The poison that is destroying civility and how to fight it

Alexander Mackinnon filmed by the woman he was racially abusing

‘How did you get into first class? You don’t deserve to be in first class.

‘You should be in common class. In fact, you shouldn’t be in this country at all.

‘You don’t deserve to be here. 
Bloody foreigners. Where were you 
even born?’

The words of Alexander Mackinnon, a 47-year-old, public school-educated solicitor hurled at a Scottish woman, who happens to be of Asian descent, Sanaa Shahid and her 4 year old son on a train.

Shahid calmly challenged his behaviour, called a member of train staff to witness what was going on and filmed the ongoing verbal abuse on her mobile phone. Thanks to her, MacKinnon was arrested and fined this month, after admitting racially aggravated offences. But, as Shahid, said, ‘There were another 10 to 12 
passengers in the carriage and 
not one of them spoke up. That was shocking too.”

MacKinnon had been drunk at the time, which we all know lifts inhibitions. But as official police figures from England Wales confirmed a 41% spike in reported hate crimes in the three months after the EU referendum compared to the year before, many people are asking how deep and widespread such views really are? Has there been a collective lifting of inhibitions from closet racists and misogynists, who might now feel emboldened to express their real feelings?

Anecdotally I’ve heard white male friends describe experiencing threats for the first time in London – “Are you a Jew?” hurled on a crowded tube train at a sole traveller, A group of heterosexual couples threatening to beat up another as a “poofter” because he dared to complain when they shouldered him violently off the pavement as they walked 6 abreast blocking the way.

Civility – the idea of being decent to eachother, is entwined with the idea of citizenship. How we behave as a society defines who we are.  By coincidence a few days after this column originally appeared in The Big Issue the former prime minister Sir John Major spoke about civility in connection with the rise of anti immigrant political parties across Europe. Speaking at Chatham House he said:

“I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.”

I can’t help wondering if the verbal abuse now routinely inflicted on MPs and judges in recent months, has corroded acceptable standards of discourse to dangerous levels. The far right links of the murderer of MP Jo Cox are truly disturbing.

This House at the Garrick Theatre, London (Feb 2017)

I was mulling on this incivility at the theatre the other night. This House, set in the troubled minority government of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan looks all the more like a time capsule from an alien world. A world in which unwritten rules of fair play governed the Commons. Pairing MPs from opposing sides to prevent unfair advantage – if one side’s went sick, the pair would not vote either. An understanding that there was a core civility beneath the policy rows that superceded political positions.

By chance that night I found myself sitting next to the Commons speaker John Bercow and his wife Sally. It was the very day Speaker Bercow had hit the headlines for declaring that President Trump should not address Parliament on a future state visit because, Bercow had said, “as far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary, are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”

Mr Bercow explained to me why he felt so strongly. There was a clear and assured sense of moral right and wrong in why he’d said what he did. I find it personally fascinating that he’s gone on such a political journey over his career from the younger member of the controversial Monday Club, to a public campaigner against racism. And none of his furious fellow Tory MPs campaigning to sack him are citing the moral and ethical concerns in his words, but only his break with the rules, the protocol of Parliament.

One can see entirely that rules matter. That there is a case to say Mr Bercow has broken with the strict impartiality required of the Speaker. But the circumstances of this battle matter. It’s a time when so many people are intimidated and feel threatened by what they perceive as emboldened racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes from prominent and powerful public figures.

Many BBC viewers/readers complained about this headline and tweet

The row over Bercow reminds us that rules are in danger of being used to by-pass what are hugely important ethical and moral concerns. As the bullying of Gina Miller, who stood up for the primacy of Parliament, reveals, we are living through a time of intimidation and shouting down. Incidentally the BBC received many complaints for the clickbait way an interview with Ms Miller was tweeted with the headline: “Is Gina Miller the most hated woman in the UK?”

It would be good if more senior managers and editors of news organizations cared to look at the increasingly racist abuse being sent to their staff, such as Sky’s political editor, Faisal Islam and thought about their responsibility in setting the bar for acceptable public discourse.

It’s time to restore some civility to public service of all kinds, as much as on our public streets and transport. That means showing solidarity by standing up to intimidation, bullying and harrassment when you see it and keeping up complaints to broadcasters and other media outlets to prevent civility’s further erosion.

This is an updated version of the article that appeared in The Big Issue in February 2017

Further viewing/reading

Video of John Major’s Chatham House Speech (civility comments from 18 min)


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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