The power of words

Remember the nonsense we were told when we were younger – Sticks and stones might break my bones, but names will never hurt me? Words hurt all the time. Of course, they can also soothe, comfort and inform, but they certainly have real power. Otherwise we would not have courses on better communication, would not get angry at poorly worded e-mails (hmmm, or blogs – I hope not), and there would be little point in literature. Words arouse emotions. And of course, they can be used for evil or for good.

Only last week, we had a number of headlines in British newspapers following a legal ruling. I think it’s fair to say that most court cases are of interest only to the parties involved, and normally we are oblivious to their existence, never mind the outcome. This one was different. I am not going to get into the case itself, but one headline in particular caught a lot of people’s attention.

The Daily Mail called the three judges involved “Enemies of the people” (all capitalised, of course) and has been widely, but not universally, criticised for doing so. One senior bishop, Nick Baines, said that “The last time we saw things like the photographs of judges on the front pages of a newspaper described as enemies of the people is in places like Nazi Germany, in Zimbabwe and places like that.”


Photo: The Independent

There is now a new rule that any argument on the internet will end up with an accusation of the other party being a Nazi, and labels like that and fascist are thrown about too much.


My immediate reaction on seeing the headline was exactly that parallel. The word which came to me was the German equivalent of “enemy of the people”, Volksverräter, a word used in Nazi Germany to describe essentially anyone in opposition to the Nazi state, including anyone who had sympathies with Jews. So when I saw this headline, I saw a British newspaper using the English language equivalent of a term used most prominently by the Nazis (and now being used again in right-wing movements in Germany).

And surprise, surprise, Nigel Farage intends to march with 100,000 like-minded souls to the court when the Supreme Court delivers its judgement on the government’s appeal. So now we have the threat of mobs descending upon our courts whenever a right-wing politician does not like the possible outcome. I’ve seen that before as well.

Fascism did not start with mass rallies in Nuremberg. It started quietly without anyone noticing. It fed on hatred of others, rather like the Daily Express’s barrage of demonising “migrants.”

Fascist leaders knowingly lied, rather like a significant proportion of politicians in the UK’s referendum campaign. And it hid behind a facade until it was too late.

Judges were not independent of the Nazi state. They were a part of it. I am thrown back in time when I hear a Conservative Party grandee say “Judges are out of their boxes these days and need to be put back in.” (Norman Tebbit, if you were wondering). And I thought we were proud of having an independent, qualified and experienced judiciary. (I still am, for the record.)

So how might fascism start in this day and age?

Perhaps with a man who likes to be photographed with a pint in his hand as he pretends to have anything in common with the people just beginning to feel the consequence of a collapse in his country’s currency while he stands on the sidelines making veiled threats against anyone who disagrees with him.

The leaders of the far-right parties in the UK, Germany, Austria and a certain individual in the US seem to share a worrying number of (negative) similarities, including some or all of those below. I would not be surprised if their counterparts in France and other countries showed similar traits.

  • They lie and lie and lie and simply do not care.
  • They allege that elections they think they will lose are rigged against them.
  • They have a clear view that (some) foreigners are the problem and less of them is the solution.
  • They claim to speak for “the people.”
  • Threats of violence are usually worded in such a way that they do not – quite – constitute a criminal offence, but the audience knows what they mean.

But there are alternatives. At its most basic, imagine what the world would be like if, instead of looking to far-right politicians for solutions which are no solutions, we simply treated others (or just tried to treat others) as we would like them to treat us? The behaviours we are seeing from these politicians would stop. Nobody wants to be lied to or threatened. There are plenty good principles out there, coming from many different sources, which can transcend politics, centuries and countries, and – I hope – enough good people who will oppose the evil being dressed up and sold to us at the moment. Because we all know what can happen if we do not.

In the meantime, maybe don’t buy these newspapers. There are others which still have principles and a sense of professional ethics.

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