Season of Bad Will: The Psychology of Political Insults

If you’re still fuming after Christmas lunch with a right-wing, Leave-voting extended family member, the following is written with you in mind…


Christmas is not an easy time for autists; a fact often attributed to our “preference” for routine and calm over spontaneity and excitement. This explanation is partly correct, though in reality there is very little conscious choice involved – the instinctive need for a sense of control and predictability over our surroundings is deeply woven into the very fabric of our minds and, in cases where sensory factors are involved, our bodies.

The difficulties of the festive season are further compounded by the attached and deeply counter-productive assumption of jolliness. Someone with acute mental health complications (a category which includes myself and a large number of other autists) is not simply able to obey an instruction as to how we must feel, so telling us that “normal people love Christmas” achieves nothing but an increase in our sense of social isolation.

Christmas is also unlikely to be trouble-free for any political activist. Clashes at home seem mercifully rare, because of the huge influence that immediate family members have on each other’s opinions. However, when extended family members who rarely see each other are brought together for Christmas, deep ideological rifts can be brutally exposed and, as a satirist whose name escapes me brilliantly put it, remind families why they don’t see each other for eleven months of the year.

With this in mind, I can address a subject I’ve been chewing over for a while – political insults.

Some will consider cheap slurs as just that; ill-thought-out statements of little or no significance. But I’m a firm believer that impulse reflects instinct, and that, by extension, a bit of reflection as to how two opposing sides try to insult each other (and, more importantly, how they feel about each other’s taunts) can tell us quite a bit about how the minds of the politically motivated work on the most fundamental of levels.

There follows a collection of my reactions to common insults used against Remainers, and against Liberals more generally. There are, of course, many variants on each. I don’t want to lower the tone too much (or acquire an 18+ content warning) by listing them all, but any reasonably outspoken Remainer will no doubt already have a good idea of the diversity of “vocabulary” involved.

Anti-Remainer Insult #1 – Enemy of Democracy

This popular pro-Brexit taunt really grates on my ears because of the phenomenal level of hypocrisy it entails. There is an overwhelming case as to why Remainers are the true champions (and Brexiteers the true enemies) of democracy. I’ve already outlined a good part of it in two previous articles (links here and here), and addressed the untrue allegations of a “democratic deficit” in the EU in another (link here). I don’t intend to go back over old ground but, if in doubt, you now know where to look.

Anti-Remainer Insult #2 – “Remoaner”

Between EU immigrants to Britain bereaved of their rights and exposed to the normalisation of racism, British immigrants to the EU fearing for their future, or young Remainers who will be suffering the effects of Brexit long after older Leavers have gone, there are a great many witnesses who can testify that Brexit is, at its heart, a social injustice on an epidemic scale. And social injustices are very seldom addressed without identifying them through complaint (in other words, “moaning” about them)first.

Leavers use the word “moan” in an attempt to trivialise Remainers’ opinions. It’s certainly a word with negative connotations and it wouldn’t have been my first choice to describe the discourse of anyone identifying the need for something to change. Yet in many ways, it fits. An overwhelming majority of positive change throughout human history, whether political, social, technological or otherwise, began with a constructive sense of discontent. So, in trying to insult us, it seems that the Leavers have unwittingly paid tribute to us Remainers’ positive refusal to accept that things will never get better.

The use of this term also highlights another common Remainer trait that many Leavers sadly lack; concern for others. Sticking with the issue of EU immigrants’ rights as an example, many Remainers are deeply worried about this, even though we (and, in many cases, our friends and family) are not ourselves EU immigrants. Leavers, on the whole, don’t seem to think that this issue matters – because they themselves are unaffected by it. There is a stark contrast between the outward-facing compassion of the average Remainer and the self-centred “I’m alright, Jack” mentality which underpins the Leave ideology, and the latter’s refusal to respect the former demonstrates this perfectly.

Anti-Remainer Insult #3 – Coward

It’s not unheard of for the Leave campaign’s wealthiest and most powerful backers to dismiss as “cowardice” Remainers’ concerns over the many negative impacts of Brexit on jobs, the economy, the cost of living and, ultimately, the financial security of the poorest members of British society. This is another classic case of someone deciding that an issue does not matter purely because it has little effect on them personally. For my own part, I would never consider a gamble made with someone else’s livelihood as the stake to be an example of bravery.

