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The tongue and the heart: politicians and metaphors of violence

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The tongue and the heart: politicians and metaphors of violence

Post by Jill Segger on Mon Aug 08, 2016 10:31 pm

Sometimes a politician will put beyond doubt the fact that they prefer noise and notice to thought. Sometimes they will 'go off-script' and expose the shallow soil in which they are planted. On these occasions, an ugly face may be revealed below the popular maquillage.

Those who make these errors of judgement are often compelled – either by official bodies or by their own self-interest – to issue some kind of retraction. Such pseudo-apologies do not disguise or reform the thinking which gave rise to the offence, but they do at least acknowledge a perception of have been offensive. For that at least, we must be grateful.

There are many incidences across the political spectrum upon which one might draw, But two fairly recent examples have a particular significance because of the violence of their expression in an increasingly vicious and antagonistic political climate.

In December 2015, Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, flagged up her disquiet with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by saying: “The day you are hurting us more than helping us, I won't knife you in the back, I will knife you in the front.” It is reasonable to ask whether a violent metaphor is rendered less violent by specifying the angle of attack.

Last week, the Labour leadership contender and MP for Pontypridd, Owen Smith, frustrated by his party's failure to provide an effective opposition, chose to channel his anger away from the causes of this failure in these words: “It pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her [Prime Minister Theresa May] back on her heels.” He has since apologised for an ugly remark carrying an undertone of violence towards women. It was significant that after initially defending the comment as “robust political language”, his spokesperson admitted that Smith had “gone off-script”.

It is that very condition of being unscripted which may make a politician appear attractive. A man or woman who 'speaks their mind' rather than being the cautiously rehearsed product of a focus group is often admired. But what that mind may contain is arguably of greater import than any quality of individuality the words may be supposed to display. That both Phillips and Smith reached instinctively for figures of speech referencing violence is worrying. Both have fallen into the error of thinking that such choices are an index of their conviction and passion. It should not be beyond them to understand that restraint in expression engages and encourages better responses and that not all which is passionate is moral.

Both these MPs have gone on record as having received death threats. This is wholly deplorable and not to be excused by any words they may have used. But – particularly after the murder of Jo Cox – there is a responsibility on all in public life to weigh their words with care and to shun intemperate speech.

A rebuke was once uttered to those who thought themselves more fitted to admonish than to reflect: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

This blog first appeared on Ekklesia and is reproduced with acknowledgement. www.ekklesia.co.uk

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© Jill Segger is an 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. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen
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