When I was growing up a seminal moment for me happened in front of a TV screen. I had grown up with the ever-present Second World War movies that were on British TV so I was perfectly aware of atrocity and evil. But evil seemed like a historic thing, something that happened during a cataclysmic event like war, a terrible Nazi aberration.
My understanding of this changed completely. I was in earlyish high school and I watched a film set in the ‘Irish Troubles’ (I think it was Harry’s Game). There was a scene in which a character, about to be executed, begged and pleaded for his life and invoked the mercy of god. His executor said simply ‘you have no god’ and pulled the trigger.
In that second or two it really hit home to me how easy it is to dehumanise someone to the extent that taking their life becomes, well, easy. Not an aberration, not something that requires the horror of a battlefield. Something banal, almost mundane. It scared me way more than the horrors of war.
It is why I feel so alienated from contemporary political debate. It seems to be in a race of mutually-assured destruction to see who can find the most dehumanising language to use about their opponents. And it has become normalised.
It is the only reason I can find for why a respected academic is calling other respected academics a ‘racist gang’ – and refusing to back down.
The language set which dominated the political and social debate of the 2010s shows no sign of abating. It is a language set which knows no mercy, no moderation, which frames all opponents as ‘without a god’, fair game for brutality.
I don’t know Tom Devine personally but his body of work is not that of a racist and I would be utterly amazed if there was anything serious to substantiate that claim. I’m pretty sure Geoff Palmer knows that and doesn’t mean, in literal terms, that Devine is driven by a hatred of black people.
But that is the language which is at hand, the toolset of the Age of Identity, a toolset in which every tool is a weapon. Feel annoyed, disrespected, not listened to, misunderstood, attacked? Reach out, feel the cold, solid power of those weapons in your hand: grip, raise and bring down with all your might onto the head of your opponent – and keep bludgeoning until they’re destroyed.
I have watched this era rise with a kind of horror. I watched a linguistic arms race evolve like every other arms race, each side convinced they are doing nothing more than protecting themselves as their own belligerence rises and rises as their efforts go into trying to make each attack more devastating, more destructive, than the last.
That great fallacy that, like fucking your way to virginity, you can destroy your way to peace, mutilate your way to a better society
Crass comments denigrating women could no longer ever be sexist, they had to be ‘misogynistic’, driven by an ideological hatred of women. Stupid racist statements became ‘white supremacy’, an ideological desire to subjugate all minority groups. Supporting Palestinians became ‘antisemitism’, an ideological hatred of Jews.
Questioning any aspect of the view that sex can be literally changed made you a ‘transphobe’, dedicated to preventing the very existence of other people. Expressing any kind of anguished confusion about your identity as a young man was invalidated with the phrase ‘hate-filled incel’.
There isn’t space to go into the glossary of Scottish independence/unionism, Brexiteer/Remainist, New Labour/Corbyn Labour, US Democrat/US Republican (and I’m not about to replicate the language set of the hard right). It’s an equal-opportunities total war this one. No-one seems not to be honing their weapons to increase the damage they can inflict.
Everything else becomes a victim to this bloodbath – nuance, engagement, listening, resolution, patience, empathy, care, thought, love. That great fallacy that, like fucking your way to virginity, you can destroy your way to peace, mutilate your way to a better society.
What petrifies me about this is what I see in the eyes of the main combatants. What I see is what I saw in the eyes of that executioner in that film – a blank, cold self-certainty which left no room for doubt or empathy.
What I see around them is the inevitable awfulness of they way they drag everyone else into their vortex. Their viciousness bleeds over and normalises the behaviour and so when people who do not have their zeal reach for tools with the genuine intent of creating a better world, the only tools they find are weapons.
Never yet have I seen a conflict where both sides were not absolutely convinced both that they were wholly and unquestioningly right and that every atrocity was necessary and justified
I suspect that is what has happened with Geoff Palmer. I suspect he did not wake up one morning with the aim of defaming another academic who himself has done much to try and make the world a better place. I’m sure he, in frustration, reached for what he thought was a tool.
Another victim of this awful war-without-end is true regret. Apologies are now performative practices carried out when a participant in the identity wars has sustained too much damage to survive.
I’m sure Dr Palmer would have, in other times, have quickly realised his words had gone too far and that he needed at the very least to recontextualise them. But if every apology is a white flag of surrender, an apparent admission that your argument (and not just the way you phrased it) is now invalid, they become impossible.
Never yet have I seen a conflict where both sides were not absolutely convinced both that they were wholly and unquestioningly right and that every atrocity was necessary and justified. Vanishingly few left a better world in their wake.
The only hope I see is that there are an increasing number of people willing to speak out about this culture of linguistic violence. I’m not naïve – I don’t fail to realise that society creates these tensions again and again. But nor am I imagining that it is particularly bad just now, nor that has a little patience and a touch of tolerance been so delegitimised.
All I can do is do what I always did – try and listen to what someone else is trying to say before dismissing it and calling them names, and make some effort to understand what is making them say it if they’ve gone too far. This is the only way I know to maintain enough empathy to engage.
If there is another route out of this awful mess, I can’t see it. Peace isn’t something you achieve, it’s something you do.