And why Political Correctness is a good thing.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s racism was not only practiced and preached by almost everyone I met, it was also supported by almost all the UK’s institutions from schools to places of employment. It was also completely legal. Clubs and societies, shops, rental agencies, landlords and the population at large were able to exclude whosoever they wished.
By the 1970s, the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act went some way to enshrining in law the inclusion of women and BME groups. Equality before the law has, since then, steadily improved with rights for LBGT people only recently being properly addressed. But equality for less powerful groups and individuals in societal terms has lagged behind the law; law that was only enacted through the efforts of campaigners and activists; in short through Political Correctness, to put right what was fundamentally incorrect.
Research by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Runnymede Trust, and projects by the BBC and Channel 4, and numerous university departments has shown that racism has been in decline and, with luck, will gradually become a thing of the past. Yet, over the last few years, many people have noticed it is on the increase. In advertising, in films, in the media generally and in political discourse the so-called ‘casual’ racism of the 1950s is returning.
The recent debate over the future of Jeremy Clarkson at the BBC, for example, is set against the rise of UKIP and a huge number of smaller political groups who are openly nationalistic, often racist and unashamedly anti-PC. As if to be PC was somehow to be precious and effete, as if the robust and predominantly masculine attitude of atomistic independence and freedom of thought could be emasculated by fairness, kindness and respect for others. Ironically, it is the very same people who see those qualities as essentially British Values, who often propose the end of equalities legislation; the cries of freedom and colour-blindness emanating from those who are highly unlikely to be threatened by racism themselves.
But, as the likes of Farage and Clarkson might maintain, if racism is on the decline in general terms and equality is now accepted by almost everyone, why do we need legislation to enforce what has already happened? And why can’t people’s differences be the subject of humour? After all, if white people can laugh at themselves and non-white comedians can make fun of their own stereotypes, what’s the problem? In short, we should all lighten up, they say, and stop seeing racism everywhere.
Power and Adversity.
When a BME individual is growing up in a predominantly white society, the teasing, taunting and racist comments can be relentless; less so now than in the 1950s but still sufficient to make the lives of many people unbearable. Of course, by sheer luck or circumstance, not all BME people have the same experiences. At one end of the scale some people never experience racism and, at the other end, the racism is daily and life-threatening. Most BME people’s experiences are somewhere in between. And the reason for this uneven spread of verbal and physical assault is simply that the geographical and cultural spread of racism is itself inconsistent. Researchers have concluded that roughly 75% of people were overtly racist in the 1960s compared to about 25% today; a massive and fast improvement by anyone’s standards. But that means that, at any one time, 1 in 4 people are wilfully belittling the life-chances of vulnerable groups and individuals. And if society can change fast in one direction, it can change just as fast in another.
In an HR department that, say, employs 12 people, 3 will feel justified in binning a BME’s application without even reading it. In some firms or government departments, there might be no racists at all while in others there might be many more than 25%. In some industries, the racist culture is much, much worse than others. The car industry springs to mind. In all walks of life, the equality laws are thwarted, ignored and flouted by people who not only have 1950s attitudes to gender, race and nationality but would prefer a society in which those attitudes were applauded. Yet those racists are not displaying some kind of abnormal behaviour; racism is both endemic and built-in to our very being.
Whether by nature or nurture, probably a combination of both, humans are tribal. There are good scientific reasons to think that natural selection favours both tribalism and universalism for different but valid reasons of survival; we all have those traits to varying degrees. But, in the same way that we do not advocate killing our children should they seem to be a burden to us, or killing all our neighbours so that we might steal their gardens and grow more crops to feed our families, we do not have to follow our urges and instincts just because they are there. Historically, of course, powerful nations and groups have exercised their tribal urges in the extreme; from the exploits of the state-sponsored ‘pioneers’ and ‘independents’ who created the Atlantic slave trade to the growth and formation of the British Empire, the cause of tribal expansion was marked by the blood and suffering of millions. World wars, genocides and terrorist atrocities have punctuated history with ghastly regularity and it seems the human appetite for tribalism is almost unending. But it need not be.
