Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. The misconception central to this timeworn childhood rhyme – that words are not capable of doing real harm – seems to underlie the irresponsible approach of many politicians when it comes to narratives. In politics and in policy, there is an assumption that something concrete, measureable and immediately visible is more worthy of our attention than just words; but language and rhetoric have played an unquestionable role in causing the post-Brexit increase in hate crime. Any sustainable solution to this problem must involve a deliberate and purposeful effort to change the narrative around immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities in the UK.
In the week following the EU referendum, the number of hate crimes reported to the police increased by 46% compared with the same period in 2015, with 1827 crimes recorded. Data released yesterday revealed that, in July 2016, there were 5,468 hate crimes – 41% higher than July 2015. Data from the National Police Chief’s Council show that this deeply concerning trend persisted in August (data is not yet available for September 2016).
We must explicitly draw the link between anti-immigration rhetoric and the rise in hate crime in the UK. This causality, and the need for politicians to be more responsible with their language, has been stressed by three respected international entities: the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and Human Rights Watch. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for example, expressed “deep concern that the referendum campaign was marked by divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, and that many politicians and prominent political figures not only failed to condemn it, but also created and entrenched prejudices, thereby emboldening individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate towards ethnic or ethno-religious minority communities and people who are visibly different”. Only by explicitly making this connection between rhetoric and hate crime can we recognise the importance of cleaning up our speech.
How can words lead to an increase in hate crime?
The more extreme examples of dangerous rhetoric (such as UKIP’s controversial Breaking Point poster, or the Home Office’s “Operation Vaken” and “GO HOME” ad vans) are easy to identify. Post Ref Racism’s own analysis of post-brexit hate incidents found that “Go Home” and “Leave” were the most common abusive phrases, appearing in a quarter of incidents – it’s easy to see the how the “Go Home” ad vans would make yelling “Go Home” seem more acceptable to the perpetrator of a hate crime.
Migrants and refugees have been referred to by certain Conservative / UKIP politicians as arriving in a “swarm”, “flood” or “invasion” during the run up to the referendum; and in her 2015 speech as Home Secretary Theresa May warned of “mass migration”. Such visualizations misrepresent arrival of immigrants/refugees as completely uncontrollable and inherently negative, inciting false panic and creating a climate of fear and hostility towards those coming in. As there is no way to distinguish between an immigrant/refugee or a British-born ethnic minority, anyone who appears to fit a stereotyped physical description of an immigrant or refugee can be seen as a threat and is treated with the same hostility. Such language, and indeed talk of “vast numbers”, also dehumanizes refugees and migrants. When a feeling of hostility/threat is combined with not viewing another person as human, this creates the psychological conditions that allow a person to commit violence against another and feel legitimate in doing so.
The slogan “take back control” was central to the Leave campaign and has been used repeatedly by Prime Minister Theresa May. For example, in her recent speech at the conservative party conference May said, “Now is the moment to […] take back control and shape our future..”, also stressing the importance of “control over immigration”. This language of reclaiming control implies that we do not have control at present, playing into the “invasion of migrants” rhetoric and scaremongering with respect to immigration. Post Ref Racism’s analysis of post-Brexit hate incidents found that over half of incidents referred specifically to the referendum, with perpetrators using phrases like: “go home”, “leave”, and “pack your bags we voted you out”. This highlights how intimately post-Brexit abuse is related to the referendum and the language of the leave campaign; the “take back control” rhetoric has been interpreted as the right of white British people to dispel whomever they like from their country. Whether this meaning is intended by politicians who use this language is irrelevant – in the context of post-Brexit Britain using this language instills a sense of entitlement to take back one’s country and take control into one’s own hands, legitimizing hostility towards those perceived to be immigrants and thereby normalizing abuse against them.
These examples are by no means exhaustive, but rather illustrate how ill-chosen words can cultivate racist/xenophobic attitudes that underlie hate crime. Mainstream politicians need to acknowledge the real impact their words have on the realities of non-white communities and take responsibility for their rhetoric. The Home Office’s action plan to tackle hate crime recognizes the need to “challenge beliefs and attitudes that underlie hate crime” but regrettably fails to make the connection to the government’s own rhetoric, instead focusing on changing attitudes in schools and among young people. The efforts to challenge beliefs and attitudes desperately need to be broadened.
Looking forward: Changing the Narrative
Changing the narrative about immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities is the only way to tackle hate crime at its root and start to change the attitudes and beliefs of would-be perpetrators.
We need to establish a coherent and compelling counter-narrative to xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric. We need to start talking about the positive things immigration can do and has done for our society. Critical discussion of immigration needs to become more nuanced and less sensational; we need to stop the knee-jerk branding of immigrants as an economic, cultural and security threat. Conservatives committed to racial equality must challenge the dangerous narratives of their party’s leadership. And most importantly, we need a constructive, cross-party discussion on the best ways to change the narrative, also engaging actors from civil society and media.
Unlike sticks and stones, words have a unique power to change minds and shape attitudes. It’s time to start using that power to eliminate hate crime in Britain.
Karissa Singh is the Founder of Post Ref Racism campaign