by Lynda Goetz
‘Cower’: a useful and descriptive verb which aptly describes the response of a great many people to the ongoing Covid crisis and which the UK’s Health Minister, Sajid Javid, has felt the need to apologise for using. As reported in the UK press and by the BBC, “bereaved families” accused him of being “deeply insensitive” for urging people to “get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus”. Could someone please explain why he felt the need to apologise and say that “it was a poor choice of word”? It wasn’t and he had nothing to apologise for.
So, some people do not want to face up to the fact that as a nation we are seemingly paralyzed by fear; a fear which has been generated and encouraged by our government and their scientific advisors; a fear which has made life for many, old and young, a complete misery for over 16 months; a fear which has been used to control our lives in a way unprecedented in a liberal democracy; a fear of a particular virus which has come to dominate a nation’s perception of life and death. It is surely bizarre that we have all become so over-sensitised to any sort of implied criticism that a simple statement from any public figure can lead to him or her being pounced upon by some aggrieved party or other and for this to become a ‘news item’. (Although it appears to have escaped the BBC’s notice, there are some serious and significant events happening around the world, which these days seem not to be deemed worthy of any sort of in-depth coverage or indeed any coverage at all).
Apart from the fact that it might have been preferable for Mr Javid to stand by his statement, rather than ‘cancel’ himself, is it honestly an item of news that the co-founder of a small charity specifically related to Covid - Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice - feels offended by an essentially inoffensive remark? Ms Jo Goodman said of his words, “Not only are they hurtful to bereaved families, implying our loved ones were too cowardly to fight the virus, but they insult all those still doing their best to protect others from the devastation this horrific virus can bring. Words matter and the flippancy and carelessness of this comment has caused deep hurt and further muddied the waters of the Government’s dangerously mixed messaging.”
That the government is guilty of mixed messaging there is no doubt. That words matter is also an uncontroversial stance, but how on earth does she read into the health minister’s statement any implication that those who died of Covid were “too cowardly to fight the virus”? He is self-evidently referring to the current and ongoing fear, amongst swathes of the population, even after a widespread vaccine roll-out. This ‘snowflake’ response is nonsensical and smacks of being offended or insulted simply for the sake of it. How on earth have we got to the point where this sort of behaviour is a) newsworthy and b) results in a grovelling apology?
There are essentially two elements to this ‘story’, which are worth looking at separately. The first is whether there is any truth in Mr Javid’s remark and the second is whether or not he should be free to express that ‘truth’ in words of his choosing. As the Palace so carefully and cleverly remarked when faced with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s ‘truth’, “recollections may differ”. To adapt that statement, ‘perceptions may differ’ too, as may responses to words spoken.
Nick Baines, the Anglican Bishop of Leeds, who did Thought for the Day on Monday 26th July on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had absolutely no doubt that “to speak is to act”. He argued that language is “performative” and that we need to pay attention to the words we use. Indeed we do, but whilst choosing our words carefully is important, should we have to self-censor continuously to ensure that no-one takes offence at the words we use? Personally, I consider that the answer to that question should be a resounding ‘No’. I feel sure the Free Speech Union would agree.
Freedom of expression is supposedly conferred under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK. But the law states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. A number of different UK laws outlaw hate speech. Among them is Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), as amended, which makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. This law has been revised over the years to include language that is deemed to incite “racial and religious hatred”, as well as “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and language that “encourages terrorism”.
It would not appear to be the case that the use of the words “cower from this virus” would be likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, nor that there was any hostility or intention to cause these feelings. However, the big problem with hate speech is that although the definition suggests it needs to be “threatening, abusive or insulting”, it is essentially subjective and depends on the perception of the ‘victim’, as shown by this definition from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) website. The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: "any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person's disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity. There is no legal definition of hostility so we use the everyday understanding of the word which includes ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment and dislike”. Any law framed in this way is inevitably going to be contentious and impact on freedom of speech and our use of language. It gives rise to the self-censorship and/or grovelling apologies which have become such a feature of public life over the last few years. Nevertheless, we need to resist this descent into trepidation and people like our Health Secretary should not ‘cower’ but stand by his words and his right to freedom of expression.
The truth of Mr Javid’s words is plain for all to see. Much of the nation is cowering in fear from an ‘enemy’ the government has told them requires them to shelter in their homes. Is it perhaps not just bereaved families, but the government who upbraided Mr Javid for his use of the word ‘cower’? After all this impugns its own strategy. It is they who have used the imagery of battle and conflict. So how would they like us to fight this enemy? They have, as Mr Javid, so correctly points out, rolled out effective vaccines and the uptake has been fantastic so far. The link between illness and death has largely been broken, so why are we seemingly still terrified? The worry now should surely be how to reform our clearly broken NHS and stop the rising death toll from cancer and other illnesses neglected during the pandemic? In Germany, according to Bishop Baines, the imagery used for Covid has not been of an enemy, which is personalised, but of a ‘flood’, which is, like the virus, impersonal. Perhaps, had we too chosen that metaphor the spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice would not have felt “deep hurt” caused by the perception that deceased relatives had been accused of being “too cowardly to fight the virus”. You cannot fight a flood, but you can cower from it, as the Germans have learned all too well in the past few days. The way we use words definitely matters.