This weekend saw the re-election of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland. The presidential campaign saw the politics of hate and division used to attack members of the travelling community and those on social welfare.
I remember the old adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me’. This was the tried and tested defence, spoon-fed to children, as a defence against the bigotry in the classroom and indeed the world.
But, it’s not true. Words do matter.
President Higgins used the lectern as he accepted the result of the election to call out those who used words to stoke the fire of bigotry. He reminded onlookers that ‘Words matter. Words hurt. Words empower. Words can divide’.
Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism remain widely prevalent in our society. The words our leaders use matter. They empower those who hold these views to act on them. I lived through the recent Brexit vote in the UK which saw white nationalists take to the streets and the numbers of racist and homophobic attacks soar. The words used during that referendum played on people’s fears and insecurity, creating a common enemy – political correctness.
In our own community, words haunt us. From the playground to the office, many members of the LGBT+ community self-censor, terrified of the words of hate that might be directed towards them. Homophobic name-calling from ‘that’s so gay’ to the dreaded F-word, alienates, deprives and dehumanises our community, as they do for any community, from women to migrants, to travellers to those on social welfare.
Inclusion as a principle must and should be the guiding principle of our political leaders. Even people who ought to know better, who refer to being gay as a ‘choice’ do harm. They do harm because they reinforce a prejudice.
When the leader of Chechnya claimed there were ‘no gays here’ it empowered his followers to slaughter a whole community. When the current US President claimed he was scaling back trans rights ‘to protect the country’ or mocks those with severe disabilities, he does harm.
When so-called online trolls can spew hatred online that culminates in the death of a child. How can anyone think words don’t matter?
In his speech, accepting the will of the electorate for a second term, the President rightly called out this worrying trend in political debate.
While the political anoraks take time to reflect on Casey’s vote and what it means, the career-egalitarian didn’t waste a breath. Words do matter.
David Geary is an equality activist and former Head of Political Engagement for Pride in London.
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