Anti-Remainer Insult #4 – Traitor

The popular accusation of “treason” covers a broad spectrum and has, in some cases, motivated the vilest and most extreme individuals within the pro-Brexit lobby. It formed the basis of the death threats made in the wake of the government’s defeat over amendment 7 to the EU withdrawal bill, to give a recent example.

As a side note, I strongly believe that such extremists must be taken very seriously as a threat to democracy. I’ve personally observed a tangible aura of fear coming from both politicians and broadcasters as to what might happen if they upset Brexiteer extremists (I spotted a more subtle example of this on yesterday’s BBC news). Yet the same trepidation is not applied to Remainers, probably because extremism is not nearly as common on the Remain side. Extremists are, of course, not representative of most Leavers, but it is disturbing indeed to realise that Remainers’ good behaviour may well be facilitating our being ignored.

Coming back to the more casual accusations of “treason”, one possible interpretation is that Remainers have somehow betrayed the Brexiteer ideology. Many of us, myself included, are so eager to distance ourselves from the destructive and unethical Leave movement that we accept this label with glee – although logic would arguably dictate that we cannot have betrayed something to which we had absolutely no loyalty in the first place.

The allegation of treason against Britain is a little more difficult. Some Remainers decide that this is not a battle worth fighting, and simply hold their loyalty to Europe in higher regard than their loyalty to the UK. Autists tend not to think in half measures, so as a proud European ashamed to come from Brexit island, I personally live this mentality to the full.

Yet many more patient Remainers point to the overwhelming evidence that Brexit is bad for Britain as proof that loyalty to Europe and loyalty to Britain are two perfectly compatible sentiments. Here, as in so much else, we see the nonsensical nature of the hard Brexit lobby in particular; here is a group of people who lecture others on loyalty to the very same country they themselves are hell-bent on damaging.

Anti-Remainer Insult #5 – “Europhile”

This term, literally meaning “lover of Europe”, is technically a perfectly accurate description of a Remainer. That’s why the pro-Brexit media gets away with using it so widely. Yet I have always strongly suspected a darker agenda to be at work behind this word’s invention.

The suffix “-phile”, meaning “lover of”, can, in theory, be applied to almost any noun. Yet there is one example that is probably used more widely than all the other permutations put together; the term “paedophile”, a common name for one the most evil and disgusting classes of criminal imaginable – child sex offenders.

Beyond this sickening realisation of what Brexiteers are attempting to compare their opponents to, there’s not much more that can be said about this insult – except that it serves as one of the most nauseating examples of underhand political tactics I personally have ever seen.

Anti-Liberal Insult #1 – Naïve

One need only look at the track record of the tabloid newspapers to whom the political right has so much loyalty to see that this common allegation is a classic case of “glass houses”. Volumes could be written on their long history of political bias, racism, sexism, xenophobia, lies, misinformation and hidden corrections. For the purposes of this article, however, I will deem the accusations of institutional racism, hate speech and even contribution to hate crime brought against them at the highest international level as evidence enough of their untrustworthiness.

Anti-Liberal Insult #2 – Do-gooders

This is an easy one. It feels more like a compliment than an insult. Suffice to say that anyone who considers good deeds as something to look down on would benefit from serious re-consideration of their world view.

Anti-Liberal Insult #3 – Elitist

Not having time for a lengthy study of voter demographics, there are only two responses I can make to this. Firstly, I can use the example of my own life; I come from a working-class background and, as someone who can’t work for medical reasons, would not by any means be considered wealthy. Secondly, I can reflect on the concepts central to being a Liberal – equality, understanding, tolerance and compassion to name a few – all of which centre around helping the most vulnerable (in other words, the least “elite”).

Conservatives have long scapegoated anyone they can for the ills of society, and immigrants are by far their favourite target. The result is an ironic vicious circle, which seems to go something like this:

  1. Right-wing politicians make life extremely difficult for poorer voters, because they pay no regard to the human cost of their decisions around cuts to welfare, public services, etc.
  2. Poorer voters understandably become upset and angry that life has become more difficult.
  3. The right-wing politicians, assisted by the xenophobic right-wing media, blame immigrants and other convenient scapegoats for the problems they themselves have caused.
  4. Poorer voters are misled into blaming immigrants for their troubles.
  5. The right-wing politicians promise to be harsh on immigrants, hence winning the support of poorer voters.
  6. The right-wing politicians are re-elected by the very voters to whom they have caused such misery.

