LANGUAGE CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

A recent involvement with Extinction Rebellion has given rise to niggles about its apparent lack of inclusiveness and some of the language used.

I support the aims of Extinction Rebellion and its commitment to non-violence and civil disobedience. And it is for that reason perhaps that I have serious concerns about some of the language used.

I have been struck in particular by the sign-off ‘In love and rage’.

The use of the term ‘rage’ – which means uncontrollable anger – seems entirely inappropriate. This is not just a matter of semantics.  If you have ever been confronted by true rage in all its rawness and ferocity you will know how frightening and negative it is.  It is also indicative of impotence or powerlessness.

And where does rage lead to?  Violence. Witness events on the London Tube on Thursday 17 October. Rage is also what the motivates the thuggish elements of the far right, those who harbour irrational fears of ‘the other’ as an antidote to their own powerlessness and ignorance. And street violence is the language of the fascism. 

We may be angry with those politicians, financiers and industrialists who we feel have betrayed us and the planet – but we are all also to blame for our chosen life-styles. And if we are angry with ourselves we are not well equipped to take sensible action. 

Or are we just angry with those who do not appear to be ‘with’ us? But Extinction Rebellion is not, I hope,  just an ‘angry brigade’ and certainly not like the Angry Brigade of 50 years ago – a small group of London anarchists who took to bombing buildings to challenge reactionary politics, and regimes. XR has shown itself to be an intelligent, well-organised and open organisation which is attracting people who have never before taken part in civil disobedience.

Which is another reasons why I have similar problems with the name adopted by the Red Brigade, a name which harks back to to the nihilistic violence of the Brigate Rosse of the 1970s whose political action took the form of assassinations, bombings and kidnapping. Perhaps inadvertently, the name is calculated to bring back memories among older members (and the Daily Mail) of the fear and confusion engendered by those who first adopted it.

The XR version itself is tremendously effective as a piece of street theatre – through some may find it terrifying, especially as it grows and grows like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale. The presence of these silent scarlet witnesses is powerful, but why use a name that feeds into the wrong kind message? 

And had those who thought up the ‘Red Hand’ event never heard of the more recent Red Hand Commandos/Defenders? These vicious gangs of loyalist paramilitaries employed the Red Hand of Ulster as a symbol of their sectarian hatred (and rejection of the Good Friday Agreement). The power of symbols reside in their histories and if they are misunderstood they too can be alienating.

It’s like the term ‘eco-warrior’. And calling on people to ‘fight’.  These are ‘macho’ terms more likely to put people off than to draw them in to the essential tasks in hand.  

At a time when hope and trust are in sort supply I am sure many members of the public would much prefer to be engaged with a movement that promotes both.

Some people may be outraged – a feeling of anger and shock – on realising the consequences of global warning, but the big problem is surely that most people may not have really got the message yet. It’s seems too far away. And even for those who have got the message, the thought of impending doom merely adds to the anxiety so many people, young and old, now feel about the state of the world today.

Trepidation, even fear, might better express the emotions of the many, rather than ‘rage’.

In my experience the problem is often that people don’t make the right connections, like the loathsome Andrea Leadsom opining that XR are demonstrating in the wrong city and the wrong country.  Might the same be true within the ranks of XR? It really is worth finding things out before condemning others! It all comes down asking the right questions. 

I rather resent being hammered by car-owning zealots (I’ve never owned or driven one) because I admit to using air travel in my work. Often it was the only way I could reach the post-conflict zones and emerging democracies where I have been promoting ethical journalism and human rights for much of the last 20 years. It might be worth asking, at least, what measures may have been taken to offset carbon emissions.

The age old tradition of middle-class guilt tripping should have gone out of fashion years ago. Look at the gentle persuasion of David Attenborough. He has made enormous an impact on public consciousness with his documentaries and revelations about plastic in the oceans. Evidence and explanation is a far more effective technique than the utterly alienating approach of those who prefer to judge others.

At a recent XR Elders meeting there was predominant sense of guilt about the pleasant life most of we ‘baby-boomers’ had experienced. Apparently this guilt was a motivation for getting involved in civil disobedience on behalf of their grandchildren. But for all of us who had lived a relatively comfortable post-war existence in Britain. there are thousands more who have had tough lives – from the miners and steelworkers, to those who have suffered unemployment, homelessness and myriad forms of exploitation in the workplace and and at home. What efforts are being made to draw them in, as well as those who are now on the margins of society?

Which brings me to my final point. In XR’s efforts to effect change we are bound to tread on a few toes, but we need to make sure they are the right toes. We also need to consider how to bring people along with us. Alienating them is a sure guarantee of losing the argument. 

Hopefully negative reactions to the tube train debacle in London on 17 October will ensure that lessons are learned, especially given the generally positive responses there have been to the imaginative actions organised through XR around the country. 

The apparent willingness of XR’s ‘Waitrose warriors’ to get themselves arrested has been mocked as a form of game-playing by a privileged few. In fact XR is a very broad church ranging from those with anarchistic tendencies to the very respectable and those with a highly sophisticated understanding of the science involved. But not so broad when it comes to class and ethnicity.

Where in XR’s ranks, for instance, are the climate change refugees who form and will continue to form an increasing proportion of those seeking sanctuary in the privileged West. And where are those marginalised by the impact of globalisation, through lost jobs and poverty?

An entitled few may be willing to risk arrest – and get an adrenaline rush and perhaps the odd bruise from their first taste of the justice system – but for many people brushes with the law are far from a game. White middle class activists may think they are doing it as surrogates for their Black and minority ethnic neighbours as well as to save the planet, but their attitudes may actually have the effect of excluding the very people who should also be on board the ‘big boat’.

I love the imagination and enthusiasm that XR represents; I heartily respect the actions of the children emulating Greta Thurberg; I am desperately keen that my grandchildren and theirs will have a safe place to live on a healthy planet. But we have to make sure that everyone we know appreciates what they can do to help.

Not everyone has the time, strength or inclination to take part in mass mobilisations. But going about our normal lives in a different way can speak volumes about a commitment to the change that needs to come.

Some literally cannot afford to make the most significant of those changes; changes in life-style can be costly. 

XR activists may be the vanguard but to effect real change they need an impetus that can only come if they can bring people with them. Relying upon a tipping point of 3.5% of active citizens to effect political change is one way of proceeding, but surely it’s more effective if the percentage is much higher. 

We need to challenge the lawmakers and the polluters by all means, but demonstrate the strength of the argument by equipping everyone with the knowledge and opportunities they have to make a difference.  Committing to public education, skills-sharing, and the promotion of life-style changes at the domestic level are as at least as effective a means of bringing about radical transformations as occasional mass mobilisations, and probably more sustainable. 

There are so many things that everyone can engage in from personal choices about their lifestyle, their shopping and eating habits, their homes and holidays, to lobbying councils and MPs about energy-saving, about re-afforestation, about sustainable housing and transport systems. Boycotting goods and stores is one demonstration of consumer power that can have a significant impact. Even petitions against the arms trade and fossil fuels and for investment in renewable energy sources allow those unable to be active on the streets to feel they have a part to play, 

Rebellion can mean armed insurrection, but it also means rejecting imposed conditions and asserting alternatives. Surely part of the change we all want to see is an end to the macho style of so much political, industrial and international posturing. Ending the need for wars by removing an economy’s reliance on the arms trade, for example, would be a giant step towards the future we need if humankind and its planet are to survive. The conversion of swords to ploughshares has never been a more appropriate symbol. 

And in developing techniques to achieve the change we all so urgently need, we need to start by thinking about the language we use.

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