Logic of Equivalence

The vote for the UK to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump have led to a rise in reported incidents of hate crime, racism, and xenophobia. While the motivations for voting for either outcome vary considerably, a key element to both has been a discursive framing and a highly reductionist yet effective use of the Ernesto Laclau’s notion of the logic of equivalence around race, ethnicity and the politics of the ‘other’. Disparate groups and concepts have been lumped together in ways that make them appear equivalent; a process that has allowed for simplification, discursive reduction, and mobilisation of bias against key policy issues such as immigration and open borders.

The logic of equivalence

In the run-up to the referendum, UKIP Leader Nigel Farage launched a billboard depicting a winding path of migrants declaring ‘Britain is at Breaking Point’. His articulation of this issue makes no distinction between EU migrants who have every right to come and work here, refugees who have the ability to make a legal case for asylum depending on their home country circumstances, non-EU immigrants who may have a legitimate reason for coming to the UK (like me), and illegal immigrants. The Front National party in France had a similar poster in 1978, which declared ‘Two Million Unemployed is Two Million Immigrants Too Many!’ Despite her attempts to distance herself from her father, Marine Le Pen has used similar language and is standing in next summer’s presidential election.

Donald Trump has employed a similar strategy and has engaged in the logic of equivalence about the menace of Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, and Syrian Refugees all of whom were grouped into the ‘other’ threatening the ‘greatness’ of America. His proposed solutions include mass deportation of illegal immigrants, a ban on Muslims, a cancellation of refugee resettlement, and a registry of Muslim Americans.


The rise of hate crimes

These discursive strategies proved effective in both campaigns, but they have had alarming and in some cases tragic consequences. In the UK, an official report issued by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) claims that more than 3,000 hate crimes were reported over the key dates from the 16th to the 30th of June, which represented a 42% rise in reported hate crime over 2015. The month of July saw more than 200 events being reported a day, where a total of more than 6,000 events were reported between mid-June and late August. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Centre reports that in the ten days after the election, there have been 867 hate incidents, which targeted immigrants, blacks, Muslims, the LGBT community, women, and Jews, as well as anti-Trump incidents. These incidents have been reported in public and private places, workplaces and retail outlets, places of worship, primary and secondary schools, and universities.

Many express shock and horror at these data and the deep pain that lies behind them, but for me upon deep reflection recently, I am sadly less surprised. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where my high school had an annual charity event entitled ‘Slave for a Day’, where the use of racist language of the kind documented at Trump rallies was common. In the UK I have experienced everyday forms of racism from casual acquaintances, neighbours, and passers-by, where my own foreign status yields coded (and in many cases, overt) language about foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, and blacks.

The challenge approach

Discussions across recent public events at my university, in my local communities, and with my network of colleagues and friends have all centred on the need to challenge these discourses at every turn. To do otherwise means that we remain complicit in precisely the problem that haunts us once again. If we are to embrace and live up to the ideals of inherent dignity, equality, and rights of all as articulated in such documents as the American Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then we must start with a challenge approach to all forms of racism and intolerance, the criminalisation of all hate speech and hate acts, the retention of the UK Human Rights Act, the promotion of inter-ethnic dialogue, and a redoubling of our efforts across all levels of education to teach our young people the value of human dignity and respect.

Professor Todd Landman is Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. He is an author of numerous books and articles on democracy and human rights, and his thoughts expressed here draw on his recent public lecture as part of the AHRC-funded Being Human Festival entitled ‘Race, Rights and Justice in the Age of Brexit‘.

Feature photo by Ed Everett [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.