Theologians, rulers, artists, campaigners and political commentators have, for centuries, been at the heart of racism and of the fight against it. Racists and non-racists come from all walks of life and all social classes but the difference between an overt racist and those of us who campaign against racism is a difference of intention rather than innate quality. Anti-racism campaigners are beginning to latch on to this through the idea of intersectionality; we recognise that all people are tribal and that it essential to recognise that overtly promoting our own tribes (gender, sexuality, race, disability and so-on) might have, as a by-product, the exclusion of others from a society we are all attempting to forge together. The intersectional approach is thus to recognise that to be ‘other’, i.e. different from those who hold power and cultural hegemony, is to have more in common with other ‘others’ than the differences that might conventionally divide us. Those who understand the distinction between racism as a quality we all possess, compared to a social discourse that we enact, are those we should listen to and to whom we owe a great deal.
It is telling that those who love competition rather than co-operation, those who regard success as the acquisition of status and power, are often those claiming to be the least racist while being free and easy with the support of casual racism and the constant references to the otherness of people who, unlike them, have little power or influence. It’s no accident that powerful, wealthy white men, and those who admire them, see themselves as colour-blind; in their eyes, racists are bad people, not like them. So anything they say or do can not be racist, in their eyes, because they are not bad people in general terms.
The Clarkson affair illustrates this beautifully. Top Gear is deservedly one of the most popular TV shows on the planet; not just because it is overtly, casually racist (though that has something to do with its broad appeal in a racist world), but because the presenters and producers are skilled and the editing and filming are superb. Being racist by supporting ‘casual’ racism does not mean one can not be excellent at one’s job. But the price paid by vulnerable groups and individuals is high.
It is well known that soldiers, having witnessed terrible things and having been in terrible situations, can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some do and some do not. But for those who do, a car backfiring, a flash of light, the sound of a person crying out or any sufficient stimulus might trigger the sufferer to live again the trauma and emotions of the original experience. Likewise, the same can be said of victims of rape, assault or accident. The extents to which those reactions are problematic vary from person to person. For many BME, LBGT people and for women, the number of situations they have been in, when their lives have been at stake at the hands of powerful white men (or other hegemonic group and their supporters) is vastly greater than for those white men telling them to “lighten up”.
Racist white men and their supporters often claim that everyone has trauma, everyone is picked upon and everyone is prone to disappointment and ridicule, so none has the right to special treatment. That is almost true. But what they do not realise, or experience, is that we have to put up with the racial abuse, lack of employment chances and life-threatening situations solely due to our skin colour or nationality on top of all the other life stresses. If a white child is constantly called ‘fatty’ or ‘specs’ or ‘nerd’ it is bad enough, but BME people have racial abuse in addition to those insults experienced by white people; and it doesn’t end at the school gate, or in puberty, or at work. It never stops. It’s in every moment of one’s existence in societies that feel it’s OK to pick on otherness.
And it is not just past trauma that can have that effect. The relentless barrage of small slights and injustices can also built up to intolerable levels; the constant denigration of one’s existence because of a trivial matter like skin colour ties in to what one knows about recent and current history. We know that ghastly tribal conflicts occur between peoples of very similar colours and societies, let alone between those who are outwardly different; from wars between different branches of Abrahamic religions to those between different types of Europeans, to conquests of whole continents. We know that perfectly good people can turn barbarous with very little persuasion. So when we hear the ‘great and the good’ championing overt racists as friends and ‘good blokes’, as has happened in the Clarkson affair, it does not make us feel safe. And after a lifetime in which our lives have been threatened by extreme racists (racist who also support the ‘good blokes’) it becomes almost impossible to tell which casually racist remark might lead to a beating or worse, and which might not. As history tells us, it’s a very small step from name-calling to genocide and all sorts of ‘others’ have found themselves loaded onto wagons by their neighbours for their last journeys to torture and death.
Being PC is not a means of closing down discussion, it is not a way of hiding crime, it is not a method used to prevent anyone from telling jokes and it not a barrier to freedom. It is simply enacting kindness when to be unkind might have unforeseen negative and calamitous consequences. The intersectional approach is thus to give up calling people ‘fatty’ or ‘specs’ or ‘paki’ or ‘nigger’ or ‘lesbo’ or ‘cripple’ or any of those similarly demeaning words unless you know for sure it will be taken in the spirit of kindness and respect. Is that possible? Of course. It’s all in the context.
