Writer Graham Peacock analyses the effect that politicians’ ideas and words can have on minority groups.
In June, an image of a lesbian couple on a London bus, badly beaten and covered in their own blood, went viral on social media. The assault was perpetrated by a group of male teenage attackers, who had beaten the couple after they refused to kiss for the group's "enjoyment". This was just one example of the many anti-LGBTQ+ attacks across the UK, which have surged by 144% over the last four years. In Britain, a simultaneous rise in right-wing ideology and hate crimes brings with it the suggestion that the validation of far-right views is linked to the rise in brutality. With the conversation increasingly divisive in tone, the question emerges if these political ideals deserve a voice within the conversation, or have they become redundant in a modern society, exposed as nothing more than bigotry that fuels violence?
In order to understand the resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, we can look towards the current political landscape in Britain. Since early 2019, the Brexit Party have been making major strides with disillusioned, predominantly right-wing voters, and though the argument can be made that supporters are purely focusing on the party’s staunch pro-Brexit stance, the figureheads of the party and their position on other policies, is perhaps indicative of a different kind of movement. Brexit Party member, and prominent anti-LGBTQ+ politician, Anne Widdecombe, came under fire earlier in the year for reiterating her support for gay conversion therapy, and her belief that continued research "may produce an answer" to homosexuality.
In response to the backlash, party leader, Nigel Farage, said on Good Morning Britain: "Science may provide all sorts of answers that you and I don't know about – Anne Widdecombe is a devout Christian, and there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion." Farage’s statement plays on a popular defence of "ultra-conservative" views. In a climate they argue is dominated by political correctness, right-wing campaigners seem to have rebranded their message, arguing that the conferring of rights to LGBTQ+ individuals would seemingly undermine the religious values of figures such as Anne Widdecombe. In doing so, they detract from a marginalised group, seeking to instead focus on their own perceived victimhood.
The use of others' sexuality as a political talking point shares parallels with discussions relating to female bodily autonomy. Last summer, Jeremy Hunt (then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), in his the prime-ministerial seat, came out in support of halving the abortion time limit, from 24 weeks to 12, having presented no scientific evidence to support his claim. Hunt’s rhetoric comes at a time in which anti-choice campaigners continue to protest outside health clinics offering abortion services in the UK. The campaigners argue that they are protecting the lives of unborn children, and further exercising their freedom of speech. However, anti-choice organisations have been found to distribute pamphlets featuring false information linking abortion to breast cancer. Furthermore, there are countless examples of women attempting to enter clinics being accosted and physically harassed.
Whilst freedom of speech and religious expression are two core pillars of democracy, the impediment of women’s access to healthcare through threatening behaviour is a form of harassment. What quickly becomes apparent is that the rhetoric of politicians, such as Widdicombe and Hunt, have real-world implications on those living the existence they decry or set out to rhetorically challenge. Indeed, though Hunt may never have enacted the policy he mentioned, the legitimisation of anti-choice rhetoric only fermented a rising culture of intolerance.
The immediate reaction to this resurgence in harmful rhetoric may be to swiftly shut these campaigners down, yet as indicated by the success of right-wing groups such as the Brexit Party in last summer’s EU Elections, they clearly represent the feelings of a large number of voters today. As long as a notable percentage of society support a certain political view it seems questionable to silence them for voicing their beliefs in a democratic fashion. Yet, this needs to be balanced with an awareness of how rhetoric often precedes action and how the interplay of both have far reaching consequences for the stability of any democratic society.
Religious expression is a notion that is compromised by the dragging of ideals into the political sphere as a vehicle to bulldoze vulnerable group’s rights. Despite branding homosexuality as ‘fashionable', Pope Francis has expressed a desire to be compassionate, indicative of a figure at least attempting to separate his religious duties from the temporal domain. His more liberal position compared to the Catholic Church’s legacy of persecution towards the queer community, also raises the notion that perhaps right-wing advocates are using the veil of religious ideology and family values to distract from their deep-rooted personal intolerances. In doing so they soften the blow of what is effectively hate speech, spreading dangerous sentiments with the intent to dehumanise others. What this rebranded conservatism culminates in is a culture of acceptance towards outdated beliefs, which in turn fuels the kind of violent, xenophobic attacks that have surged across the UK.
Perhaps what we require then is collective compassion, and the ability to separate the personal from the political. Liberal and conservative ideals will always divide opinions, and the notion that illiberal voices must be immediately silenced is perhaps unfair. Voters and campaigners should never be stripped of their freedom to voice their concerns surrounding legislation they believe infringes on their values. However, efforts must be made on both sides of the political spectrum to bring an end to the hostility that currently grips political discourse. This can only be done if we accept that minority groups are fully entitled to the rights, they have fought so hard to earn, and that these disagreements can never be solved once censorship, violence, and harmful rhetoric enter the conversation.