This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
I am a rascal. Well, strictly speaking I am among the “rascally voices” whom the Archbishops of Canterbury and York charged with undermining the Church of England in the Spectator recently. They didn’t appear to like our criticisms of the drab managerial direction the dear old CofE has been taking for a depressingly long time.
Putting the substance of the issue aside for a second, the archbishops’ article made me think about how we all ought to engage with each other when we contest ideas in the public square. This is a combative time, and the church is in an especially combative mood right now. To be fair, this is nothing new. Clergymen — and now clergywomen — have been famed for taking chunks out of each other since Peter and Paul nearly came to blows in Antioch in the first century. In the time since, our tendency to kill each other has considerably diminished, and so has the language we use of each other.
I didn’t mind being called a rascal. It’s certainly better than the way many Christians still speak of, and to, each other. And this is important, for finding the right language to describe those with whom you disagree seems to be one of the most troubling shortcomings of our national discourse right now, and if the church can’t lead the way in “disagreeing well”, who can?
I’m pleased to have been called a rascal — we’ve got to have something to call each other
In the wider political world, the way we have taken to describing each other is bad and getting worse. Let’s look at the words that are most commonly reached for on Twitter: traitor, fascist, murderer, white supremacist. These have become such a routine part of mainstream discourse over Brexit and the pandemic that we should reflect on quite how shocking it is that we casually label each other such things. Such things are said, can such things actually be meant?
Why are we not shocked by such rhetoric? Consider just what it means to use terms drawn from the darkest recesses of human history. First, it diminishes those words. If everyone you disagree with is a Nazi then nobody is a Nazi — a dangerous position to find ourselves in when men with swastikas are periodically marching in Western cities. George Blake, who died in Moscow recently, was the cause of the death of hundreds of British agents in the Cold War. He was a traitor; Jo Cox was not.
And that is the second problem. What have we done historically to fight traitors, fascists, murderers, white supremacists? We fought wars against them, we imprisoned them, we executed them. When we use these words about our political opponents, we are implying that we would, if necessary, resort to such means to stop them.
We might not mean this; we, clever people that we are, might know that we were using hyperbole. Others inevitably will not and will take us at our word, and then a young MP might be found dead on the streets of her constituency.
There are certain people who are traitors (and there are legally defined terms for that) just as there are certain people who are fascists (although here the definition is hazier). The same is true of all such nouns of excess. We need to guard their use very closely and reserve them for people whom we would actually be willing to use “all means necessary” to stop.
Because be in no doubt: the language we are now using is that which people use in the approach to civil wars. It’s the language not just of disagreement, but of irreconcilable difference.
One side feels threatened, and so they start to describe the other side in ways that make them, in turn, fear for their safety or liberty. Each side demonises the other to the extent that compromise becomes betrayal, and political defeat becomes an existential threat. Jaw-jaw becomes war-war, to borrow from Churchill.
So we need to call a stop to it. I’m pleased to have been called a rascal — we’ve got to have something to call each other, after all — and I look forward to being able to disagree well with my archbishops (should I have need to disagree with them) again. I also look forward to their disagreeing with me, or similar rascals, decently and pleasantly in the future too — even when they think we’re profoundly wrong.
And I’d like to make a plea to all those involved in political debate to make a resolution not to exacerbate our fractious political climate with dangerous terms, even if we are convinced we’re right. Actually, especially if we’re convinced we’re right. That tends to be when we’re at greatest danger of being catastrophically wrong.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe