There’s a fallacy that commonly emerges when people talk about prejudiced, bigoted or oppressive language. It is the idea that racism is something only practised by racists; homophobia something only practised by homophobes, transphobia only something practised by transphobes etc etc.
There is an obvious and banal point attached to this, which is that pretty much every one of us harbours some stereotyped or prejudiced thinking of one sort or other, often unknowingly. We can all resort to a choice of word or turn of phrase, or hold an opinion or belief which we had thought entirely inoffensive until someone comes along and points out why it might be derogatory or degrading to others. The decent thing to do under those circumstances is apologise, learn and move on.
There is another consequence of the fallacy which is much more insidious, because its effect is to prevent people taking responsibility for their own words and actions.
Example one. Earlier this week the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wrote a piece about the three London schoolgirls who have apparently run off to join Islamic State. Making similar arguments to those of Grace Dent in the Independent and Mary Dejevsky in the Guardian, Barnett argued that the three girls should be considered willing agents rather than innocent victims, and points to the benevolent sexism implied in our gender-based reaction to this case, asking how different our reactions would be if these were boys.
Now for the record, I agree with this up to a point. I think our reactions and responses should be informed not by the gender or religion of these young people, but by the only relevant factor – they are children. This, however, is not the issue. In her opening remarks, Barnett said they: “by now are probably shacked up with a hipster jihadi, locked in their homes and expected to crack on with popping out a few kids to populate the Caliphate.” Along with a couple of other phrases in her piece, several readers and writers suggested that this kind of writing plays on and contributes to lazy stereotypes about Muslim women, that far from treating them as adults and free agents it instead dehumanized and degraded them, and that her argument as a whole leaned on assumptions about the evils of Muslims which would not have been applied had the girls been white / non-Muslim. In short, they suggested that her article was Islamophobic or racist.
Is this fair? Possibly, possibly not, but it is certainly within the bounds of legitimate critique. It is the sort of point that all writers and commentators should be expected to absorb and consider, whether or not we ultimately decide to agree.
Barnett’s reaction, however, was deeply revealing and extremely ill-judged. In a follow-up piece entitled “Racists are alive and well in Britain – but I’m not one of them” she protested vigorously at the suggestion she may be racist, pointing instead at the examples of the Chelsea fans who had blocked a black man’s access to a Paris subway train or the (ex-) UKIP councillor who had been exposed by a TV documentary explaining how she felt uncomfortable around “negroes.”
Let’s be clear about this. If one is accused of racism, it is never, ever a defence to point to someone else being more racist and saying “well at least I’m not doing that.” Remember, the UKIP councillor who talked about feeling uncomfortable around “negroes” had, just a breath before, insisted that she could not be racist because she quite liked an Asian couple who ran the local shop. I’d hazard a guess that at least some of those Chelsea fans, the ones who sang “we’re racist and we like it like that” would, if given a sober moment to explain, claim that they aren’t really racist, they didn’t really mean it, they were just joking, it is not like they were beating up anyone or lynching people the way real racists do. And so on, down the line.
As a good working rule, racist is not something one is, racism is something one does. Most of the time the question of whether someone *is* a racist is an abstracted, philosophical irrelevance. One does not need to delve into Aristotelean or existentialist philosophy and ponder whether the individual has an essence beyond behaviour. Most of the time it is simply irrelevant.
I think the most crystal clear illustration of this principle came a week or two earlier, in the aftermath of the now notorious open letter published in the Observer, in which 130 prominent academics, journalists and activists condemned supposed infringements of free speech by allies of trans people and sex workers within campus feminism.
In the ensuing furore, one of the signatories, Professor Mary Beard wrote a blogpost which included the following section:
“I feel confident that I am not a transphobe or whorephobe as accused and could provide references to that effect (though I realise that prejudices are not best perceived by those who hold them)! More fundamentally, I think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side.”
The huge flaw here is in thinking that the complaints were about the individuals, their personalities or moral worth, rather than the specific action of signing a letter. To be blunt, for someone in that position to be worrying about whether or not they are, deep down in the essence of their being, a transphobe or whorephobe strikes me as sollipsistic if not downright narcissistic. Frankly I don’t care much either way. What I do care about is that someone who was (indeed is) liked and admired has added her or his name to a letter which served to malign and misrepresent trans people, sex workers and their allies, which provided immense succour and encouragement to some actively hateful ideologues and had the effect of condemning and vilifying legitimate protest and political engagement. The reason why, of all the signatories, it was Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard who found themselves on the receiving end of so much anger, argument and hostility was precisely because nobody who knows anything about them thinks for a moment they are whorephobes and transphobes. The anger was precisely because we thought we were on ‘the same damned side.’ The detractors were not angry about who they are, but about what they did.
We have all learned to laugh at the expression “I’m not racist but…” It inevitably precedes an irredeemably racist statement. The most dangerous of all such constructions, however, is not “I’m not racist but…” it is “I’m not racist so…” That phrase (or logic) usually continues like this: “I’m not racist so what I said or did can’t have been racist.” That is not only logically flawed, it is the worst kind of moral escapology trick.
There is a flipside to this. If we expect people to account for themselves on the basis of what they say and do rather than the ethereal quality of their character, then when we criticise people, we should do likewise. I honestly don’t know how many of Mary Beard’s critics literally said “you are a transphobe and a whorephobe”, and I do not know how many of Emma Barnett’s critics literally said “You are a racist” but I would suggest that any such accusations are misguided. Whether or not they are true (again, an abstract and largely irrelevant philosophical issue) they are politically and practically counter-productive.
By way of personal example, it is no secret that there are some people within feminism who despise me and everything I stand for and believe in. Fair enough, that goes with the territory. I am, reasonably often, called a misogynist. Beyond the natural human sting of insult, it has no impact on me whatsoever. It doesn’t challenge my ideas, it doesn’t have any traction on my work or thinking. It is also sufficiently far-removed from my own sense of self that I can easily just brush it off as being wrong. By contrast, when someone tells me something I have written is misogynistic (a much rarer occurrence, for the record) I sit up and take notice. I fret and worry and examine my heart, I ask trusted friends, and I read and re-read the offending section until I decide whether I could have written (or argued, or thought) the point differently. Of course I don’t always agree with and accept the criticism, but I entirely accept that just because I don’t think of myself as a misogynist, doesn’t mean that I might not have written or said something misogynistic.
Often, angry insults hurled across the blogosphere and social media are not really intended for constructive engagement. Sometimes calling people rude names is an end in itself, and there is a place for that too. However with those whom we would like to consider friends, allies and like-minds, it is important to remember that it is not who we are that matters in political engagement, it is what we do.