Hillsborough – when words fail us

Nicky Hawkins reflects on how we use language when terrible things happen.

This week, as the full horror of Hillsborough and the systematic cover-up by the authorities is finally laid bare, I am struck by the inadequacy of the words we have and the words that are used to talk about it.

We struggle to describe the scale of the sorrow, the injustice and our emotional response to it all. It feels very human to lose our command of language in the face of something so appalling. But, even more than that, it feels as if we are failing to find words that reflect what we now know happened with any accuracy.

The two words most associated with the events at Hillsborough on April 15 1989 are disaster and tragedy. Both suggest that what happened was unfortunate and unforeseeable. Both suggest an element of chance.

Given the facts we know now, it is clear that what happened at Hillsborough was not an unpredictable freak accident. It was entirely consistent with the police’s astonishing disregard for safety in the run up to the game. It was consistent with the policing of some football matches more generally at the time. It was consistent with the way the stadium had been designed.  It could have been predicted and it could very easily have been prevented.

Whilst it wasn’t a deliberate act, calling it an accident doesn’t feel quite right. And how we talk about this matters.

Football fans had already been reduced in people’s minds to hooligans and yobs. Supporters were already being caged in pens. Football matches, especially high profile ones, were often seen in terms of policing fans’ behaviour, rather than ensuring people’s safety. In that context, it didn’t take much for the police to imply that those caught up in the crush were to blame. It fitted into to what people already ‘knew’ about football fans, and made it possible for the rest of us to ignore the families and believe what we were being told by the authorities.

As a young child at the time, I was told that the Nottingham Forest fans at the game hadn’t been affected because they had behaved themselves and kept out of trouble.

This happens all the time. The ‘swarm’ of migrants heading towards Britain’s shores are actually families caught between warring factions, fleeing for their lives and risking everything to find safety.

The girls labelled ‘slappers’ and ignored for so many years in Rotherham, policed by the same force as the Hillsborough stadium, were actually children suffering appalling systematic abuse over many years.

How we talk about people and events determines how we respond as individuals and as a society. People can be categorised as undeserving. Systemic failures can be dismissed as isolated incidents.

Hillsborough, Rotherham and the refugee crisis all have this in common. They show us how the words we use can obscure reality, compound existing problems and create new ones.

Human rights laws helped uncover the truth about Hillsborough and Rotherham. Human rights principles insist we treat everyone as a person, worthy of dignity and fair treatment. The words we reach for when we talk about all of this have never been more important.

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