“We have a duty of care as to what we say and how we say it”, so said the journalist and historian, Lord (Peter) Hennessy at a recent carol service. A week later, at another event (as a politician I attend a lot of events), a teacher and a senior police officer are critiquing to Rt Hon Michael Gove the use of the word ‘feral’ to describe young people at the time of the riots. On a rare night off this week, I went to see the play “The Riots” at The Tricycle Theatre, and part of the performance also critiqued the word ‘feral’. How can a ‘stray word’, (Michael Gove’s description) evoke such high feelings and this amount of discussion months later, and most importantly have been taken to heart by many young people?
The dictionary contains two definitions for feral; ‘of a deadly nature’ e.g. feral diseases or ‘pertaining to a wild beast, brutal, savage.’ I think, particularly in relation to the riots, it is the latter definition which people mean, and it is this dehumanising aspect of the word ‘feral’ which I believe explains the high emotions, and makes it an unacceptable description of ‘our’ young people.
Now please do not think I am condoning the behaviour of rioters, of course I am not. I am on record as saying that committing these offences as part of the riots is an aggravating factor which should lead to stiffer penalties. But if Peter Hennessy is also right, that each of us has a ‘divine spark’, then referring to any human being as basically an animal is wrong, and why so many of us deep down react to such a description.
The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie. Words do hurt and linger in the mind much longer than the bruise that may have accompanied them; ask any abused person. Many of the young people who had nothing to do with the riots feel labelled by this word, and rejected by those who use it (often an older generation). I suspect people who use this word, if they were ruthlessly honest with themselves, feel better inside when they do so, a kind of “I am not like them, I am different, separate from them, they are the other”. And this attitude belies this nation’s deep rooted psyche around criminal justice; we make ourselves safe if we separate ourselves relationally from criminals, which explains why not so long ago we sent criminals to the other side of the world never to return.
But I deliberately have said ‘our’ young people because that is what they are, the future of our nation, each having their own ‘X’ factor. I long for a narrative, for language, that welcomes back those who took part in the riots after they have paid their debt to society and expects the best from them. ‘Feral’ brands ‘our’ young people, de-civilises us as a society, increases alienation and breaches our duty of care.