Many disadvantaged groups adopt those words between themselves to take the sting out of them, to reinvent the words, to reclaim them. If you’re not in the group, it’s not up to you to use them. That is not to say one should be more tribal but to recognise that some groups are more vulnerable than you. It is to allow people who have suffered from those words to own them. In more formal settings, such as a comedy performance, even those outside the groups can, if they fully understand the context, use race or disability without causing huge offence and be funny too. But it takes massive skill and some first hand knowledge. Clarkson calling a Thai or Burmese person a ‘slope’ is not funny and is offensive just as calling someone a ‘paki’ or ‘nigger’ would be. Yet skilled practitioners of humour who have real-life knowledge of race-politics, such as S. African stand-up Trevor Noah, use race all the time in their routines and manage (mostly) to be funny and confrontational without being racist, because their routines are about the absurdity of racism.
Those who oppose PC, say they don’t know how to navigate the ‘minefield’ set up by ‘liberal do-gooders’ but it’s really not difficult. I suspect, they do know how to navigate it because it’s not a minefield; it’s simply choosing kindness and good manners rather than crude, cruel words. It might be true that some racist expressions are so common amongst those of a particular generation that it’s very difficult to avoid them. But ever since a friend told me that ‘paying through the nose’ was originally an anti-Semitic phrase, I’ve stopped using it. Was I anti-Semitic when using it previously? Yes, unknowingly.
Not only is everyone racist to a greater or lesser degree, but racism exists even when it is unintentional. If I said, as I did once in the 1970s, “I’m just popping down to the Paki shop.” I am normalising racist language and, if overheard by someone who has recently been called a ‘paki’ and is absolutely fed up with it, I might easily cause massive offence and indignation or depression, or even suicide – we can not know which will be the final straw. Those who claim PC stops free speech, need to think again; it is the freedom of others that the enactment of a PC way of life enables. If a powerful, rich, white man can ever feel upset and would rather people were kinder to him, then consider the feelings of those who do not share his position of privilege. It’s no wonder groups defined by race stick together in ghettos; anything to get away from being an oppressed, tiny minority every minute of the day.
But, the anti-PC people say, white people are under privileged too. Yes, they are. And we should stop calling them ‘white trash’ or ‘chavs’ or ‘Essex girls’ unless the context is very specific. Remember too, that those who are ‘othered’ by society have their poverty or lack of privilege to deal with in addition to the racism levelled at them. PC is about being kind and considerate.
Anti-PC people would have us believe that PC shuts down debate about all sorts of issues. They say it’s not possible now to mention that a group of rapists was Moslem. But why would one wish to mention it unless to say that their religion was somehow responsible for their actions? On LBC radio, that debate seems to pop up regularly and defenders of non-PC say that it’s only fair because the BBC/NHS DJ scandal around Savile and others, always mentions that the rapists were Disc Jockeys. But that does not relate to their religion but to their positions of institutional power. If one was to be even-handed one would call them Christian (if they were) rapists. And that too would be racist.
Now before you ask why I’m equating religion with race, let’s be clear. Racism is so named because, until recently, many educated people actually believed in ‘race’. As if trivial differences in appearance somehow defined, character, worth or ethical behaviour. Anti-racist campaigners have always known such a theory to be rubbish because we have better understood the political reasons for centuries of propagating such views; just as feminists realise that women who refuse to be subjugated are not witches to be burned alive. The human genome project has, of course, completely proved the point; genetic variation within ‘races’ is as great as that between them. In other words, ‘race’ has no scientific meaning at all. All it means today is a vague notion that people self-identify into specific groups. It’s all about tribes.
If one calls ISIS, ‘Muslim terrorists’, then one must call the IRA, or the first white (Edit – see comment below) Australians, ‘Christian terrorists’ or the Burmese generals ‘Buddhist terrorists’. But it is far better not to mention their religion at all unless there is a point to be made about those religions, not just as they are written but as they are generally practiced. All religious people cherry-pick from their scriptures because all their scriptures are internally inconsistent and contradictory, perhaps forgiveness being paramount in one chapter while vengeance is suggested in another. Yet atheists too can be genocidal.
