11 July 2019
Race to the Bottom
By John Watson
Shit! Prat! Knave! Buffoon! Popinjay! Arsehole! Stuffed shirt! Cretin! Together with a number of terms too rude to publish, but beginning with the letters “p”, “c”, and “w” respectively, these epithets fall within the traditional vocabulary of UK election campaigns. Shouting them, like throwing a rotten egg, brings immediate satisfaction to the perpetrator but says little about the recipient save that he is disapproved of. That is because they are words of abuse, their use at the hustings a healthy tradition going back many centuries. Apart from the fact that they may lead on to the ancient amusement of fisticuffs, there is really little wrong with using them.
However, one cannot say that about the term “racist” which is increasingly bandied about on both sides of the political divide with no regard at all for whether the allegation made is true or false. That is largely because those who use the term have given no thought to what it means. Perhaps it is worth helping them a little.
If you ask yourself what a racist is, you come up with two different pictures. The first is a bully, someone who likes to hide his or her own inadequacies by victimising those who cannot fight back. Minorities have always been a favourite target of this sort of thug or thugess, largely because they are easy to identify and because the hunter can easily be distinguished from the hunted. In an extreme case it can come to genocide but that should not be allowed to obscure its more modest roots. The key ingredient is the hunting, the victimisation and libelling of people who are different, whether that difference arises from race, from sexual orientation or from the holding of other views. Racism is just one of the ways by which vindictive hunting can be focused.
Fortunately this type of thing is rare among the political class but it would be surprising indeed if it did not exist at all in the major parties. After all, their members are not professional politicians but a microcosm of the public and can be expected to reflect the public’s strengths and weaknesses. The position is aggravated where a party has been associated with policies which, confused in the minds of its simpler members, can lead to racism. Thus the left’s traditional association with Palestinian causes has left Labour with particular issues of anti-Semitism while Islamophobia, doubtless present in both parties, has no corresponding accelerant.
It is the duty of political machines to fight against racial hunting or victimisation whenever they find it. Sometimes they succeed in that; sometimes they fail. But although their shortcomings in the way they carry out this function may go to their competence, it does not mean that the politicians are themselves anti-Semitic, racist or victim-seekers of any other sort. Nor indeed does the fact that they have views on how race relations should be handled or make speeches setting out those views. It is the hunting, the victimisation and the bullying which is the key and those who claim that the leaders of either of the main parties are racist in that sense are normally following their own political agenda.
That is the obvious meaning of racism but there is something more subtle too. A system of preference by which people of a particular race (traditionally white Anglo-Saxon graduate men) get some sort of priority in the job market, in public office, in social preferment. Nowadays we are all very conscious of this and people refer to themselves as colour-blind or pro-minority, often while secretly biasing their decisions to eliminate any possible guilty prejudice. But to understand the nature of the problem it is necessary to step back from the world of solutions and look dispassionately at our own reactions.
Suppose someone is renting a flat and is seeking a co-tenant with whom to share it. They will want that co-tenant to have certain characteristics in common with themselves: a common view as to how the joint establishment should be run; a similar view on smoking and vaping; a shared approach to entertaining, keeping the place clean and tidy, organising the fridge, whether a cleaner should be employed and the acceptable volume for the television. It is possible that their ideal sharer is from a wholly different background but in making the selection between the applicants they are likely to favour someone similar to themselves because the common background, and the shared nuances which come with it, make it far easier to assess them.
Seen in this way race and class impose a bias not because of a liking or disliking of individuals or groups of individuals but because of the more spontaneous information flows between people who have a broadly similar experience. To correct this bias we apply compensatory mechanisms at an institutional level but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that that does more than put a patch on things. The underlying differences in communication will remain a feature of our society until the pressures of atheism and homogeneity remove the differences in race, class, education, intelligence, attitude and cussedness upon which divisions are founded. Until then Marxist will flat with Marxist; aristocrats will invite other aristocrats to join their shoots; and middle-class people will band together to run free on-line newspapers.
So going back to the description of mainstream politicians as racist or anti-semitic, what is it meant to mean? Aggressive vindictive racism? Surely not. There is little of that among our leaders. Applying a racist bias in making appointments etc? We all do that and rely on institutional targets to prevent it going too far. Making jokes including some politically incorrect term or image? Really? Unwisely appeared on a platform with racists many years ago? Hardly. The truth is that these terms are seldom applicable and that the sooner they disappear from the list of acceptable political missiles the better.