Affect, Discourse and Politics: Interrogating Narratives of Fear

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Recent comments made by Boris Johnson that burqa-clad women resemble “bank robbers” has sparked fierce controversy within the UK (Johnson 2018). These comments, particularly when made by someone who influences popular discourse and politics, reflect not only current anti-immigrant and Islamophobic views, but operate to reinforce them in ways not immediately apparent; through the language of emotions.

Emotions are not neutral; they have a power that becomes embedded in social reality through the very discourse of politicians. Emotions are part of our daily lives,  shaping our social interactions and relationships. These emotions become tied to certain groups, people and bodies and elicit a response: a response that then informs the political terrain of a country through feeling. A Google search for the phrase ‘fear of Muslims’ brings back 33,300,000 results in just 0.31 seconds ( 2018). This is no coincidence considering the language of fear circulated and associated with Muslim bodies within the UK's political discursive terrain.

Within British politics, emotions have become instrumentalised, through discourse, and have the power to create inequality. In this context, the fear created in relation to the body of the ‘other’, the Muslim, creates a political will for Islamophobic policy, justifying control and regulation. This can be seen in the continued surveillance and othering of Muslim bodies and communities within the PREVENT Counter terrorism strategy (BBC News 2018; Qurashi 2018). PREVENT was created in 2003 in the ‘post 9/11 moment’, in which a ‘state of exception’ justified and legitimated the regulation of the Muslim community, situated as an ‘Islamic threat’ to the West (Agamben 2005). This set the tone for a continued focus on the fear of the Muslim ‘other’ within British politics. The PREVENT strategy became a legal duty for public sector institutions in 2015, extending its reach much deeper into society and embedding a surveillance infrastructure which has “served to contain and direct Muslim political agency” (Qurashi 2018: 1). Johnson’s comment of women in burqas resembling “bank robbers” (Johnson 2018) must be understood in this context; it is not only built upon this embedded Islamophobia, but continues to reinforce it.

Making visible this discursive framing and challenging what it allows is a significant place for resistance and transformation. There is a necessity to interrogate emotions and their circulations through the everyday language of politicians in order to understand and disrupt the very power it holds.

Language is part of a social system producing and regulating the social world (Foucault 1997, 1998) through managing the way it can be discussed and thus understood (Chouliraki 2008: 2). In this sense, nothing is objective and our knowledge is not neutral; it is produced in “systems of power/knowledge relations which have historical and cultural specificity” (Foucault 1997: 27).  We must therefore interrogate the use of language and its implications in order to understand social realities. The language used in the discursive terrain occupied by Johnson thus informs the creation and regulation of a social reality that impacts both the creation of policy and the lived reality of Muslims in the UK and around the world.

Emotions are not neutral; they have a power that becomes embedded in social reality through the very discourse of politicians.

Language is also significant in the circulation of affect, demonstrating that emotions have discursive power in creating the social reality of the present (Abu Lughod 1986; Groz 1994; Haraway 1991; Hill Collins 1991; Lorde 2007). Sara Ahmed (2004b) argues that emotionality “is clearly dependent on relations of power, which endow ‘others’ with meaning and value” (Ahmed 2004b: 4). These meanings and values are created through their discursive circulation and repetition in which emotions shape objects or bodies, constituting these objects or bodies as signs which affects, and their associations stick to (Ahmed 2004a: 117, 2004b: 4). The association of fear elicited through the use of language by Johnson is therefore a necessary site of investigation in order to understand the circulation and perpetration of inequality.

Past histories of association
The creation of meanings and values are “performative and they involve speech acts, which depend on past histories of association, at the same time they generate effects” (Ahmed 2004b: 13), these histories inform the creation of the ‘other,’ drawing upon the social and cultural contexts in which they are circulated and in turn informing the creation of these contexts (Ahmed 2004a: 117).

Language is used as a signifier that builds upon a previously cited and understood concept to create the current understanding of something or someone. It is through the performance of discourse that one can see “the power of discourse to produce effects through reiteration” (Butler 1933: 20). In relying on the past histories of an object’s association, the object is thus generated through its naming. It is through the performativity of fear, weighted in its past histories, in discourse and its circulation through newspapers, online and in public rhetoric, that it becomes a reality.

