Divisive Language, Labelling and Demonisation

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.  Anne Phillips commented on the over-emphasis on people’s culture, in the introduction to her book Multiculturalism without Culture:

“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.” [p. 9]

In a Guardian interview, The multicultural menace, anti-semitism and me, Melanie Phillips said of Muslims that:

“They are fuelled by an ideology that itself is non-negotiable and forms a continuum that links peaceful, law-abiding but nevertheless intensely ideological Muslims at one end and murderous jihadists at the other.”

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

She takes no account of the many Muslims who may be religiously observant but who are not “intensely ideological”, or the many more who would acknowledge their identity as Muslim but who are not observant.  And she didn’t mention the Ahmadiyya Muslims, whose creed “categorically rejects every form of terrorism”.

She seemed to want to categorise everyone as being divided on religious lines – failing to recognise that most people are content to live together peacefully.  Her language increases hostility to all Muslims: Islamophobia.  As noted earlier (, stigmatising a group strengthens it and makes it more confrontational.

The impact of Islamophobia is to escalate tensions, in a rising spiral of violence.  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.

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.



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4464a.htm