The growth of casual racism, against a background of anti-PC, and a past trend of diminishing racism supported by pro-PC activism, has happened in consort with political entities, such as UKIP, the BNP, EDL and other groups, who know they can gain from a disgruntled and angry population. The fact that the population is predominantly white simply defines the types of racism being encouraged. It can happen anywhere. Farage insists he is colour-blind; all that means is that he does not acknowledge that racism still exists and refuses to see that the old idea of race, that skin colour defines character or worth, is still believed by many. His denial is outrageous. To legitimise it he has turned his attention instead to nationality. And because racism is all tribal anyway, it serves Farage’s purpose as effectively as racism based on colour. It also normalises the racist language used by his supporters if their language is deemed not to be racist. When Clarkson claims he tried his hardest not to use that word, he is being utterly disingenuous because he is in the communication business, it’s his job.
Racism is not really about race because race doesn’t exist. It’s about tribes, about affiliation, about feeling more secure by blaming outsiders for one’s own feelings of mortality or fear of poverty. PC is about life, about kindness, about understanding and recognising that it takes effort to fight against our own intrinsic tribalism. Nature and nurture have conspired to make us the most dangerous animals on the planet and, fuelled by tribalism, we head towards a bleak future that simply echoes our past but on a much bigger scale. So be better, be hopeful, be PC.
14th March 2015
I think being ‘nationalistic’ is in no way to be connected with being bigoted or tribalist. I think people should be proud of where they come from and should celebrate it when they can. If however they use their pride to project superiority over other ethnic groups, then I have a problem and that is being supremacist. By the way, the term ‘racist’ implies there is more than than one human species and this in itself is ‘racist’ or distorted ethnocentricism. Dr. Claude Anderson, a professor in Economics in the US has stated that racism is the industry of excluding black people from the wealth of the world. PC can be inflexible and tends to come from white middle class people hectoring working class people about proper behaviour.
Thanks for your comment Cybexal. If one is proud to be where one is from then one is showing a preference for one place over another and pride for something that was purely circumstantial; not for something one has actually achieved. If I was proud of the way I’ve cooked an omelette, for example, the pride relates to the achievement but one’s country of origin is not anything any of us can do anything about. So I don’t buy nationalism not being tribal; if that were the case then any old country would do, or none for that matter.
PC might be misunderstood by many white middle class people and propagated as some strange code that is difficult to follow. I’ve certainly witnessed ‘Equality Training’ at work (where I used to work) where the trainers knew almost nothing about racism and simply banded about notions of some words being unacceptable; often coming out with nonsensical and false stories put about at the time by The Sun and Daily Mail. Indeed many middle-class white people who claim to be PC are in fact hiding their lack of education and, sometimes their racism, behind rhetoric they know to be damning such as “…I love black people, they’re wonderful.” Very un-PC but displayed to others as if it were.
Personally, I’ve never come across anyone being frightened to talk about race, though some claim to be while in the midst of a racist rant, and it has been the working class poor who have had to bear the brunt of racism from all quarters. It is true that some white working class people have often been less worried about hiding their racism (I’ve certainly experienced that.) but, on the other hand, a massive number of anti-racist campaigners come from exactly that background.
Edit: I also meant to add that the people most fearful of talking about race are the victims of racism because they are likely to lose their jobs if branded troublemakers by their employers; especially if the perpetrators are well liked and quite senior. If it happens at a junior level, the whistleblower is often hounded out by violence or verbal intimidation.
Hi Nick, great piece. One little clarification – in Australia, the term ‘First Australians’ is nowadays generally used to describe indigenous people. You might say ‘first White Australians’ or ‘invaders’, ‘colonists’…
Many thanks Phil, excellent point. I’ll make an edit. It just goes to show how the ‘accepted’ language of history taught to me in geography classes 50 years ago was itself racist in both intent and form.
Thanks NIck. Sadly the official history here in Australia is even now ‘racist in both intent and form’, but slowly we get the message out…
I think this is a suitable riposte to your piece, interesting though it is.
