37 years ago, I was a student. In the November, a university friend took me to Lewes in East Sussex for bonfire night. The local community paraded through the streets, flaming torches in their hands, exclaiming ‘burn the pope’, watched by hundreds of onlookers. Their march concluded in the burning of an effigy of a generic Pope atop the huge bonfire. It felt pagan, slightly shocking, and amusing in equal measure.
Fast forward to 2022, and since then various public figures have received a similar fate. This week, the Lewes Guy Fawkes celebration set alight a likeness of Liz Truss – the recently ousted Prime Minister (just in case you haven’t been keeping up). She was represented sawing a Union Jack covered coffin in half. Truss, the political equivalent of Lady Jane Grey (queen of England for nine days before her execution), was only PM for 45. Nevertheless, her tenure was arguably divisive and destructive, causing the public much distress in due course. It all ended in her abrupt dismissal to the backbenches and her Norfolk constituency. And so, Lewes’ choice for 2022’s sacrificial burning was made. It was to be Liz Truss herself. That’s democracy and that’s politics, I guess. Some might say it is amusing, satirical and just harmless fun. I am not so sure. Let me explain.
First, I ask how short our memories are? Have we forgotten how in the run up to the EU referendum only six years ago, divisive politics led to the murder of Jo Cox MP? It was only last year when David Amess MP was killed during his constituency surgery – indeed the anniversary has only just passed. You may not at first easily link this bonfire night prank to that event, or indeed things even more sinister than that, but things can take unexpected and significant turns. I have been fortunate to travel to many places and on too many occasions have witnessed the aftermaths of man’s inhumanity to man. I have seen the desolation of Hiroshima, visited the killing fields of Cambodia, and spent time in the bustling and ambitious city of Kigali in Rwanda carrying on life after their genocide in 1994.
I have been motivated to look at the stages that took seemingly peaceful communities towards horror and genocide. And what I witnessed in Lewes has the foundation of such a journey into unthinkable and unspeakable behaviours. People never usually see genocide happening, and as we know, many choose to deny it, often through an inability to accept or to comprehend it would ‘happen around here’ perpetrated by ‘people like us’. I am not saying that rural England is on such a brink. But I think there is danger and there is risk.
These devasting events start with people not respecting differences between people. This characteristic, I think, is far too abundant in our society at present, a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is discharged through stereotypes or excluding people who are perceived to be different. This is the fuel of discrimination. Dominant groups deny basic civil rights or even citizenship to identified groups. For us, in a time of refugees and population migration, it is all too depressingly common for people in society not to have equal citizenship or employment status. It is a key political issue for us now and for the foreseeable future. Next, and critically, there is the process of dehumanisation. Those perceived as ‘different’ are treated with no form of human rights or personal dignity.
This all creates the environment where attacks are encouraged, or at least tolerated through a lack of consequences. During the Genocide in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as ‘cockroaches’; the Nazis referred to Jews as ‘vermin’. Social media is a thriving repository of such unchecked language. It drives people to think in dehumanising ways. Then there is the concept of organisation – preparing actions that do all of this. The Lewes event was not unplanned. No doubt a committee of volunteer organisers considered proposals and agreed to do this and spent many weeks preparing the image to be paraded and burned.
Polarisation really is an accelerant. We all know the news media is controlled by a small group of individuals, all with their own and deliberate agendas. Nowadays, the proliferation of social and online media facilitates all sorts of deliberate dialogues. Social media also promotes and facilitates polarised viewpoints. There’s little space for evidenced nuance, for being reasonable. In Twitter, you just don’t have the character count to explain or evidence (it was 140 characters, in 2017 it doubled to 280). It is impossible to give more than one side of the story, to achieve a reasonable balance.
In ethics and philosophy, we talk about the importance of non-maleficence, that actions should do no harm, or that we evaluate and reconcile the level of harm or consequences of our actions. What lessons are people learning from such an event, especially the children at this family event, and what fire is being lit in them? I simply ask, how would you feel if this was your image being paraded through the street, to the amusement and entertainment of baying crowds. How would you feel if this was your partner, daughter, or mother? Truss is all of these. You may argue that politicians choose their careers and their political actions and should be accountable for them. Save that for the ballot box and not for such symbolic incineration I say.