The murder of Jo Cox MP by a man shouting, “Britain first!” has caused public horror and the temporary abandonment of the ritual exchange of lies and insults which has taken the place of rational debate about membership of the EU. Suddenly even the worst offenders, most of whom are well-known public figures, are seen with solemn faces, deploring violence and urging more protection for MPs. Doubtless the public will regard their solemnity with the same scepticism as their rabid splutterings.
My particular concern is that the BBC whose newscasts have for weeks given publicity to intemperate allegations and slurs, whose presenters have given airtime to routine lying and called it balance, now has the impertinence to put on black ties and ask if there’s something disrespectful about the way we treat our politicians. Indeed, responding to the terrible death of a young woman with hours of vapid discussion may be another kind of disrespect. The very news engine which has gorged on political abuse is now chewing its way through the tragedy of a human death.
The atmosphere in which we currently do our poiitics is seriously polluted, and therefore dangerous, even if, as it may turn out, it had little to do with the murder of Jo Cox.
I immediately think of two classic Christian texts.
The first is the sermon on the mount in which Jesus quotes the commandment against killing and goes on to to forbid violent and denigratory speech against another person. I have to admit that I have not often preached on this text, perhaps because churches have their own internal arguments which do not always avoid harsh words. I may have been guilty myself of words designed to demolish rather than to refute. Like all teachings of Jesus, the link he makes between violent action and violent words is wise and radical. The mental and emotional disposition in which we dismiss others as worthless is violent even if we manage to restrain ourselves from anything worse than words. Clearly if we permit violent public discourse we encourage acts of violence. More positively, if we encourage peaceful public discourse, we discourage acts of violence.
The second is Simone Weil ‘s book, “The Need for Roots” written during the Second World War. In it she lays down what she calls “needs of the soul” the most sacred of which, she says, is truth. Human beings in society need truth and suffer from lies. She writes this sentence: “We all know that when journalism becomes indistinguishable from organised lying, it constitutes a crime.” She goes on to ask why it is not punished, and seriously proposes making it a crime to publish lies. She knew that this would lead to howls of democratic rage from the habitual liars, but suggested a special sort of independent judiciary to deal with such cases. Perhaps we need to recognise that public lying is a crime and the mother of crimes, and that a press free of political control need not be free of all control.
These issues have been of concern to me for some years, but may be of greater public concern in the wake of public savagery.