise for the comments he has made in the past.” Pushed as to whether she would apologise for using the word scum, Rayner replied that she would apologise when Johnson apologised, but would retract that “he’s scum”.
The legacy media picked up the story with frenzied delight, as politicians and commentators on all sides passed judgement as to whether Rayner’s language was acceptable or not.
While large sections of the media debated Rayner’s comments, it appears that many were unwilling to examine the rank hypocrisy such debates around language generates, especially in light of events over recent years.
The Language of Intention
Language is not simply about words, but intention. Consider how Nigel Farage consistently uses the word “invasion” when commenting on people making the perilous trip across the English Channel to seek asylum in the UK. The use of the word is intentional. It creates fear and dehumanises the people who are searching for the safety of a new home.
This language of dehumanisation is something that Farage turned into a career, spawning grotesque clones who willingly and publicly amplify his rhetoric, to popular approval.
Anti-immigration language powered the Brexit vote in 2016, and continued to be successful with voters in the Conservative victory of the 2019 General Election. Johnson’s Government, with Priti Patel as Home Secretary, has extended the boundaries of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ – using rhetoric that victimises incomers.
This intention is not limited to migrants and people seeking asylum. When Dominic Raab said in 2017 that calls to better support the disabled community were “a childish wish list”, the intention related to how the public perceives disabled people. Drip feed doubt into popular perceptions of the benefits system, and society begins to look with cynicism on those who need welfare support.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, recently said – in response to a question about the cut to Universal Credit – that she was “conscious that £20 a week is about two hours’ extra work every week”. The Universal Credit taper rate – what you earn over your work allowance – is 63%, meaning that for every pound someone is paid above a work allowance, their benefit is reduced by 63p. In this climate of intention, it matters little if Coffey is lying or is simply incompetent. What matters only is that doubt is sown into public consciousness about whether people on benefits actually want to work.
Intention. Create uncertainty, division, and invent an enemy ‘other’ who needs to be stopped, and rely on a media ecosystem unwilling to challenge such deceptions.
In the main, the media is not interested in intention, only headlines that will sell stories. Take Peter Stefanovic’s two minute video, with more than 36 million views on Twitter. In it, Stefanovic claims that Boris Johnson has repeatedly lied at the despatch box, citing examples of where he believes this to be the case. The media, on the whole, has been unwilling to cover the story. The media’s reluctance highlights yet again that its purpose is not to excavate the truth, or to hold the powerful to account, but to maintain its financial stability and political clout.
That Johnson has written homophobic, racist, and xenophobic remarks, and these words are printed, yet discussed by the media as ‘alleged’ comments, reveals how far from truth and reality we have wandered.
The magnificent artist, Cold War Steve, repeatedly highlights the inability and unwillingness of the media to expose reality.
Under Johnson’s Government, the perfect storm of Brexit, a total failure in handling the pandemic, and the climate emergency, alongside raiding the state purse for limitless greed, leaves the UK teetering on the edge of collapse. Yet the public is presented with distraction after distraction. Which brings me back to Rayner’s comments.
The language of offence is a powerful tool in exposing injustice and speaking the truth. For instance, Jesus of Nazareth challenged the power, oppression, and corruption of religious leaders by calling them a “nest of vipers”, and “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones”. His purpose was to say: ‘I see you, I see what you are doing, and I won’t let you get away with it’.
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In the 4th Century, Bishop Ambrose of Milan accused the Emperor Theodosius of being overcome by “the devil”. Martin Luther King Junior spoke vehemently against “white moderates”. Malcom X charged the government of being “criminals”. In 1980, Bishop Oscar Romero called the military government’s actions an “abomination” and told them to recover their consciousness.
Throughout history, people have spoken truth for the sake of justice. Sometimes the language of offence is the very best way for such truth to be heard. Catherine Booth said, “There is no improving the future without disturbing the present”.
Boris Johnson and his ministers have repeatedly proven themselves to be liars and deceivers, wilfully incompetent, and purposefully unjust. They care not for the betterment of society, nor in lifting up the oppressed and downtrodden, but only in stamping upon the weakest.
We are in a time when such language of offence is necessary. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”. The Emperor is naked, and it is of vital importance that the media and ordinary Brits see it, and call it out.
Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain
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