Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


Jo Cox … and the Language of Hate …


My former colleague Jo Cox was murdered amid an ugly and fearful mood in Britain.

Now, it can only get worse as the UK has voted to raise the drawbridge and ‘take back’ their country.

Political rhetoric in the lead-up to the EU referendum was already toxic and divisive, particularly on the issue of immigration.

Jo was strongly pro-immigration and had campaigned for Britain to remain part of the European Union.

She was killed by a man on the streets of her constituency in northern England. Widower Brendan Cox believes his wife died because of her beliefs and that it was an act of terror designed to inspire hate.

I first met Jo and Brendan – both extraordinary individuals – about 10 years ago when I worked with aid agency Oxfam in England.

Jo was head of advocacy and I worked with Brendan in the media team. Jo was proudly “made in Yorkshire” and loved the great outdoors.

I remember her asking me why I was still living in England after she had seen photos of the Tasmanian wilderness plastered around my desk.

Jo was elected to Parliament as a Labour MP in 2015 and quickly became one of its brightest, rising stars. She was a lifelong humanitarian campaigner, a feminist and mum to two young kids.

As the news of Jo’s death reverberated around the world, it led to some reflection about the conduct of politics in the UK.

In a BBC interview1 Brendan spoke about the increasing tribalism of politics, the coarsening of language and tendency to play to peoples’ fears rather than better natures.

These were sentiments echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who warned, in the wake of Jo’s death, about the dangers of divisive language, saying that “exaggeration and radicalisation of language did not help foster an atmosphere of respect.”2

In Australia we too need to bring into sharper focus the language of public and political discourse.

Language matters and words have consequences.

Rhetoric which promotes fear or prejudice provides succour to those harbouring extremist or prejudicial views. The embers of hate are fanned by hateful and violent language.

Homophobic comments sit on a continuum – at the far end is violence. Dehumanising language paves the way for abuse.

Malcolm Turnbull began his prime ministership with a notable de-escalation in the often grotesque, war-mongering and inflammatory rhetoric of Tony Abbott; there was no more talk of “death cults”.

But a notable shift in Turnbull’s tone came when he accused his political opponents of waging a “war” on business. His Treasurer Scott Morrison took the metaphor further and said taxes were “bullets”3.

Turnbull’s language didn’t pass unnoticed by those who understood the true horror of war. Vietnam Veterans Association President Ken Foster condemned Turnbull’s comments as “tasteless in the extreme” 4. Foster said politics cannot and should not be equated to war.

Chancellor Merkel also said that it was important to “draw limits” in the choice of speech and arguments, but also in the choice of “disparaging argument”5.

If we ‘let slip the dogs of war’ in our language, then we provide fertile ground for hate and violence.

Research findings in cognitive linguistics show the effects of language to be profound. A metaphor, for example, can radically effect what we believe is the solution to a problem, our judgements about guilt and punishment and our recall and interpretation of facts.

A single word can influence how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. Language that invokes fear in an individual narrows their ability for rational, higher-order reasoning6.

Male violence toward women is emboldened by sexist language.

The reaction to Eddie McGuire’s ‘joke’ about drowning a female sports journalist shows we have a way to go when it comes to understanding the harm done by language.

Many were outraged by McGuire’s comments but others sought to excuse it as playful ‘banter’. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the comments were “silly”, “off-hand remarks” and people shouldn’t take offence. Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett said he didn’t know what all the fuss was about7.

Our Watch8 part of a national initiative to prevent violence against women, draws the link between sexist language and male violence against women. Demeaning language towards women reinforces prejudices that affect how people think about and respond to violence against women.

I was disturbed to read recently about hate-fuelled violence here in my home state of Tasmania.

In the North-West, a Greens candidate spoke of a campaign of vitriol and intimidation9. In an escalation, a group of men turned up at his home and allegedly hurled abuse. His daughter, who was home alone, bore the brunt.

And in Hobart, a taxi driver from Somalia was brutally bashed by a group of men shouting racist comments. The father of seven said it was the attack on the colour of his skin that left him most shaken.10

Our language decides which values, attitudes and beliefs we promote and reinforce. A group of powerful men ‘joking’ on radio about drowning a woman in a country where one woman a week is killed by men’s violence is beyond unacceptable.

War rhetoric turns our referendums and elections into metaphorical life-and-death battles – assimilation or destruction of the opponent the only outcome possible.

These are not the notions we want to bring to the fore of public consciousness. We must knit people together in a warm blanket of humanity in order to prevent extremism in all its guises.

Jo Cox dedicated her life to making the world a better place.

