Tragedy burst onto our news headlines this week with the bleak announcement that 27 people had died attempting to enter England from France via the English channel. 27 human souls made up of men, women, children and even a pregnant woman lost their lives when their boat sank.
The politics behind the inhumane decision to make it as difficult as possible to allow desperate people to enter our country are beyond the remit of this article. What I am concerned with is not the cause of the tragedy but the reaction to it on right wing social media and what that reaction says about the humanity of those celebrating these unnecessary deaths.
Specifically I am interested in the reactions on Telegram. Telegram is largely uncensored social media. People will self censor their views for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. as these platforms have robust Terms of Service and individuals using the platforms have self interest in not getting banned or suspended. Telegram is the platform where people feel free to express the very worst parts of themselves, their unfettered uncensored hatred spewed liberally for all to see.
The Tommy Robinson Telegram channel posted this summary of the tragic event.
These are a selection of the 320 comments (to date) from his supporters and fans.
In the interest of being fair there were some of the Robinson supporters who called out this hatred. This individual in particular showed some humanity.
27 human souls lost. But the people pictured here are not just apathetic, they are positively gleeful about these deaths. They are joyful about the fact that people desperate enough to try and cross 21 miles of sea in an unseaworthy vessel in winter have died.
The question is how have these people come to hate strangers to the extent where they would wish death upon them? It would be easy to answer this by simply assuming a lack of empathy but I do not believe that is the case. Take this man for example. This is one of Resisting Hate’s most dedicated trolls. This is his foul response to the tragedy:
But we know a bit more about this individual than the other commenters. In among posts like this he posts about animal charities. He highlights dogs who need a home. He loves his own dog. He loves his family. He honours his father’s memory. It is too simple to say this individual is lacking in empathy, he isn’t. But yet he is still happy to tell us he is not sad about the 27 deceased men, women and children and to describe them as ‘greedy c*nts’.
So if these people are not psychopathic. If they can understand human emotions and relate to them the question remains as to how they can switch off this empathy when discussing specific groups of people.
To understand why it is important to take a closer look at the language used toward different community groups on Telegram.
On the Robinson piece relating to the tragedy, this is the language used to describe the people crossing the channel:
Looking at comments on another Robinson piece we find more of this dehumanising language:
This kind of language is familiar to anyone with a knowledge of history. This article explores how dehumanisation always starts with language and gives examples as to how this kind of language has been used throughout history to demonise and ‘other’ targeted community groups:
The most infamous example remains Nazi Germany where language relating to Jewish people as “rats” and “vermin” served to indoctrinate people into thinking Jewish people were sub human. This dehumanising of a large community group made it easier for people to accept the atrocities committed.
I would argue that this kind of language is no different to the examples seen on Telegram today regarding migrants.
Migrants are no means the only community group to experience this dehumanising language in modern times. A wider look at right wing Telegram shows dehumanisation of the Jewish community, the Black community, people from Pakistan, people with mental health issues and Muslims.
Note the extremist dehumanising language. Rats, vermin, maggots, animals…
It is easier to distance ourselves from fellow humans if we can separate them from ourselves in some way. In the same way white slavers felt no guilt for enslaving their fellow human beings and SS guards felt able to torture and murder their fellow human beings, modern reactions to tragedy involving stigmatised and marginalised groups is based on viewing them as of less worth or as less human than people believe themselves to be.
Social media, through use of this indoctrinating language is forcing a selective empathy where people (like our dedicated troll above) can retain the basic human ability to empathise but can switch it off with specific communities or individuals by seeing them as ‘other’ and less deserving of care and feeling.
This trend of dehumanisation to limit empathy is not just seen in tragedy. It is creeping into wider society. Terms like ‘benefit scrounger’ and ‘freeloader’ are slowly entering everyday lexicon to describe people claiming state benefits. Different language but the pattern of ‘othering’ is the same. This othering is based on fear. People need to believe that hardships only affect the undeserving. Acknowledging that job loss, ill health or disability could happen to anyone of us is conceding a vulnerability that many cannot contend with. Easier to blame a ‘benefit culture’ than to look at the reality of a country where most people are two and a half payslips from homelessness.
There will be people who disagree with me and say that the comments above are ‘just words’ but they are wrong. This dehumanising language is creating community divisions and growing a culture where the lives of some humans are seen as having more worth than others. History has taught us all too well what happens when we allow this kind of culture to grow.
Unless we can accept the principle of equality that all human lives are equal not just our society but our humanity is at risk.
Roanna Carleton Taylor