“The English Defence League (EDL) is a racist organisation whose main activity is street demonstrations against the Muslim community. Although it claims only to oppose Islamic extremism it targets the entire Muslim community and its actions deliberately seek to whip up tensions and violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.” (Hope Not Hate)
The organisation started as a loose network of football hooligans and is now thought to have 500-1500 people actively engaged in its day-to-day activities. After a recent waning in popularity, the EDL’s founder Stephen Lennon has taken the murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London, in May 2013, to try and rebuild the organisation. For example on 27 May the EDL held a demonstration near Downing Street where, according to the Guardian “More than 1,000 supporters – including football hooligans, veteran fascists and others – assembled under tight police security at the entrance to Downing Street, where they listened to their leaders blame Islam for the killing”.
Here’s a video I took at that demonstration, in which an EDL supporter makes a Nazi salute as the crowd chants “E-E-EDL”:
Other chants I heard were “Allah, Allah, Who the fuck is Allah?” and (to the tune of Let’s all do the Conga) “Muhammad is a paedo.” All of these resemble football chants in their structure and melody (where this is one) as would be expected since according to Hope not Hate “the EDL is largely organised through what remains of the football hooligan network, and current and former football hooligans make up at least half of any EDL demonstration.”
Football chants are highly effective, highly memorable ways to support your own team or to insult (sometimes wittily, sometimes highly offensively) the opposition. The structures often employ repetition, familiar tunes and structures of three that enable people in large crowds to pick up what’s happening and join in, without any one conducting. As such they become a form of folk song and when applied to a political context (by right or left wing organisations) they become a form of speech. But a speech that is distilled to its absolutes simplest of ‘we are great’ and ‘you are shit’.
I have already written about the use of rhythm in speeches for emotional effect – both by mainstream politicians and fascists – and the chant takes this to a new extreme. But I have also noticed that at least one of Stephen Lennon’s speeches has demonstrated a particular, simple rhythmic quality. Perhaps this is an influence of the chant-laden environment or perhaps it is because it was unscripted (and I think that repetition is as useful to the speaker in navigating their way through a speech as it is the audience). But I think it is largely because the EDL is an organisation exceptionally oriented around emotional positioning rather than factual arguments and so their speeches do not need to be rational.
In our research for Up on Two Legs we watched a video of a speech by Stephen Lennon in Amsterdam in 2010. We watched it with a deliberately open receptiveness to the emotional context of the speaker and the audience (as opposed to an analysis of the points they make).
I was struck by two things. One is a chilling stirring reaction I experience as he lists a number of European cities – there is something quite daunting about this structure (which I will come back to).
Secondly I note the repetition of ‘Islamism’ and his return to the words ‘Islamists’, and ‘Islamic’ throughout. It seems like he enjoys the shape of it in his mouth and the taste of the associated emotions – contempt and hatred – that these already hold for him and his audience.
The other frequently repeated group of words is ‘freedom’ and ‘free’ – another simple word that already carries very strong positive connotations of justice and resistance. So already just these two word groups through the speech create a binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For example: “We stand for freedom. Freedom has never come cheap – it never will – and freedom is worth fighting for and we will travel anywhere in the country, anywhere in Europe, anywhere in the world to defend Freedom. Geert Wilders defends freedom and we support him 100%.”
Lennon also repeats words and phrases in threes – a very common rhetorical device that I have written about before, that adds emotional weight without necessarily adding significant new information. For example “We’re not here to riot. We’re not here to smash anything up. We’re not here to attack anyone.”
He also uses the same word three times with a growing scale – country – continent – abstract concept: “we will travel anywhere in the country, anywhere in Europe, anywhere in the world to defend Freedom.” This creates a more powerful thrust than if it had been Europe, anywhere in the world and then country.
Conversely he uses a reduction of concepts from abstract concept -country – city/ individual: “a sad day for Democracy, a sad day for Holland , a sad day for the Mayor of Amsterdam”. This has the effect of zooming into the context in which he was speaking.
Lennon also use several lists of different countries and cities to emphasise the scale of the issue:
“In Holland you are very lucky to have Geert Wilders. In Sweden you have political parties, In England we have no-one…’
“We send a clear message to islamists in Afghanistan, to those in Malmö, in Berlin, in Rome, in London..”
“We unite with groups across Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, from everywhere.”
And in this case he uses repetition with opposition: “In certain countries in Europe we have no-one. We have no-one speaking for us, no-one defending us, no-one defending the future for our children. We will defend ourselves. We will defend the future for our children.” This compounds the binary, trying to force people to take one of two sides
The actual overt point being made in the speech is extremely simple – across Europe there is a threat from Islamist organisations and only groups like the English Defence League is able to stop them . There are also less explicit points that for example refer to the possibility of violent action, that denigrate these Islamists and play up the threat to women. But this is not a speech to make a rational argument and I’d even say it’s not a speech to convince, at least not the people present (perhaps those watching videos afterwards). Rather this is a speech to tell people what they already believe but to do it in a way that is stirring and emotional to further cement these beliefs in general but in particular at that event.