Today I read the first few chapters of Judith Butler’s “Notes Toward a Performative Theory Of Assembly”. This book was written by Butler in 2015 and served as a stark warning to those listening that the removal of the lens of humanity was all too easy under the state & in the public sphere, using the dual tools of governmental discourse and the media.
One sentence which grasped my consciousness was the idea of the dehumanisation of humans, and served as a splinter of cognisance of what would transpire and lead to the events of the myriad moral panics of 2023 Britain and the US- and from this paragraph I felt the need to expand on the collective dangers of the UK government’s quest to enforce a hierarchy of humanity.
Think about the people in your life.
Are you better than them, or worse? Do you deserve more rights than them? Is it acceptable that, due to their gender, sex, age, race, sexuality, they need different rights in order to exist in parity with you in our society? Would it be fair if we all had the same basic rights and nothing more, or is equity a cornerstone of a society which has fostered the type of inclusion which gives everyone a fair chance at betterment?
These should not be difficult questions, and yet our existence is currently limited to a society which seeks to obfuscate that simplicity, smokescreening the neon bright answers behind the idea that “just asking questions” about basic rights and equity is not a dangerous path down which to tread.
Some look at rights like specific anti discrimination legislation or protection from misogyny as entitlement and not a grim indictment of modern British society- because in a truly equal society one would not need anti discrimination legislation as protection from bodily harm, workplace harassment or mental duress.
The ECHR was established on the 4th November 1950, in response to the atrocities of World War 2- a solemn promise to the countries involved that the very fundamentals of human rights would, should and must be upheld- that it is anathema to human existence to allow these rights to fall into question. The UK government’s narrative that the ECHR meddles in its decisions should be a death knell for their leadership- for if a court dedicated to protecting and enshrining the basics of human rights protections is interfering in your decisions, this follows that your decisions run counter to the respect of human rights.
There is no “hierarchy of human rights”. If you are human, your rights as a human should be respected. These do not give favour, they do not elevate you above others. They are rights universally agreed upon- and opening questions on whether all humans should have access to these rights is the first, and most troubling sign of danger- but one could argue that it is not a step but a slippery slope.
Once you begin questioning human rights and who deserves them, it is a simple matter to widen the discourse.
Only the most heinous, unforgivable human beings do not deserve to lose their human rights: But who decides what is heinous and unforgivable- we live in a world where Daesh believe that grooming and raping girls is part of a holy mission, where women and girls in Afghanistan are beaten with sticks if they go outside without men or boys as guardians, where in America the right to bear arms is sacrosanct and yet if I saw a person with a gun on their belt in my city I would flee and call the police for fear of the danger they could bring with them. The reason human rights are iron clad and unquestionable is that the very act of questioning them, weakens them. All and sundry, no matter how evil, deserve human rights and if we decide a threshold, we begin the process of collapse.
Additionally, are we not inhuman if we then wreak horrors upon a human who we have decided is not deserving of these rights? Another question for another time, but an eye for an eye is a wise proverb in a sea of theological nonsense.
The government’s determination to demonise certain minorities is a key substrate in a wider movement towards enforcing “acceptable humans”. By placing terms and conditions on what a “good” human is and even moving towards rhetoric that removes humanity entirely, the government is eminently capable of disenfranchising individuals amongst the collectives.
Look at Shamima Begum. A fifteen year old girl was groomed on the internet by Daesh, because of failures of state security- meaning the state let her down and could possibly let down others. Rather than face blame for their poor handling of Begum’s radicalisation, the state designated her the root issue. Begum’s behaviour was objectively bad- and happened to a British born citizen, indicating that it was not merely the groomers nor Begum who had the issue- the state under which she was raised contained fundamental lapses of protection. She was a product of a state not equipped to prevent her radicalisation- not only should the state face censure for their failures to safeguard her and others, but she is a product of a flawed UK state and therefore our problem, and should have been brought here to face questions over it. By the government refusing to allow this & making her stateless this is a visible refusal to accept blame for their failures- but also serves a troubling double purpose of driving home a message that compliance with good, state endorsed behaviour brings the reward of citizenship. This also raises the idea of citizenship as supremacy- those who have it are superior to those who do not. You don’t have to like Begum or her actions to understand that there are lines of questioning that must be verboten, about when and if we lose basic rights.
The most troubling and yet overlooked aspect of Begum’s treatment by the state and media, is that it begins the process mentioned above. There is now a threshold, a precedent set at which you can act which will prompt the state to remove your innate right to citizenship. Something which we have always declared a sovereign, basic right is no longer- and a worrying proportion of the UK’s population celebrate this as a win, whilst others hesitate to point out that those rights are rights we also hold- and the question now falls from “will it happen” to “how low is the bar for the enforcement”: Will people like I who openly question the state and its methodology one day be stripped of citizenship for querying their implementation of this legislation? Who knows- we have far to fall, but are moving at disturbing speed.