This pattern creates the misconception that a straight choice must be made between addressing domestic issues (schools, healthcare, etc.) and addressing international issues (such as multiculturalism, refugee resettlement and international aid). But for me, one of the best things about being a member of the Liberal Democrats is that our policies rumble this myth.

Our 2017 manifesto maintained a compassionate international out-look, with promises to make a positive case for immigration, protect international aid and resettle 50,000 refugees (more than any other major party). At the same time, we also planned to build 300,000 new houses a year and greatly increase funding for healthcare and schools. So there you have it – proof that showing compassion on an international level does not require a mindset of elitism, or an ignorance of problems at home.

Anti-Liberal Insult #4 – Politically Correct

Some readers may find the following statement surprising, coming as it does from a hard-line Liberal, but I will be honest as always, and say: I don’t like the concept of political correctness.

Everything I believe in is perfectly tangible and real. The problems I worry about are real. They cause real suffering to real people. The phrase “political correctness”, however, implies a very damaging sense of the hypothetical.

To give just one example, my belief that Britain should accept far more refugees is not a hypothetical ideal, nor is it my attempt to show off how “politically correct” I am. It is a simple question of saving innocent lives. There truly is nothing politically correct about it.

Not only does the concept of political correctness trivialise liberalism, it actually seems to actively benefit the racist, hate-mongering far-right more than anybody else. I have personally lost count of how many times I have been told I must not oppose hate speech, because the politically correct notion that “everyone is allowed an opinion” must supposedly also apply to neo-fascists. This brings me neatly onto my next insult:

Anti-Liberal Insult #5 – Enemy of Free Speech

This issue may be about to return to the forefront of public attention with the recent news of political pressure being put on universities to provide a platform for “controversial” speakers – news which I confess to finding deeply troubling.

My concern is that “controversial” is often used as a “politically correct” term to describe hate speakers – people who, tragically, are among the most fervent advocators of so-called “freedom of speech”, because they see in it an opportunity to legitimise hate, incite violence and effectively take away the freedom of minority communities to live without fear of hate speech and the hate crime proven to result from it. Such “activists” and their supporters on the political right appear to see Brexit as an important first step towards their ultimate aim of ending tolerance of diversity in Britain, and measures such as this, which may make it far harder to oppose the spreading of hateful ideas, could easily constitute a logical next step in this diabolical plan.

As to my own view, the key point to make is that belief in freedom of speech is not binary. I suspect I’m in a majority among Liberals when I say that I do believe in free speech, but I do not believe in holding to it blindly and above all else – limits, common sense and responsibility of speech must also apply. Furthermore, it should be considered that everyone has freedom, that there are different types of freedom, and these different types of freedom will sometimes contradict one another. So, for a fair society, the various freedoms of different people need to be balanced.

Taking hate crime as an extreme example, society rightly considers the freedom of criminals to commit such offences as far less important than the freedom their innocent victims should have – the freedom to live without fear of hate crime.

Yet with this latest situation around universities, I worry that for many observers, the waters are about to become somewhat more clouded. My fear is that the freedom of hate speakers to spread hate is about to be prioritised ahead of the freedom of ethnic-, religious- or sexuality-minority students to live without fear of hate – in other words, that these new measures will take freedom away from the most vulnerable.

In fairness, I should add that those championing these new measures claim that free exposure of extremist and hateful ideas will only serve to show off just how ridiculous such viewpoints are. I’m personally very sceptical about whether their intentions are really so noble, however – it surely can’t be a coincidence that the government is specifically targeting students, a group who are by a large majority anti-Brexit and anti-Conservative, with “alternative” ideas. At best, the advocators of this scheme, who represent the majority, are gambling with the safety and wellbeing of minority groups – a practice that is very unethical indeed.

Most of this is, however, just conjecture. Time will tell whether my suspicions are well-founded. I hope to be wrong, but suffice to say that the track record of Theresa May’s government so far has not exactly filled me with confidence. But which ever way this specific example turns out, the fact remains:

When it comes to free speech, yes, you can have too much of a good thing.