Devil Terms

Arianne Shahvisi

One of my earliest memories is of my terrorist uncle sitting me on the roof of my father’s Volkswagen camper van. I was frightened and told him he was a ‘naughty boy’, which made the adults laugh. In the eyes of the Iranian government, he was a very naughty boy, having spent years as a guerrilla fighter in Komala, one of several left-wing Kurdish groups in the region that are classified as terrorist organisations. The governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have between them killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds over the last few decades, and have at various points outlawed the use of Kurdish languages.

Having terrorists in the family tends to take the sting out of the word. I hear it as something shifty, puerile, cringeworthy – like ‘baddie’ or ‘freak’ – that reveals more about the moral conformism of those who wield it than the lives of the often desperate and disparate people it is used to denounce. Even proponents of the term must accept a definition that contains its own critique: it describes the violence that isn’t carried out by states. ‘Legitimate’ aggression is hefty, orderly, high-tech, impassive. It looks the part. Everything else is ‘terrorism’, and the word has a noxious magic that banishes all scruples. Hamas killed more than 1100 people on 7 October, including 36 children. Since then Israel has killed 32,000 people in Gaza, including 13,000 children, and has bombed every single hospital, but that’s OK because there are terrorists to catch.

In his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton described ‘thought-terminating clichés’, which occur when

the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorised and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

Also known as ‘curiosity stoppers’, thought-terminating clichés can be subdivided into what the rhetorician Richard Weaver called ‘God terms’ and ‘Devil terms’. For decades, ‘terrorist’ has been the archetypal Devil term, facilitating state-sanctioned racism in the forms of murder, incarceration and surveillance, with very little public resistance. But even the most effective tools get blunt through overwork, and parliamentary transcripts document the rise in recent years of terrorism’s slyer and more versatile cousin, ‘extremism’. (Again, the act of defining undercuts the term: extremism is all that is not moderate, while the government gets to define moderation.)

Last week the communities secretary, Michael Gove, announced a revision to the definition of ‘extremism’ which extends its purview from action to ideology. Groups defined as ‘extremist’ are to be blacklisted by ministers and civil servants, which means no meetings and no money. The text of the new definition begins with a reference to the ‘pervasiveness of extremist ideologies in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Israel on 7 October 2023’.

This sounds very worrying until you remember that Suella Braverman last November described those calling for a ceasefire in Gaza as ‘hate marchers’. The document goes through the motions of assuring readers that members of far-right groups can also be extremists, but the government seems most troubled by the public’s increasing sympathy with Palestinians. One of the groups rumoured to be in the crosshairs of the guidance is Palestine Action, who have targeted arms factories across the UK for supplying Israel with weapons.

The new definition of ‘extremism’ faced an unexpected early challenge when Gove was asked on Sky News whether Frank Hester, the Tories’ most munificent patron in decades, is an extremist. Last week it emerged that during a 2019 meeting at his company headquarters in Leeds, Hester told his employees that seeing Diane Abbott on television made him ‘want to hate all black women’ and that he thought she ‘should be shot’. In a separate address to his ‘foreign’ staff, the purpose of which was to counter reports of racism from former employees, he joked that the room was so crowded the Indians might prefer to sit on the roof of a nearby train. He also referred to an ‘Asian corner’ of the office, and said he’d like to learn some jokes about Malaysian people.

In his apology, Hester claimed that the remarks he made about Abbott had nothing to do with her ‘gender nor colour of skin’. Gove admitted that the comments were racist but offered ‘Christian forgiveness’, as white men are apt to do when other white men have erred, which seems very sensible, given that Hester has donated at least £10 million to the Tories in the past two years.

Diane Abbott is the most mistreated member of parliament. A report by Amnesty International in 2018 found that she received nearly half of all the abuse levelled at women politicians. Such blatant misogynoir from a prominent Tory donor would have been an open goal for Keir Starmer if he hadn’t already suspended Abbott from the Labour Party last April following her bungled attempt to explain that while some white people face racism – especially Jewish, Irish, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people – the racism faced by Black and Brown people, whose racialisation is generally more conspicuous, is more pervasive.

The reports of Hester’s obnoxious comments have also drawn attention to the fact that, over the last eight years, he has won government contracts worth £400 million to provide the software for NHS medical records through his single-shareholder company, the Phoenix Partnership. His personal wealth is valued at £415 million, accrued from the difference between the cost of running his databases and the amount he’s got away with charging us. (That’s enough to pay the salaries of 12,000 additional nurses, or to give every NHS midwife a £17,000 bonus.) Is extreme profiteering a form of extremism? Or is it one of those ‘liberal’ values that the new definition of extremism promises to protect?

Gove is said to have a poster of Martin Luther King Jr on the wall of his office. It isn’t clear what we should make of this, but like many King fanboys, Gove would do well to read beyond the single cherry-picked quote about being judged by the content of one’s character. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, King wrote:

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?