Michael is a Senior Programme Coordinator for Facing History and Ourselves in London, UK.
A white rose was today placed on a vacant seat in the House of Commons. Members of Parliament (MPs) had returned to pay tribute to Jo Cox, murdered last Thursday in her constituency of Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire. The white rose, a symbol of Yorkshire, was soon joined by a red rose, a symbol of the Labour Party she represented.
The red rose also symbolises Lancashire; and I was reminded of the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster that tore Britain apart in the 15th Century. As we approach the EU referendum on June 23rd, the campaigns have at times resembled a virtual civil war. The referendum campaign which today JK Rowling described as ‘one of the most divisive and bitter political campaigns ever waged in my lifetime’ was temporarily halted as MPs sat as neighbours rather than adversaries, shocked by this attack on our democracy.
Whilst we cannot be sure exactly what was in the mind of Jo Cox’s alleged killer Thomas Mair, his response when asked to give his name in court was to say ‘my name is death to traitors, Freedom for Britain.’ Jo Cox’s death highlights three ugly strands of politics, which have been at the forefront not only of the referendum campaign but also of our politics over the last few years.
The first is that as the Brexit campaign began to use limiting immigration as its main argument for Britain to leave the EU, xenophobic feelings seem to have reached a crescendo. Only an hour before Cox’s murder a poster was unveiled which many described as racist.
Condemned by many, this poster nevertheless revealed the depths to which the referendum debate could go in its ‘othering’ of foreigners for political gain. Jo Cox, a prominent Remain campaigner, who made compassion for Syrian refugees her signature issue, was murdered in this context.
The second strand has been the demonisation of politicians. Jo Cox, like so many MPs, was the antithesis of the negative stereotype, a tireless worker for her constituents, highly knowledgeable about international affairs, and whose sole purpose was to try to create a better world. Yet she was killed in a climate where MPs are held in the lowest esteem in recent memory.
Finally, if, as seems possible, Mair’s alleged killing of Cox was connected to the views she held in opposition to his, this could be thought of as an act of violent extremism. The binary nature of the referendum campaign has led to intolerant attitudes on both sides. But respectful disagreement is a vital part of our democracy.
Despising public servants such as MPs and other experts, othering and demonising of foreigners and troubling levels of extremism have been the backdrop to Jo Cox’s murder. Yet there was another moment in this terrible event that shouldn’t be missed. As Jo was attacked 77 year old Bernard Kenny threw himself in front of her in an attempt to save her life, and was stabbed in the stomach as a result. He survives and many believe he deserves to be publicly honoured.
Certainly, to build the better world Jo Cox dedicated her life to, we as educators must engage with not only the negativity of the current political climate but the selflessness of upstanders such as Bernard Kenny. To do so we might do well to consider Facing History’s idea of the ‘universe of obligation’ defined by Helen Fein as "the circle of individuals and groups toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends."
As MPs gathered and united in grief today Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reflected this concept in the tribute he paid:
‘Jo Cox didn’t just believe in loving her neighbour, she believed in loving her neighbour’s neighbour. She saw a world of neighbours and she believed every life counted the same.’