Words can kill

The language of politics has become one of shouting, name-calling and mud-slinging

British Labour MP Jo Cox died after being fatally shot and stabbed on 16 June 2016 by an assailant yelling 'Britain first'
British Labour MP Jo Cox died after being fatally shot and stabbed on 16 June 2016 by an assailant yelling 'Britain first'

Much has been said about the tragic death of Jo Cox. There are no words that can describe the anguish and pain caused by this human tragedy, first of all of her husband and children, her sister and parents. The attack on a 41-year-old woman and mother of two children was a senseless murder and an unnecessary loss of human life, but it was also an attack on the way we do politics and on democracy as a whole.

Some time ago I wrote about the politics of anti-politics. Our actions as politicians seem to be generating antagonism towards the political class and none of us is blameless in this respect. Sometimes, we politicians vilify each other too much in our speeches and the language of our discourse has become abrasive and even violent rather than reasonable and persuasive. I do not want to be a sanctimonious moralist. Personally, I have much to learn from the life of Jo Cox and her way of living politics as a public service and a commitment to make the world a better place.

Jo Cox was a young Labour MP elected from her constituency of Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire after having already shown her personal and direct commitment to vulnerable and defenceless people in several war zones in the world. She became a member of the House of Commons in 2015 and in her maiden speech on the 3rd June she touched on the ethnic diversity in her constituency. She said: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics or of Muslims from India or Pakistan. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other, than things that divide us”.

On another occasion she spoke of child refugees asking the question: “Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horrors that their families are experiencing? Children are being killed on their way to school… and one in three children has grown up knowing nothing but fear and war.”

The Labour MP also led a Commons debate on the regional gap in education, criticising the disparity in certain areas of the UK, referring to regional differences as a disgrace. Autism was another issue that Jo Cox campaigned on, raising her concerns about delays in assessments. She also took an active part in a debate on child poverty, which she described as “heart-breaking and shocking”.

Paying tribute to her in parliament Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We have lost one of our own and society as a whole has lost one of our very best.” Murdered just a few days before she turned 42, she had spent her short life serving and campaigning “for other people” – at home and abroad – both in her charity work and as an MP. He called her death “an attack on democracy and our whole country has been shocked and saddened by it... and was united in grief”.

He appealed for “a kinder and gentler politics”, saying politicians had a responsibility “not to whip up hatred or sow division”. In her honour, he said “we can come together to change our politics to tolerate a little more and condemn a little less”.

Chris Patten, a former chairman of the Conservative party and the last governor of Hong King, described the Labour MP as a ‘fine and brave Member of Parliament, cut down at the very start of what would have been a distinguished career’. Writing in the Financial Times, Patten wrote: “She clearly knew that life is a mountain range of predicaments and that we stand the best chance of climbing over them if we work together trying to build a consensus, not to tear one another to shreds.”

This is a lesson we have to learn on our home front as well. Luckily, we have not reached the stage of needing personal protection as MPs but we must ensure that representative democracy is maintained. The language of politics has become one of shouting, name-calling and mud-slinging. An editorial in the FT expresses a reminder that ‘democracy is a fragile thing. The journey from civilisation to barbarism is far shorter than many in the west imagine’.

An article penned by Steven Erlanger on the International New York Times probably sums this all up in the heading of his contribution: “Harsh tone of campaigns raises fear that basic civility is breaking down.” Most of the international articles this past week have been dominated by the British referendum and the killing of Jo Cox. There are however many similarities to the local political situation as well as that to politics in general.

Alex Massie, a Scottish freelance journalist wrote “When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.” We need to be responsible enough to make sure that we do not let any issue reach this point of no return.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment

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