The post detailed below was written back in April 2019, just after I was elected to stand as the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I continue to stand by every word of it: I have said all along that Mr Johnson’s language is both divisive and dangerous.
In a constituency mired in questionable political language, I remain determined to challenge inappropriate lexis from MPs and political candidates. I have spent a lifetime tackling hate, and my professional career has been built on debunking political spin in the media.
After yesterday’s horrendous rhetorical snarling and raging by both Sir Geoffrey Cox and Mr Johnson, I am compelled to reiterate the damage such language can cause.
Labour’s Paula Sherriff was spot-on in her analysis of the type of rhetoric Johnson and some other members of his party use as a form of rebuttal: ‘pejorative language… offensive… dangerous… inflammatory.’ To dismiss her observations and deep concerns for the safety of those under verbal attack as ‘humbug’ (deceptive or false talk; hypocrisy) has finally allowed many of the most generous of doubters to see behind the curtain. It has exposed his lack of compassion, his lack of understanding of the detrimental effects of rhetorical language on the real lives of individuals and teams, and his utter refusal to take any responsibility for the actions of others, enflamed and emboldened by such language.
In the last few minutes I have just watched Jo Swinson reiterate these same concerns, particularly over the safety of women (BAME women, in particular, in politics). MPs and staff of political figures *have* to take personal safety seriously. Online abuse, for example, does not, as many know, always remain online, and the language used by Mr Johnson, at the very least, normalises written and verbal abuse. Those he derides are seen as fair game to those emboldened by it – look how often his rhetorical tropes (and those of others of his persuasion) are repeated. Soundbites hit hard, take hold, then become regurgitated: “letter-boxes” was just one of many of his lexical choices – many of which are indeed aimed at women.
Last night online I was repeatedly attacked for being a candidate standing as a PPC in Uxbridge and South Ruislip: ‘slag’, ‘bitch’, ‘c*nt’, who should ‘f—- off’ because I was ‘stupid’, an ‘idiot’, etc. etc. This has become the norm in political engagement because figures like Johnson ignore what they consider to be ‘humbug’. More to the point, it’s being normalised by our own Prime Minister because his own language is pejorative, offensive, dangerous, and inflammatory.
I’ve dedicated my life to standing up to hate, and I will not stop now. This is why I am standing in the constituency I love, for the wonderfully diverse community I care about, and because Boris Johnson MUST go.
Updated 26 September 2019.
Original post from April 2019:
In April 2015, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (United Nations) declared that ‘History has shown us the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities… it is deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used… simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.’ That was before the EU Referendum in the UK. Before Boris utilised his role as a columnist in The Telegraph to tout Vote Leave. Before the sharp rise in hate speech and hate crime.
Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary from 13 July 2016 to 9 July 2018. He has been the Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since May 2015. He’s since returned to working as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, displaying an utter disregard for rules that prevent former cabinet ministers taking up new jobs for three months after leaving office, in order to utilise further his newspaper platform. (More recently, he forgot he had a house in Somerset.)
With his background you’d think he know something about international relations, the needs of his constituency, and how to talk to the public – both in his constituency and beyond. He’s had enough time. Right?
The sad fact is Boris knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows racism and xenophobia sell newspapers; he’s back earning £250,000 a year for his incendiary way with words, and utilising the media as a platform to promote his political ambitions. He wants #10, not Uxbridge and South Ruilsip; they are just necessary stepping stones. And what he says to his readership and viewers in planned speeches and soundbites speak volumes about his attitude towards his constituency.
…what [Johnson] says to his readership and viewers in planned speeches and soundbites speak volumes about his attitude towards his constituency.
Let’s take Uxbridge as a case in point. According to the 2011 census, 23699 people live there. Of the entire borough of Hillingdon, 79% are white, with minorities being ‘of mixed-race, Asian or Asian British, Black or Black British, and Chinese or other ethnic groups.’ (“A focus on Uxbridge South”, London Borough of Hillingdon. April 2011, p. 4.) Then there’s Brunel University: a university, based in Uxbridge, that (rightly) prides itself on its diverse, international, multicultural and multi-faith cohort. (It’s interesting to note that it still hasn’t managed to get a polling station on campus during Johnson’s tenure.)
What constitutes the religious spectrum of his constituents? 53% of residents in Uxbridge North identify as Christian; 69.2% in Uxbridge South. Muslim and Sikh residents (grouped together in the census) account for 6.2% in the North, 13.4% are Muslim in the South. So Muslims, without doubt are a minority amongst the permanent residents of Uxbridge, although they form a greater number within its student numbers (according to HESA data, http://www.hesa.ac.uk). Does this mean that Johnson takes it as read that 50-80% of voters there agree with him when he ridicules and dehumanises minorities, such as women who wear burkas? Does he think this is perfectly acceptable to the majority of Uxbridge voters?
As detailed previously, throughout 2007-2017 I taught at Brunel University in Uxbridge. A central theme in my research and teaching is Christo-Islamic relations, both historical and contemporary. I worked with Brunel’s diverse cohort, lecturing on the history of hate speech and nationalism in England, as well as on the pernicious intent of those who expound against non-Christian faiths – particularly Islam. (I’m also an expert in the history of Anglo-Portuguese relations, unlike Johnson, as exemplified in the recent Foreign Office documentary.)