Simon, many thanks for your comment. I feel the Nick Cohen article misses the point entirely. PC, when high-jacked by some people, does indeed look ridiculous but it need not be. Of course, it is all in the context. I made the point on the Spectator piece as follows:
One of Nick’s point is that to be an ardent follower of the PC code is a cop out. It’s a comfortable place for those adherents because it means they are DOING something but actually doing very little to change the structural causes of people plight.
And as someone who works in the creative arts I find the piety and censorious nature of PC’ness incredibly frustrating and lacking humour. Who decides who is insulted? Is a Muslim right to feel insulted if I poke fun at his/her religion?
What if he insults me back because I happen to have been blessed with ginger hair. Is there a tool that measures how insulted one must/should/has to feel?
Who decides the heirachy of isms. What’s worst? To be sexist or racist? Homophobic or homo-islamic?
The real bullies are those who cry Racist! Sexist! Islamophobe! at the first critique of their actions thereby shutting down debate. One only has to see the kind of bullying that Majiid Nawazz received at the hands of (cough) liberals when he posted a link to a Jesus and Mo cartoon to know where the bullying (for bullying read death threats) is coming from.Because of course the worst crime in the world now is to cause OFFENSE to anyone. And to be racist? Well, that goes beyond the pail. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
This is not as complicated as it might seem to those who feel PC is wrong. It is bullying to cry ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ when no such action has taken place but it’s surely OK to call-out racism and sexism where it is clearly displayed. There’s no hierarchy of ‘isms’, just a hope and a need that qualifiers that are irrelevant are thoughtfully left unsaid – not because any thought police say so, but because it’s simply fair and kind. In other words, to treat others with the same respect as we treat our own ‘clan’ or ‘tribe’. Who decides who is insulted? Clearly, everyone is different and in normal society we don’t call our granny (for example) ‘ a dried-up smelly old woman’ so why is it OK to call someone a ‘black bastard’.
Clearly, we all cause offense to others by holding different opinions but we don’t hold those in order to cause offense. Freedom to be offensive (I support it) is not the same as choosing to be offensive and it’s really not too difficult to think of others as deserving of respectful language as we would think of those close to us. That does not mean we can not be as critical as we like. Over the past 40 years I’ve been critical of religions and have marched against Extreme Islam and other religions. I’ve had very interesting conversations with Islamic people about my Atheism and not once was racist or other ‘ist’ language required by me or my companions.
I’m an amateur writer so I expect those who write for a living to be able to be respectful. But that does not mean satire and comedy are out. By all means support the rights of cartoonists to be satirical but it’s quite clear when they are being simply rude or ‘ist’. Being PC is also about freedom of expression and the examples (many of which can not be verified, though some can) of crazy censorship by (mostly white) liberals clearly show how much PC has been hi-jacked in order to discredit it.
Thanks Nick for your reply and your considered response.
Do you consider the Jesus and Mo cartoons to be offensive? Or racist? Or Islamophobic?
It’s interesting that you say you didn’t use ‘ist’ language when chatting to Muslims but doesn’t that depend on how it’s interpreted by the person on the receiving end?
To use the cartoons as an example – I have a couple of liberal, secular Muslims who do not find the Jesus and Mo cartoons offensive atall. However many Muslims do. So, what happens? Am I allowed to wear a Jesus and Mo cartoon t-shirt but only in their company? Should I cover myself up when I go to Tower Hamlets?
What if other ‘clans’ or ‘tribes’ do not treat their own as well as we do? What if they regard women as 2nd class citizens and or see homosexuals as no better than dirt? Should that be challenged or should we stick cultural and moral relativist agenda?
And again who decides what’s racist or not? For years Anne Cryer was castigated for being a racist for having the temerity to say that there may been an issue within certain young Asian men grooming girls in Keighley. She was shunned by the council, the police, and Immans. She was villified for being a racist. She soon learned to shut up.
It makes me weep to think it was the fucking BNP. The BNP!!! for Christ’s sake that kept up the pressure. What a sad state of affairs that we had to rely on that bunch of retards (sorry) to point out that there was rape going on on an industrial scale.
