In one of the most famous tales in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b), the power of words leads to death and near destruction of the rabbinic project. Not only that, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud are able to take God’s words and decontextualise them to mean almost the opposite of their ‘obvious’ meaning. (See Prof Jeffrey Rubenstein’s chapter on this tale for more information).
This all stems from a mishnah that concludes with the words of Exodus 22:20 commanding us that:
“You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
The seeds of division, discord and hate are sown with words. It is easy to open the ‘gates of wounded feelings‘ (as the Soncino translation puts it in a rather English understated way) it is pretty much impossible to close them.
It is this Talmudic tale, full of deep awareness of human psychology and the destructive power of words, that makes me full of worry for the current discourse with regards to those categories of people that fall effortlessly off the lips of some of our leaders and public voices: asylum seekers, refugees, scroungers, welfare recipients, indigenous populations, p*k** (a racist term for traveller), Muslims and Jews.
Sorry you may ask, did you say p*k**s, indigenous population, Muslims and Jews? Surely any discussion about immigration is always prefaced by a lengthy apologetic style commentary that boils down to the point that it doesn’t make you a racist to talk about immigration? Are we living in the 21st century or the middle of the 20th century?
In the last few months I’ve complained about the racist term P*K** being used in a local freely distributed trades magazine – who to their credit apologised straight away and removed the term:
I’ve written to my local paper to complain about the way the ‘Indigenous population’ is played against immigrants by the Chair of Hertsmere UKIP in a case that had nothing to do with immigration:
And I’ve been shocked by what I consider to be antisemitism on facebook – that facebook won’t remove:
And I’ve also been disturbed by hate filled emails that one MP has passed on to me that preach hate of Muslims, Gypsies and anyone not of the faith, race or nationality that presumably the pure indigenous English author considers to be superior. Apparently ‘we’re’ in need of salvation from the marauding strangers.
So here’s the thing. I think there is a link between discourse that reduces groups, communities and faiths, often speaking of them in a derogatory way, and a growing obsession with those groups that spills into hate. I don’t know how to make a change in the quality of discourse around the issues – I’m not even convinced they’re the actual issues we should even be worrying about – but I do recognise it’s not simple or easy but we must try.
It does not make you a racist to talk about immigration. You’re right. But when you think you talk with nuance it is not always what is heard and there are plenty of racists who are riding on your coat tails. When you speak of groups of people, the disabled, the malingerer, the benefit recipient (and benefits cheat) that you think can be easily bundled together claiming they are cheating hard-working families out of work and ruining our economy, your words can be used to fuel hate and suspicion. When you easily slip into a mocking tone, making fun of cultural and religious practices that you do not share or casting them in a light of suspicion and danger, followers taking over Britain by stealth, be very careful. This rhetoric is at the edge of discourse in which the seeds of division, discord and hate are sown. Do not be surprised when they come back to bite you and have been taken out of context, like God’s word in the Talmudic story above, and used in a way you never intended.
We must never ignore the racist, bigoted and vile poison that spews out of the mouths of the small minority of the population – it must be challenged and we must protest against it. And at the same time, for everyone else who is not in extremist politics we must remember that wronging another person, a stranger, someone who is not you, can be done as easily as the simple act of speech and the gates of wronging another are easily opened and never closed.