In her maiden speech to the UK Parliament she spoke of us having “more in common” (#MoreInCommon is now a trending hashtag) than things which divide us.

Her untimely death is unspeakably tragic.

Now, more than ever, we need to elevate our language to reinforce notions of commonalty, inclusion and respect if we are to achieve that better world.

Refs …

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36592122
2 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/17/angela-merkel-urges-eu-referendum-campaigns-to-moderate-language
3 http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2016-opinion/war-and-repatriation-scott-morrison-and-malcolm-turnbull-in-staggering-display-of-oblivious-timing-20160602-gpa4p8.html
4 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-02/vietnam-veterans-slam-scott-morrison’s-comments-as-tasteless/7471922
5 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/17/angela-merkel-urges-eu-referendum-campaigns-to-moderate-language
6 http://lera.ucsd.edu/papers/crime-metaphors.pdf
7 http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/eddie-mcguire-and-caroline-wilson-shorten-snubs-mcguire-after-ice-pool-remarks-20160620-gpnfby.html
8 http://www.ourwatch.org.au/
9 http://www.themercury.com.au/news/politics/greens-candidate-scott-jordan-left-fuming-over-thugs-in-the-dark/news-story/a81f016ec496ea760067c2b05a29dd05
10 http://www.themercury.com.au/news/tasmania/brutal-race-attack-as-taxi-driver-punched-and-abused-by-four-men/news-story/02872a89bcfbeddf08930fba97d782a6

Published also Mercury HERE

*Journalist Harriet Binet, above is a former Mercury reporter who has worked as a communications adviser in Tasmania and overseas.

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. Mike Bolan

    June 30, 2016 at 11:48 am

    All true, as is the degrading result of treating innocent and powerless people inhumanely as a matter of policy, disregarding treaties and agreements as if they were nothing, falsely describing refugees as ‘illegals’ for not waiting in non-existant queues.

    Once governments establish scapegoats, it’s an easy step to justify snatching innocents off the streets and tarring them as guilty because there are “serious charges”. Now we can try them in secret using secret evidence and jail journalists and others who report on the stories.

    How low can we go? Our governments are keen to help us find out!

  2. Peter

    June 30, 2016 at 3:26 am

    I’ve been waiting for ABC to post this online. Shouldn’t this have also applied to Abetz??

    Election 2016: Nick Xenophon Team Tasmanian Senate candidate ruled out By Ted O’Connor (ABC Hobart)

    Tasmania’s hotly contested final Senate seat could be decided in court after a candidate discovered he was ineligible.

    Nicky Cohen is second on the Nick Xeonophon Team ticket and told the Australian Electoral Commission he mistakenly did not renounce his British citizenship.

    But the AEC said his name would still appear on the ballot and his vote would be counted.

    Depending on the outcome of Saturday’s double dissolution election, the result could also be subject to a court challenge.

    AEC acting state manager David Molnar said Mr Cohen could be criminally prosecuted for providing misleading information.

    “If a candidate declares they are eligible we have to declare it on face value,” he said.

    Political analysts are confident Labor, the Coalition, the Greens and the Jacqui Lambie network will win 11 Senate seats, but the final spot is up for grabs.

    University of Tasmania political scientist Glenn Kefford said given Mr Cohen is second on the ticket, it is unlikely he would win a seat.
    Outcome may depend on preferences

    But he said even a small number of votes for the ineligible candidate could influence the result once preferences were distributed, which could bring on a legal challenge.

    “If the race becomes very tight, depending on how the numbers fall, one possible outcome is that is could lead to court proceedings,” he said.

    “There’s a number of small political parties competing for that spot — there’s the Jacquie Lambie Network, the Recreational Fishers Party.

    “If any of those parties believe they could be disadvantaged by the presence of this candidate on the ballot paper, the result could be disputed.”

    Dr Kefford said while in the US court challenges of election results are commonplace, in Australian they are much rarer.

    In the past two decades there have been four major challenges in the High Court to the qualifications of sitting members, or election candidates under Constitutional law.

    In 1987, a sitting New South Wales Senator was disqualified for not being an Australian citizen, leading to a recount.

    Mr Cohen has stopped campaigning after informing the AEC of his mistake and the Nick Xenophon Team has been contacted for comment.


    (short version of this URL:


  3. Steve

    June 29, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    Thanks for the article Harriet. I’m firmly of the belief that language is far more important than generally considered.
    I’m also very aware that the base of all humour is cruelty. Any public figure employing humour should do a risk assessment as to who is the victim of their humour. Some humour is harmless, some is not.

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