The toxic language of Brexit and its appeal to emotion

Jeering, shouting, accusations of misleading information and raucous booing and laughter. Our typical scenes of parliament in the UK have only intensified in recent weeks as the Brexit proceedings (if they can be called that) have continued to rumble painfully on.

There can be no doubt anymore of the acrimony and the way it is creeping into day to day British life. Watching recent debates, the toxicity and anger almost leaks through TV screens. Continued mud slinging, name calling and attempts to discredit and hurt. These have become our norm. With a feeling that rather than a debate the whole affair has become a war of words, hardly moving forward but swinging back and forth and only fuelling ill will. But what impact does this display of vitriol and heightened language really have? Beyond turning political discourse into more entertainment spectacle than legitimate debate?

The impact of language in a political arena has real, tangible and damaging effects. This week saw news that hate crimes in the UK (which have been steadily rising since the referendum in 2016) reached an all-time high, with a particular spike in the last year. Their prevalence has been in part attributed to the toxic language used in parliament and across the Brexit debate. The repeated use of words such as “surrender” and “humiliation bill” are intended to inflame and divide. And they do just that. Their usage on a parliamentary platform add legitimacy to these notions and to the hatred of extremist groups.

Language’s potency can also be seen in the rising tide of populism (in particular right wing or right leaning populism) in politics across the world. Populism has a long standing tradition of using language to divide, unite and buoy masses and supporters. And of escalating that rhetoric as time goes on. Donald Trump is a natural example of this. We’ve become almost accustomed to images of his chanting rallies; progressing from “Build a wall” through to “Send her back”. Similarly, consider the reaction to his recent “Hispanic invasion” advertising campaign, which pales in comparison to the shock that his comments about “Mexican rapists” made 4 years ago.

Dangerous language becomes more dangerous when it becomes normalized by going unchecked over time. The more it’s said, the less we hear it. Boris Johnson too has embraced populist rhetoric in his speech. The idea that the people just want to “get Brexit done” pitting the “will of the people” against parliament and embracing historic or military imagery in his speech (in fact research has shown that up until his resignation as Foreign Secretary last year he hardly ever used military or war references in his writing or speech. It’s a tactic that he has chosen to adopt as he builds his populist brand).

One key reason why this type of language is both so successful and also so damaging is because it appeals to emotion over reason. We live more and more in a world typified by emotion rather than reason. The parliamentary scenes we’ve seen of late reflect this. It’s a politics of wants and desires rather than reasoned debate. And by appealing to people’s emotions in rhetoric it’s easier to illicit support. It’s been shown that embarrassment and humiliation are the most powerful of human emotions, which is why appealing to them with terms such as “humiliation bill” and appealing to a sense of injustice is dangerous.

Emotion’s role in politics is also the result of our ever growing online and digital discourse. Online debate is frequently characterised by intense emotion (after all it’s not the easiest task in the world to be reasoned in 280 characters). The internet provides a platform where it’s feasible to be outraged about pretty much anything. A quick Google can confirm nearly any bad feeling we have about an issue, an individual or a piece of art. Agreement from our most banal to our most poisonous opinions is rife. What’s more it works in the latter’s favour. Algorithms surrounding comments sections and online debate typically flag up the more divisive remarks fueling more extreme debate and outrage.

All of us will have seen an online discussion rapidly degenerate into angry, highly emotive interaction. Within this spectrum sits another area of emotive language exchange and language policing. Concepts such as trigger warnings or no platforming also illustrate how loaded and important language has become. The internet incubates these ideas. It both promotes more extremist language and opinion whilst also growing a culture of shutting down debate.

Politics in turn is starting to emulate this type of discussion. Chasing quick attention grabs or soundbites. We’re becoming accustomed to faster, shorter and more emotive discussions. It’s a difficult line to tread. At what point does moderating language become censorship? But perhaps what we need to be ensuring is that we all consider language more, that we become more aware of its power and try and pick apart the emotion and the inflammatory from the reasoned.

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