Students taking my modules learned techniques for comprehending and defusing Islamophobic propaganda and hate speech, which all too often masquerade as patriotism. It is, as they discovered, remarkably easy to spot when you’re being manipulated, once you know what to listen out for – particularly the soundbites, phrases that sound like they are appealing to common ground. They just make hate sound so darn reasonable, normal. But it’s not.
It is possible to look beyond the rhetoric, to what people like Johnson are doing – what they are trying to achieve through the language they use.
Johnson’s now-infamous article, ‘Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it’ (The Telegraph, 5 August 2018), might have appeared at first glance to support the right to wear a burka or niqab. But Johnson’s track record with misogyny is reinforced from the outset: he describes such women as oppressed and worthy of ridicule, appealing to the all-to-familiar trope of defining women through what they choose to wear, and then degrading that choice.
And throughout the article, he utilises the classic rhetorical strategies of the propagandist, in an attempt to appear reasonable, your friend, someone you’d vote for – because after all, he’s just like you; isn’t he? Let’s consider the ways in which propagandists try to win you over. (Yes, you really can check-list them.)
The rhetorical strategies of propaganda:
- Make an appeal to a political-historical context (such as England’s colonial past, whilst side-stepping any overt mention of its reliance upon slavery).
- Claim a religion is in direct opposition to the state and/or monarchy (create a ‘dialectic’, as it’s known in the business).
- Encourage the reader/listener to self-define with you; make him/her think ‘he’s one of us’ by referencing something basic you have in common.
- Appeal to religion(s) other than the one you’re targeting.
- Appeal to your target reader/listener as a member of a specific demographic of a specific nation (e.g., white, middle class, English). (‘He’s part of our pack.’)
- Present your reader/listener with over-simplified, stock ‘heroes and villains’ (provoke a love/hate opposition).
If a piece of writing or a speech does all or most of this, then it is, without doubt, espousing an ideology of a person or a group who seek power and to oppress others. Such rhetoric fuels and expounds nationalistic propaganda – something for which there should be no place within a truly civilised society. This is exactly what Boris is doing in any forum that will give him a voice.
And it’s not just his track record of attacking Muslims. Alongside his degrading of Muslim women, we can, of course, now add Denmark to the World Map of Boris Johnson Insults. Just this week, the young campaigner Femi Oluwole has detailed on Twitter Johnson’s pernicious use of the language of slavery and empire to support his endless campaign for any attention that might help him become PM.
But to return to Uxbridge and South Ruislip for a moment: what is Boris trying to achieve when he attacks Muslim females – including those in his own constituency? Why do they appear to rattle his cage more than any other demographic?
It is clear that his understanding of the Qur’an and Hadith are minimal. His attempts to berate other men (particularly those ‘in government’) for their attitudes towards female attire tend to leave one overwhelmed with the dark hues of pots and kettles on every side.
But this is my point: his comments about Muslim women are yet another jab at his own constituency’s minority, for the sake of appealing to a greater number of voters – whatever the cost.
I have worked tirelessly for a decade in Uxbridge, listening to Muslim students – their hopes, their dreams, their career plans, their experience of Islamophobia. It is Johnson’s rhetoric and intransigence that has led me to take a stand. I cannot and will not stand by in the face of racism, hate speech, and Islamophobia (and anti-semitism, which I’ll cover in another post).
I’ve consistently seen non-Muslim students and staff work and relax alongside their Muslim friends and co-workers, in an international, diverse community, where freedom of religion and dress is welcomed. Brunel University excels in its diversity. Yet their own MP refuses to apologise for utilising his position as a columnist in a national daily to refer to certain female students (de facto including those in his own constituency) as ‘looking like a bank robber’ and ‘oppressed’.
[Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s] MP refuses to apologise for utilising his position as a columnist in a national daily to refer to certain female students (de facto including those in his own constituency) as ‘looking like a bank robber’ and ‘oppressed’.
Is this really what he thinks of these constituents? Are those who fall into this category and those who support them simply ‘lost voters’? He urged readers – and, by extension, the majority of his constituents – to do think the same as he does. Is that not hate speech, and inciting Islamophobia? Short answer: it is.
It is Boris Johnson who is the problem, not the burqa.
It is Boris Johnson who is the problem, not the burqa. He is continuing in his mission to normalise the dehumanising of minorities in his constituency, in order to ensure that the majority continue to facilitate his position of power, his propaganda platform, and his on-going feud with another old Etonian.
But are the majority really prepared to fall into line with Boris’ personal view of the world, and so submit to his propaganda?
Are his ‘values’ really those of the majority of his constituents? I think – and hope – not. We’re better than that. This country is better than that. His stereotypes should not and must not be acceptable. We must challenge such rhetoric at every opportunity.
His claims that ‘British’ values have always been at odds with Islam – that it is ‘foreign’ and so to be feared – are nothing more than a crude attempt to make majority voters hate minorities. It appeals to pack instinct: see off the weaker ones. Stereotypes – in any form and directed at any target – are offensive, harmful and simply wrong (because they are based on preconceptions, rather than evidence). Simply put, stereotypes are ‘preconceived and oversimplified idea[s] of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.; an attitude based on such a preconception’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2018).
It is time to end the preconceptions, and put an end to hatred and nationalism as the acceptable face of British politics. With every election, voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – as elsewhere – have an opportunity to say enough is enough, and to make it clear that utilising the British press and political podium to incite racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia has to stop. Whatever your political party: it is time to bring down Boris and all he represents.
Please make sure you find time to vote in the local elections on 2 May, and vote for those who say NO to racism and division.
Let’s send a clear message that it’s time to #DemandBetter.