You see I think there is a hierachy of isms and racism is at the top. It trumps all other isms hands down. One can be a homophobic, woman hating fascist, but cry ‘racist’ to all and sundry and chances are you will be viewed with sympathy.
Was Charlie Hebdo a racist magazine?
Simon, I’ve only seen a handful of Jesus and Mo cartoons and found most funny and not at all racist or Islamophobic but there was one I thought in poor taste. As for Charlie Hebdo, I hadn’t even heard of them until the outrageous terrorist attack, but those I saw I thought were unsophisticated and somewhat racist because they were simply too crude and rude and generalised but I only saw the more contentious ones; for all I know the others may have been fine. But whether or not Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine is to miss the point in my view.
I start from the premise that we are all tribal and, because ‘race’ is a construct (why skin colour an identifier, why not shape of earlobes? – all sorts of eugenics could be substituted), racism is a subset of tribalism. We are all racist to an extent. So all the ‘isms’ count equally from a categorical perspective even if their inactions might be wholly unequal. Misogyny, for example can be mild or severe, just as racism and homophobia. Each context and situation is different, depending mostly on power-relations between both groups and individuals; that’s why anti-racism is an attitude and a campaigning issue, just like feminism, not a set of rules. PC, for me, is a term that encompasses those attitudes and campaigns that improve the disparity in power-relations and suggests treating people with respect even when being critical.
Even in war, when it might be deemed necessary to maim and kill one’s opponents, we have international laws that say, in a nut-shell, that injuries and death should be kept to a minimum commensurate with the threat. As we know, few armies stick to those rules.
It might be that we are all destined to eternal war and tribalism, including all the ‘isms’ but, I’m as hopeful that things can change as I am pessimistic that life will get worse. War now is far less brutal and destructive than it has been historically but things can change very quickly.
As for the police and social services not following up child abuse allegations; anyone with an ounce of PC in them would have put the victims first. The Police and Social Services (like many organisations) routinely treat Women and BME people less well so to cry ‘we were scared of upsetting PC people’ from the officials in Rotherham is as likely as it was at the BBC, in Westminster or in the Liberal Party. Child abuse seems to be everywhere and everywhere under-reported and ignored by those who should know better.
I think we both see massive problems in the ways we all treat each other but PC only becomes a set of ridiculous rules when it is to shroud attitudes. I’ve seen PC go from a socially libertarian ideal that protects minorities and women with respect, to a term of derision based on all sorts of (mostly white) liberal angst resulting from the ‘rules’ being ‘written’ by the very people least likely to understand the issues. We need to return to the older version.
Lastly, I would predict there are enough people in Tower Hamlets (my workshop is in the Borough) to provide a vocal minority who might make life difficult for the wearer of a Jesus and Mo T-shirt, and it might be that tribalism would lead to a fracas. In an ideal world, that would not be the case but sadly the world is not ideal. What with the EDL attempting to cause fights near the mosque, many muslims are feeling fed up with the constant attention and pressure and so any innocent slogan might cause provocation. People react badly when under threat and many Tower Hamlets islamic residents feel under threat from both extreme Islam and the EDL, and those in the media who might wish to ‘prove’ that PC is all a load of rubbish by ‘causing’ a fracas in the first place. With tensions running high, there’s no point in being provocative for the sake of it.
Cheers Phil; I have family in Australia and notice how their Facebook posts are often about racist policies towards original peoples being enacted by the current australian government. I had a bit of a trawl around the net and it seems nearly all the names original people have for themselves are almost never used. I think that self-identifying is a pretty fundamental human right as opposed to the creation of race identity from outside, in the Orientalist tradition.
Again thanks for your response.
The report into Rotherham specifically stated that one of the main reasons investigations were not so thorough was precisely because of concerns about social cohesion and upsetting minority communities – the twisted version of PC. This came from those in official power ie social services and self appointed leaders of the those communities (always men of course) who were most vocal in condemning any question that this might be an issue within a certain group within the community. To do so was racist. Anne Cryer was ridiculed and condemned by a whole number of Immams.
