The Language of Difference

by George Hatjoullis

In the playground I was often met with the statement ‘my grandfather fought a war to keep this country free of people like you’. This puzzled me. I knew I was not German nor a Nazi. Moreover, I knew from the photos around the house that my father had also fought in the British army. What I did not know was that the grandfather was almost certainly a conscript whilst my father volunteered. The British government did not impose conscription on Cyprus. However, this did not necessarily give my father any moral high ground. He almost certainly volunteered because of the free medical care and regular pay that the army offered. Cyprus was poor and we were amongst the poorest. Nevertheless the idea that I was different was not obvious to me from this often heard statement.

Now the child was just repeating what he (it was always a he) had heard at home. Ironically there was a basis for difference but I never heard this myself. In 1954, the Greek-Cypriot community kicked off a struggle for union with Greece. It got violent. The British government styled the EOKA fighters terrorists but the fighters saw themselves as resistance to an occupying force. The whole situation was complicated by the presence of Turkish-Cypriots. If somebody had wanted to use the language of difference this was better founded, though in truth I had little knowledge of this struggle. Nor it seems did the playground racists. They knew I was different but were not quite sure how. So they used the language of difference that they had picked up at home.

I came across this statement about the second world war and people like me in later years as well. As I started to study British history I began to see far more sinister roots in this statement. Most British people (including the colonials like us) had fought in this war because our government said we should. There was far more latent sympathy for the Nazi creed and, in particular, anti-semitism, than history likes to admit. There has been a lot of revision of history and it does not take much digging to uncover darker realities. It is thus perhaps not as surprising as it first seems to see the wheel turn full circle. It is in the countries of the former ‘Allies’ that the language of difference is getting full use and it is in Germany that diversity is being protected. It seems ironic unless one is made aware that variations in the attitudes to difference were never that great in the first place. Germany has learned from its dark past and put in safeguards.Others have been infected with smug, self-righteous, complacency allowing the language of difference to flourish once again.

The dark forces that we face today were brought upon us by the same ‘liberal elite’ that we now hope will stand against the tide. The liberal elite appears educated and articulate but it seems not to have understood much of what is read. Moreover, the intellectual depth seems a bit limited. The liberal elite has always lived by the fiction that facts and reason will win out. Thus they have always believed in ‘free speech’. The naivety of this position has always astonished me. As I have already highlighted in Language, Rights, and Responsibilities even article 10 of the ECHR constrains free speech. There is good reason for this.

Narratives need exposure like fire needs oxygen. If you deprive them both they die. The corollary is why debating all narratives and expecting facts and reason to prevail is naive. The debate gives narratives oxygen and feeds them. The debate validates them as a legitimate idea worthy of discussion. The exposure causes them to be internalised as acceptable ways of thinking. Does this mean we should actually ban some narratives? Well article 10 of the ECHR certainly says that it is legitimate to do so in some circumstances.As a general principle I have always felt that if the narrative is arguing to repeal the institutional framework that allows the narrative to be expressed then banning it is legitimate. However, my point is not about banning narratives of difference. It is about promoting narratives of diversity.

On Twitter I see narratives of difference retweeted by ‘liberals’ that believe they are ridiculing and refuting the narrative. In the wider media I see and hear such narratives being repeated as news or as part of a discussion. Narratives of difference have had an enormous exposure in recent years. Most of this exposure has come from those opposing these narratives. I suggest a different approach is required. Put out a narrative of diversity without reference to narratives of difference. Do not repeat narratives of difference. Do not acknowledge their existence. You cannot debate them away. They appeal to emotion, not reason.Starve them of oxygen.