One must also note the involvement of the British (and American) media in the enabling of this discourse. Academics warned repeatedly that the British press’ foray into open, daily transphobia would lead to danger- why even Judith Butler wrote a piece for the Guardian which laid bare the links between the far right and the TERF movement across the U.K., and the piece was surreptitiously edited to strip this paragraph despite its objective basis in truth- and if journalists strip out truth to protect the feelings of fascists one should find grave concern in its operation- and if someone like Butler warns of fascism, one does not stop up their ears.
To return, though, to the “small boat” moral panic that has swept the UK, one must find it almost comical to watch the UK subsumed again by a government narrative. The Conservatives are almost comedically unpopular, reviled by everyone from the supposed libertarian sect of political adversaries we hear regularly espousing their views from behind England flag shirts, to those who call ourselves true patriots because we question the country and ask for it’s improvement rather than accepting it’s gathering descent into mediocrity. Yes, the number of small boat crossings has ramped up in recent years. Has the government explained to the peoples of the UK why? Have they admitted to their own roles in destabilising countries which people are fleeing from by leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban, by working to arm anti government forces in other countries to enable cheaper sales of fossil fuels? Have they worked to re-stabilise countries blighted by damaging regimes or demagogues? And can they truly fall behind the “not our job” defence whilst we arm Ukraine- a noble, important requirement which brings the question of when the state should intervene into sharp relief. The UK should be cautioned on its intervention in some places -for it is our dark past of western imperialism that has caused a dizzying number of the issues for which the world is paying now.
The key language of Sunak and Braverman is “stop the boats” where they refer to “small boats crossings”, completely failing at any point to acknowledge the people involved, the humans within those vessels. The people arriving here in small boats are people. People with fears, wants, goals, dreams, biases- fully, achingly human. Are all of them good? Of course not. When large numbers of people are in a group, the likelihood that they are all good people is not going to be high- unless you group them by your very subjective definition of good. There are those who would fail to line me up in the “good people” group simply because I am a gay man, would refuse to add women who believe in feminism. Good, bad- these are abstract and personal and the U.K. has fallen victim to allowing the subjective morals of objectively bad politicians (who hide lies by prime ministers, funnel money from the public to private individuals, who strip back rights like protest, like striking, like voting) to be used as a public yardstick for lawmaking.
Just because bad people may exist amongst a demographic of people does not mean that all of them should be treated like the worst. To hate, fear and punish an entire group of people for their membership of a group is to give in to bigotry and that is an iron strong fact. If British citizens allow all migrants to be punished for the worst amongst them, British citizens are the group sprinting fastest towards inhuman behaviour- not those being punished.
Look at it this way: as a gay man I am painfully aware that bad persons exist amongst my demographic- those who do not respect bodily autonomy, those who are misogynist, even those who are cruel to others based on their subjective appearance. Does the existence of these bad elements mean that all of my demographic should be subject to censure?
Worse still is an insistence that the government’s methods are “tough but fair” and will “break the funding model of smugglers”. This sort of thinking is both cognitively dissonant (tough, yes, fair to deport those who have arrived via supposedly illegal methods because there does not exist a legal method? No.)
Break the funding model of people smugglers by allowing them to smuggle people then punishing the people they smuggle? It is equivalent to arresting the victim of a mugging to disincentivise the mugger because less people are on the street to mug!
Braverman, Sunak et al are firmly entrenched in fascist behaviours. The UK believes fascism to be waving swastikas daubed on big red flags- and part of the danger is that people do not see the obvious. Fascism and Nazism are different- Fascism can strip the clothes of Nazism and dress itself up as something else- Christian Nationalism, small statehood, the silencing of any dissent towards your thinking. When you see a government draped in Union Jacks enforcing laws which rip away your right to protest, your right to strike, your right to vote, when they dress up their failure to hold the NHS together or their manipulation of contract tendering to enrich their friends and family, when you watch them mock and revile transgender people, migrants, “lefty lawyers”- you are looking at fascism under a new dress code. And so many British people fail to acknowledge the hypocrisy this government condones. Sunak and Braverman speak with open hatred of the “lawbreakers” arriving in small boats yet Sunak has broken the law twice, Braverman supported breaking the law in a “limited and specific” way… the lawbreaking is only a problem when it isn’t the conservatives doing it.
The dehumanising rhetoric will continue, and more will fall prey to its fervour. I have no doubt that corners will turn in future, that down the line, should I be lucky enough to make it to my later years I will watch documentaries of people tearfully apologising for being radicalised into the demagogues of TERF beliefs or believing that migrants on boats are the root cause of their poverty. But right now, as we live and breathe this slow immersion into rhetoric that becomes more deadly by the day one must wonder how far the British public is willing to go in ignoring the construction of a hierarchy of behaviour to which we are all subject- and when the thumbscrews we’re all forced to wear are tightened, how long until the bulk of us cry out in the pain we’re forced into… and will it be too late to extricate ourselves from being subject to the question: are you an acceptable human?