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Words as Weapons

Combative, provocative and engaging debate chaired by Michael Buerk. With Michael Portillo, Mona Siddiqui, Anne McElvoy and Claire Fox.

In a Pittsburgh synagogue at the weekend, history’s oldest hatred delivered yet another tragedy. Eleven people were killed as worshippers were gunned down during Sabbath prayers. We know that the attacker is an anti-Semite, but we do not know whether he was induced to kill, as some commentators have suggested, by the current political climate. Only days earlier a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump was arrested for allegedly posting bombs to 14 of the president’s enemies. Part of the presidential response was to blame the mainstream media for the ‘bad and hateful’ atmosphere and describe them as ‘the true enemy of the people’. In London, meanwhile, Theresa May was asking politicians to be ‘careful about language’ after anonymous MPs spoke of ‘hanging’ and ‘stabbing’ her. When does ugly discourse, encouraged by anonymity and magnified by online sharing, begin to have violent consequences? Does giving a platform to hateful views ‘normalise’ hatred? If there is a direct link between verbal and physical violence, are we entitled to police the language others use? At a deeper level, can a verbal assault itself be an act of violence? Some argue words are weapons which should be used as carefully as any other weapon. Others believe language itself cannot be violent, and history has shown how curtailing it may itself be the first step towards dehumanisation and mass killing. How can we achieve civility and a public discourse that won’t end in bloodshed, while at the same time protecting freedom of speech?

Producer: Dan Tierney

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43 minutes

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