With regard to Tower Hamlets and Jesus and Mo. You say that it’s because Muslims feel under threat that there may be a backlash against someone wearing a Jesus and Mo t-shirt and with that in mind, it would be foolhardy and provocative. You are implying that really it would be my fault for wearing the t-shirt around these people who feel threatened and marginalized.
So, how about i wear the t-shirt in say Iran? Or The Maldives? Or Saudi Arabia? Places where I’m in the minority.
Doubt if i would be wearing the t-shirt for long….
Don’t know if you’ve watched this debate between Mehdi Hassan and David Aaronavitch about the freedom to offend?
The sound is a bit ropey at the beginning but it’s a fascinating debate.
Lets deal with the T shirt issue first. No it would not be your fault if you were harassed (or worse) because people were upset. But it need not be anyone’s fault. If you work from the assumption that everyone is triggered by the same stimuli, that everyone makes rational decisions and that everyone is equally responsive to their hormonal fight-flight reflexes then you would have a point. That is the same assumption made by many libertarian free-marketeers who apply the same logic to economics; the individuals in the market act rationally and thus the markets are self regulating and the ‘invisible hand’ creates prosperity. But as Adam Smith points out (and the Adam Smith Institute chooses not to mention this much) it requires also a cohesive moral (for me that would be ethical as I’m not religious) code to which everyone has signed up.
Biology and psychology have changed hugely since Smith’s time and we now know that fight-flight responses are also linked to hormones that are triggered by models of hierarchical social and practical ‘realities’. The ‘realities’ don’t have to be real. Some people are afraid of heights and if they are dangerous those heights are rationally responded to. But many, many people make a good living because most of us can’t bring ourselves to use a ladder, even though it’s perfectly safe if a few simple rules are followed. (I used to have a handyman business and the observations from customers was very often ‘I wouldn’t go up there!’) Over time, these models are stored by synaptic pathways that remain in place unless gradually changes by experience or trauma.
Religions, in my view, are mechanisms of social control. From birth, many people are thus programmed to feel that certain stimuli threaten their place in the world. Feeling belittled and harassed is thus different for many individuals and groups and the norms (say for a middle class Brit) of social behaviour are also influenced by class, gender, sexuality, religion and so-on. The fact that young people ‘need’ to be groomed before crossing social and ethical boundaries, if they do not already feel inclined to do so, tells us that extreme behaviours are tempered within democratic, secular societies. In societies that are neither democratic or secular, and to which many minority people belong within the UK, the numbers of people likely to transgress the norms is slightly higher. Those norms are transgressed typically by people who are attracted to hierarchies and see themselves as immune from collegiate social behaviour. It is telling that those at the top of democratic and secular societies feel unconstrained because power is their thing.
Regardless of the quality of Jesus and Mo jokes, why would the teller of them, or the wearer of the T shirt, want to make the situation, for those who straddle both the secular and religious modes of social action and reaction, more difficult than it already is? Now I don’t choose to taunt people who can’t climb a ladder because I used to be one of them.
Integration is a two-way street. I spend my working days in Tower Hamlets and very often witness racist and Islamophobic comments, some very, very aggressive, and many many more extremely subtle. Making religion a point of humour or ridicule is a norm for those of us who feel secure in our lives (whether we are religious or not). But for some people, reactions can be extreme; not because the stimulus is extreme but because so many times in their lives they have experienced mild ribbing that has turned into life-threatening bullying. Add to that the fact that Jesus is also the second prophet of Islam and one can see that vulnerable people, or groomed people, might react to them badly. It’s not your fault, but it’s the way it is. Our responsibility, a task mostly undertaken by Mosques, is to keep up the message that regular Islam, like regular Christianity, is not and never will be a threat to social cohesion. The mainstream media is pretty crap at that task.