It is significant therefore to acknowledge the long history of inequality and hierarchy perpetrated in the linguistic framing of the ‘other’. Post-colonial theorists have demonstrated that the cultural representation of the East has depicted the ‘Orient’ as inferior, violent and primitive in opposition to the enlightened ‘West’, informing the creation of a binary opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Mohanty 1984; Said 1978; Spivak 1988). This history of opposition and the association of ‘backwardness’ and violence with the ‘other’ has informed the current association of fear in relation to the Muslim body. This emotional response perpetrated by Johnson’s narrative framing of women who wear burqas “looking like bank robbers” (Johnson 2018) and the politics of fear this creates is both weighted in the history of the language of the ‘other’ and in turn creates these raced relations of domination and inequality.

“Bank robbers” and its associations
It is therefore possible to see how a politics of fear and Islamophobic sentiment has become embedded within UK politics through language. It is the common, everyday language such as that used by Johnson that must be made visible and interrogated in order to disrupt the invisible power that this language, and the emotions circulated through it, have. The phrase “bank robbers” used by Johnson (2018) has a number of connotations that elicit both fear and the unknown. Because of the fear associated with robbers in their ‘black balaclavas’, violence and aggression become imbued in the image of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa. Through the circulation of this language, in turn situated in the histories of violence associated with the ‘other’, the body of the woman wearing a burqa thus has a fear attached to it, a fear that will elicit an emotional response from those consuming the discourse perpetrated by Johnson. Not only does the phrase used by Johnson validate connotations of fear, it also legitimates the right to defence, placing Muslim women who wear the burqa in the same category of robbers breaking the law who, thus, deserve punishment or reform.

Language and emotion therefore have the power for resistance.

This defence narrative allows the justification for the forced removal of the burqa in some spaces and situations. Johnson argues that it is completely legitimate to force women to remove their burqas in order for them to participate in public spaces, for example in a school, university or at an MP’s surgery (Johnson 2018). By essentially arguing that in order to participate in public life in the UK one must not wear the burqa, Johnson reinforces the historic notion of an ‘us’ and ‘them’- in order to participate in ‘our’ country ‘they’ must become less ‘other’. Johnson argues that “those in authority…should of course be able to enforce a dress code” and in fact should feel “fully entitled” to do so (Johnson 2018). This narrative can clearly be situated in the same realm of that of the PREVENT strategy in which the fear that is associated with the Muslim ‘other’ gives those with ‘authority’ the power and legitimacy to regulate and control the bodies of said ‘other’. In his article, Johnson legitimates this authority by stating that “human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work” (Johnson 2018). There is clearly a dehumanising narrative at play here, the ‘we’ of British society does not include those who choose to wear the burqa as they are not deemed ‘human beings’. This reinforces the ‘unknown’ and its associated fear: those wearing burqas are deemed unknowable and unable to participate in society. They are therefore situated as a threat, and a threat that must be protected against.

Resistance and disruption
It is clear that words generate effects through the situation and circulation of emotion and the histories of associations embedded within these narratives. It is, however, this concept of words generating effects that can provide the possibility for potential transformation and social change. The implications and associations that are attached to one phrase used by Johnson demonstrate the power of emotions and discourse. Language and emotion therefore have the power for resistance. If language is a social phenomenon, then it is through challenges to this language that the structures of meanings are altered (Jorgensen and Phillips 2006: 25). Through the power that language has, there is the potential to feel differently, and thus know differently (Hemmings 2012: 150). It is through “the transformation of affective dissonance to affective solidarity, through a critique of dominant knowledge, that there is the potential for affect to be transformative” (Hemmings 2012: 157).  

As demonstrated, Johnson’s language and it’s associated emotions influence both popular opinion and politics: his discourse reinforces and creates Islamophobic sentiment under the guise of ‘protection’. In order to remove the power created by this discourse the work of this language and the emotions associated with it must be made visible; only then can we challenge the relationships of power produced by it. Through questioning the associations and articulations of fear perpetrated in Johnsons discourse, there is the potential for creating new narratives. There may then be the potential for British politics to begin to feel differently, and feeling undeniably matters in politics.

Florence Waller-Carr is a Msc Graduate in Women, Peace and Security from LSE Gender Institute, feminist activist and ultimate Potterhead. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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Marissa Conway