Divisive Language, Labelling and Demonisation

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4464.htm)

People in each of the major religions have purposely stirred up feeling against people of other religions by using abusive language.  Divisive and abusive language is often excused as exercising freedom of speech but it can polarise society; it is very easy, and very damaging (

Ethnicity may help to describe a person’s cultural background but, as with any other label, it is not in itself a reason for approval or disapproval of a person’s behaviour.  By adopting the language of multiculturalism, as Anne Phillips remarked:

“Culture is now widely employed in a discourse that denies human agency, defining individuals through their culture, and treating culture as the explanation for virtually everything they say or do.” [1]

A cultural label can subsequently be misapplied.  After a brutal murder in London on 22 May 2013, by two men who were described as ‘Muslims’, the BBC article headed Woolwich murder sparks anti-Muslim backlash reported that “there has been a large increase in anti-Muslim incidents since the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich”.  The backlash affected people who had nothing to do with terrorism or that murder; the criminal behaviour of two men was used to demonise all Muslims.

Melanie Phillips, in her book Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within (reviewed in The Guardian), wrote that “the fight against Israel is not fundamentally about land.  It is about hatred of the Jews”.  She refers to arguments on behalf of the Palestinians as anti-Semitic, and refers to the dangers of “mass immigration, multiculturalism and the onslaught mounted by secular nihilists against the country’s Judeo-Christian values”.  Her language indicates a desire to polarise British society rather than to seek a peaceful pluralist coexistence for all.

In a New York Post article, The Londonistan mindset, she dismissed the British government’s attempt to consult with Muslims in the following terms:

“A committee set up to advise Tony Blair how to combat Muslim extremism turned out to be stuffed with Muslim extremists, who promptly declared that the causes of Muslim terrorism were deprivation, discrimination and Islamophobia.”

….the British establishment is “transfixed by the artificial division it has erected between those who actively espouse violence and those who do not.”

She didn’t explain why she disagreed with the arguments put forward by the committee; instead she chose words that would discredit the advisers, by referring to them as “extremists”, and implied that there is little difference between one Muslim and another – despite the existence of such groups as the Ahmadiyya Muslims, whose creed “categorically rejects every form of terrorism”.

As Kenan Malik pointed out in his review of her book, published in The Independent, there are striking similarities between her arguments and those of radical Islamists:

“Both insist that we are in a religious world war between the forces of good and evil.  Both believe that only religion can help restrain decadent behaviour and establish a proper moral framework.  Both abhor the growth of secular humanism.”

Tom Gross, in a New York Post Review of the book, praised Melanie Phillips for drawing attention to the problems of Islamist radicalisation but pointed out that her presentation of it as a clash of cultures avoids discussing the real issues; he also noted other adverse reactions printed in some of the British press.

Journalists, and others who proclaim their own views, have a moral duty to aim criticism carefully at specific behaviour of identified individuals.  The careless use of broad labels, which unjustly spread criticism across all the members of an ethnic group, creates resentment and increases the risk of ethnic conflict.



[1] Anne Phillips commented on the over-emphasis on culture, in her book Multiculturalism without Culture, p.9.  The Introduction was available in March 2018 at http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8418.pdf.