I have recently read Doreen Lawrence’s amazing book, ‘And Still I Rise’. There is no doubt in my mind that when powerful Police and Social Services organisations make excuses for not protecting the vulnerable we have to examine those claims with very large buckets of salt at the ready. From the Scarman report to Hillsborough and from the BBC/NHS in the Savile affair to the Catholic Church we have seen cover-up after cover-up. Again those towards the top of hierarchies do not stick to social norms. And now we have the Westminster peodophile scandal. It is easy as pie to persuade people, many of whom might anyway be a bit racist themselves. to not follow something up because it would be racist. It’s also easy as pie to use racism as an excuse not to be subject to scrutiny. The PC attitude would be to put the abused Children before those concerns. That too is easy unless one is pressured from all directions not to do so. There is no doubt that the position of women within Islam is socially prescribed, as it is within Christianity, but regular Christians and Muslims in the UK cherry-pick for equality in the modern world. ISIS cherry-picks for a return to the medieval world.
In Rotherham, the abusers took advantage of a profound misogyny that underpins societies everywhere. The fact that they were organised within groups of Islamic men is as significant as the similar levels of abuse around the Magdalene Laundries scandal that imprisoned young women for being raped and provided rapists with captive victims. Yes, the power-structure was religious in both cases but the underlying pattern of the cover-up was very similar; it placed the value of the girls below the social comfort of the investigators. Investigators claimed they were afraid of the Catholic Church and of the religious laws of Ireland. Do we now accept that as a valid excuse? No, of course not.
Well, though I think I have a reasonable handle on how these dynamics of race, religion and hierarchy work, I’m no closer to a solution. But I do think we have responsibilities to be both highly vigilant when opposing terrorism and child abuse and highly sensitive to the ways in which clumsy attempts at humour might inflame the situation. It is not the fault of democratic moderates that extreme religious groups transgress, but, as we know full well from history, we can all slip into barbarism at the drop of a flag.
But can you explain why there was so little feminist outrage over Rotherham (and it did and continues to occur in other cities as I am sure you know). The scale is horrific yet when conservatives accused feminists and other progressives of ignoring the story they were correct. You can explain why the police were complicit, but you are on shakier ground with social services and council members, it becomes a huge conspiracy. And you haven’t explained or justified at all why feminists and other supposedly PC activists have turned their backs on these victims. I believe a lot of it is a class issue, which also hasn’t been addressed.
Casey, I don’t know who you follow on Twitter or FB but I remember a huge amount of feminist reaction both here and in the USA at the time; the Twittersphere and FB were alive with comments – how did you miss them? It is true that mainstream media did not cover responses from feminists specifically but mainstream media rarely consults feminists specifically about anything. Have activists turned their backs? What about Ruzwana Bashir and the Muslim Women’s Network? Did you also miss Anne Coffey’s inquiry? My memory of the early reports is that media interest was huge and many outlets were covering the story while activists, such as EVAW and Rapecrisis got on with their work.
“the Twittersphere and FB were alive with comments – how did you miss them?”
Really? I didn’t see anything and I searched around. Can you remember any hashtags?
” But what they do not realise, or experience, is that we have to put up with the racial abuse, lack of employment chances and life-threatening situations solely due to our skin colour or nationality on top of all the other life stresses.”
I want to re-emphasize that in your OP, and in this issue we are discussing here about Rotherham, I think you are not giving socioeconomic class enough importance. Some white people are oppressed by other white people. We are not one big clump. And by ignoring this major, perhaps primary injustice, you serve the purposes of the real oppressors, as their acts are blamed on a much wider set of people, i.e. everyone who happens to share their skin color…
Constantly interjecting “But white privilege!” every time someone brings up the topic serves the same purpose.
I agree; I think socio-economic class is a very powerful tribal divider. I thought it too obvious to spell out specifically or at length and it is of course included in the paragraph about intersectionality. Just because I haven’t put ‘socio-economic class’ in the bracketed list doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important. I did mention that the insult ‘chavs’ should be avoided and so referenced Jones’ excellent book on the subject. I have also stressed that racism isn’t really about race but about power and tribalism. As for constantly interjecting ‘white priviledge!’ I don’t think I’ve done that at all – again, read the paragraph on intersectionaility.
Great article. Really interesting from start to finish, and bang on the nail throughout. We’ve a long way to go before the bullies understand they’re bullies and change their bullying ways.
Thanks Mark, it’s appreciated.
Casey, the hashtag ‘Rotherham’ was used by feminists as much as by everyone else. Clearly if you follow, and are followed by, feminists you will see their tweets.
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