The widow of a British lawmaker killed by a right-wing extremist last year successfully got all major political parties to take an hour out of campaigning this weekend.
Brendan Cox, the widower of Jo Cox, the British Member of Parliament who was stabbed and shot outside her constituency surgery in northern England on June 16 last year, has been fighting to ensure that politicians avoid bitterness and hatred in their campaigning in the run up to the U.K.’s general election, which takes place June 8.
Cox is urging lawmakers of every political stripe to remember his late wife’s belief: that “we have more in common than that which divides us.”
The humanitarian campaigner has also organized a three day celebration called the Great Get Together in honor of Jo. The initiative, which is taking place on June 16-18, is designed to unite people in their neighborhoods over a weekend filled with hundreds of community-led events.
In a telephone interview, TIME spoke to Cox about his campaign, and the global fight against political extremism:
TIME: You asked political parties in the U.K. to take a short break from campaigning on Sunday. Why?
Brendan Cox: I asked all politicians to pause their campaigning for an hour and instead use that time to visit an organization working to bring communities together, to show that even when you disagree with people, it doesn’t mean you can’t get together and celebrate those things we have in common. All the major political leaders – Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Liberal Democrat Tim Farron, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – were up for engaging. I think the symbolism of politicians taking an hour out of their campaigning schedule to focus on the things that unite us feels really significant.
I think we need to get better at celebrating unity in the U.K.. When we give people the opportunity, for example the London Olympics or the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, people jump at it, but we are bad at providing people with occasions where they can come together.
The build-up to the Brexit referendum was extremely nasty last year. What have you made of the political campaigning ahead of the June 8 vote?
It’s still early to say as it’s at the end of the campaign when things tend to get raucous. I do think politicians learned from the divisive campaigning last year that passion is and should be part of politics, but hatred shouldn’t be. As soon as you tolerate hate as part of your discourse, it’s very hard to put the pieces back together again.
Clearly around the world at the moment there are some people who are using hate to try to win support and are stirring up the concepts of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’. However, I think that in the U.K. the vast majority of politicians feel they have no time for that. Of course they disagree with each other and are combative when they need to be, but they don’t allow hate to define their politics.
What do you think is behind the recent rise of extremism in Europe and the U.S.?
One of the things that’s underlying the rise of the far right is that people don’t know each other as much as they used to – our communities are less close and I think that’s a real problem not just in terms of politics, but in terms of people’s lives.
We want our kids to play with other kids on the street and to go round to our neighbors to borrow milk, but that doesn’t really happen anymore. I think it’s partly because of the way we work – in smaller workplaces – as well as the collapse of institutions like churches and even pubs, as well as the role of social media. As a result of all of these things, we’re living more isolated lives. It’s a real western European/north American phenomena.
I think something we’ve got to work on is how to we bring people back together; how do we build new institutions that connect people of different backgrounds, faiths, race?
We saw a new movement gain power in France during the election earlier this month. Do you see that kind of energy elsewhere?
I think there needs to be some disruption to politics. In my opinion, there are two types of disruption: disruption that seeks to come up with new solutions to the problems we are facing, whether that’s security or the economy or whatever else, and disruption that seeks to distract from those issues and instead blame migrants, Muslims, foreigners and whoever else for problems. The second type of disruption is nicely simplistic, it doesn’t have to meet reality and it’s very easy for people to understand. However, although it might make you feel better in the short-term, it won’t get you anywhere.
I think that what’s beginning to happen is that people, specifically Europeans, are beginning to turn their back on the second type of disruption. I hope we’ve reached the high water mark of the rise of some of those far-right organizations because people want real solutions to real problems, rather than the rhetorical stances that drive hate amongst certain groups but don’t actually provide any different way forward.
So do you think we’re seeing a move away from extremism?
I’m saying I hope we’ve reached the high water mark because I refuse to be complacent. I still think there’s a lot of cause for concern, whether that’s economic or cultural or political issues which are making people feel more vulnerable and destabilized than they have done in the past.
These contexts can provide an opening to the far right, but also to people who want to reimagine politics more within the center but also come up with new solutions and new ways to deliver those politics.
When populists have been seriously considered at by the public, the public have decisively said no to them, whether that’s Geert Wilders in Holland, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria or the AfD in Germany. I think it sometimes takes a far-right party’s rise for people to then turn their back on them. But I also think we need to be careful not to assume that that will always happen.
What is the best way to ensure that it does?
The important thing is that we break out of own bubble, stop shouting loudly into our own echo chambers and try to find ways of having conversations with people that disagree with us – whether that’s online or face-to-face. Digital outreach has been a critical part of the Great Get Together’s organization strategy and an important way of engaging people, but I think there comes a point where the importance of people meeting each other, sitting next to each other and sharing each others’ food is a much more important form of interaction. It’s not one or the other, but we shouldn’t imagine we can respond to the collapse of communities just in a digital way.
The right-wing fringe can be very aggressive online. Have you had much backlash?
Yes, I get lots of trolling! I don’t engage with it and Jo didn’t either when she was alive. She had a lot of it, but she tended to just ignore it as best she could. One of the things that’s happened recently because of people like Trump and Le Pen and others is that some things that used to be deemed unacceptable in public discourse have now become acceptable.
I don’t think our country is becoming less tolerant (and in fact I think most countries are becoming more tolerant), but I think people who hold extreme views now feel they have more of a right to act upon them; those individuals who would have kept some of their prejudices to themselves in the past now think it’s okay to be open. However, although it’s easy for us to get outshouted by the angry voices at the margins, the vast majority of people are repulsed by that sort of hatred.
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