So Pastor McConnell visited the victims of some racist attacks in Belfast in the last few days, he condemmed the attacks, he said talked about ‘thugs’ and said this kind of behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated. Aside from the PR exercise trying to repairing his damaged image and reputation of course this is problematic because he is oblivious to the impact his words have had in terms of influencing violence and the facilitative role they’ve played.
This is a wider lesson many of us have to learn, but particularly here in Northern Ireland.
The lesson that when you say you won’t sit in a room with someone from the other side of the community, nor send your children to one of the schools from the other side you are upholding up sectarianism and for some people sectarianism looks like othering with the low level, mundane violence of words, for others it looks like othering as a physical and dramatic act of violence.
The lesson that when you say you don’t think women are capable of leadership, that they’re too emotional or too nurturing, that they’ve too much responsibility for their children you are upholding sexism and for some people sexism looks like othering with the low level, mundane violence of words, for other it looks like othering as a physical and dramatic act of violence.
The lesson that when you say you don’t think gay people are normal, that you’d prefer them to be attracted to the opposite sex, that their relationships and desire for family life threatens traditional institutions and therefore society you are upholding homophobia and for some people homophobia looks like othering with the low level, mundane violence of words, for other it looks like othering as a physical and dramatic act of violence.
What we say shapes our attitudes – our words contribute to cultural norms and stereotypes – they create permission.
Our words in many contexts are all we have – especially if you’re a pastor or a politician – your career is built on your words and your culture that you’re shaping. Many are grateful for the culture of protest against a rhetoric of ‘othering, many are participating in it and using their words to change the story. But let’s not let the architects of prejudice make any distinction between their words of discrimination and othering and anothers’ act of violence and othering.
I’m left considering the fear and anxiety that every single person with a different skin, ethnicity and/or language or at least accent is living with at an increased level in Belfast these days. Regardless of where they’re living or working – words harm and affect not only those who they’re directed at but those who feel intimidated by the impact of those words. Those who’ve lived with mundane violence, negative attitudes and a sense of being ‘othered’ for most of their lives hear words and fear increased violence. Let’s not be naive about that – nor let us let the wordsmiths wash their hands of the violence they influence.
These are lessons we need to learn in this part of the world because we’ve been living with the violence manipulated and affected by words for decades if not centuries.