Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood

I’ll start with the happy ending: Nigel Farage is a big fat hypocrite.. Now you know where I’m going with this, I can begin.

Last week’s political storm concerned Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington and until recently the Shadow Attorney General. In the last hours of the Rochester & Strood by-election camapign, she tweeted a photo of a house bedecked with St George flags and a white van outside. Caption: “Image from #Rochester”.

Hullabaloo ensued. Ms Thornberry was accused of sneering at working class ‘white van man’ types, and Labour were branded elitist and out of touch with ordinary people. Her subsequent apology and resignation has dominated the political headlines since the by-election, an irritating ‘let off’ for David Cameron and the Conservatives who should have won the seat.

Plenty to say about this.

Layers of meaning

First, students of semiotics, the study of signs, signals and meaning, will find this controversy fascinating. Consider that the Tweet in question consisted entirely of factual content. Nevertheless it certainly conveyed a loaded meaning, of which Ms Thornberry and the people that viewed it were all very much aware. Context is everything. The same picture and caption would have had a different meaning had a Conservative MP posted the Tweet. The same content would have had a different meaning if Ms Thornberry had tweeted at a different time: say, during this summer’s World Cup.

Opponents of political correctness usually forget (or pretend to forget) the importance of context. They claim that because they were simply stating a fact (say, drawing attention to some statistic or other) that no other meaning should be read into their words. When this happens it is disingenuous naïveté and I’m grateful at least that no-one in the Labour Party has insulted our intelligence by trying to explain away the tweet in that manner, as “just stating facts”.

However, if we acknowledge that simple signs and images can take on complex ideological meanings, it’s only fair to Emily Thornberry that we analyse the meaning behind the decor of the house in question. UKIP and others who have leapt to the defence of Dan Ware (the owner of the van and the house in question) claim that the flags are merely an honest display of patriotism. Mr Ware is simply a hard-working chap who loves England.

I’m sorry but I think that’s bollocks. While there have been good efforts of people like Billy Bragg and Sunder Katwala to reclaim the flag of St George as an entirely positive symbol, that is not the meaning conveyed in this case. Here it conveys a deeper message than simply “I am English”. Unfortunately, such symbols say something more in the modern context. Like it or not, it’s the symbol of the anti-immigrant, and the prominent display of flags in this manner conveys a hostility to those of other nationalities and ethnicities who may be living and working in Rochester. Interestingly, it almost doesn’t matter whether Mr Ware consciously knows this, because a symbol derives its meaning as much from the person viewing or reading it as those posting or sending them. When I look that that picture, I see hostility to outsiders. I feel uncomfortable when I see such displays around where I live and I think I know precisely the unease that Emily Thornberry felt when she encountered it during her day campaigning in Rochester. Crucially, I don’t think that unease can be dismissed as ‘elitist’—it comes from a genuine concern for the other people living in an area and the hope that the environment is welcoming and comfortable for all.

Note, however, that neither the Prime Minister or the UKIP leader are at all interested in that subtlety. David Cameron said that Ed Miliband and his party “sneer at people who work hard, who are patriotic and love their country”. Nigel Farage made similar comments: “Labour hate the concept of Englishness.” Both men are being wilfully naïve. They know as well as we do that it’s not ‘Englishness’ that Thornberry was drawing attention to, but the jingoism that such ostentatious displays cannot fail to communicate. We can debate the extent to which these meanings are intended or communicated by the people involved, but it’s unfair to ascribe an incredibly complex and subtle meaning to Emily Thornberry’s tweet, while refusing anything but the most innocent and literal meaning to Dan Ware’s flag display.

But hey, that’s politics. You can’t expect Cameron and Farage to ignore an opportunity to kick Labour… and I suspect that if the situation had been reversed and it had been a Tory with an inadvertently offensive message, Ed Miliband would have been first in the queue to label him or her (probably ‘him’) as out of touch. Remember how quickly Andrew Mitchell’s alleged ‘pleb’ outburst reached a crescendo of condemnation?

The UKIP Hypocrisy

Nigel Farage was quick to join the pile-on when it was a Labour MP speaking out of turn. But usually, he’s a critic of people being vilified because of ‘political correctness’. Top three Google hits for ‘Nigel Farage Political Correctness’ are:

Unquestionably, Emily Thornberry has been undone by political correctness, but instead of defending her right to make condescending Tweets, Nigel Farage is putting the boot in. Perhaps is the wrong kind of political correctness, and only insensitivity to ethnic minorities should be defended with a cry of ‘political correctness gone mad’? Farage and UKIP are big fat hypocrites.

Still defending political correctness

So political correctness claims another victim, and despite my attempt above to empathise with Emily Thornberry, I do not think that the reaction has been overblown, or that she should not have apologised or resigned (as Austin Mitchell MP has suggested at the weekend). In fact, I think the faux pas has played out as it should.

Politicians exist in a different world to the rest of us. Their jobs and status are conferred in a very different way to any other kind of employment and the job we ask them to do is unique. As our political representatives they have significant power over the rest of us. But the public has an odd kind of power over them, too.

The result of this dynamic is that the social rules that govern a politicians speech are different to the social rules that the rest of us stick to. (though legally there is no difference). Above, I can defend Emily Thornberry’s motives and no-one will ask me to resign. Had I made the same tweet on the same day it would have been uncontroversial. But I am not a politician.

MPs should think carefully when making any kind of judgement (or, sneering) at those in whose name they make laws. They should be governing in the interests of everyone and as such they have a responsibility to try to see things from the point of view of people with whom they do not normally agree. Us ordinary plebs have no such obligations to keep such a balance. If politicians fail to show that they are mindful of other people’s views, values and worries then denying them out vote is a legitimate response. Ed Miliband has asked Emily Thornberry to step down on that basis—she’s cost him some votes and seeded a doubt in the minds of many as to whether she and the Labour Party will act in their best interests when they next form a Government.

Don’t speak ‘human’

Politicians are often criticised for not ‘speaking human’. The problem is that much of our everyday ‘human’ speech is full of aspersion-casting, snap-judgements, gut-feelings and unfortunate idioms. When politicians start to ‘speak human’ they inevitably end up making some kind of gaffe. The slightly stilted ‘politico speak’ style that many politicians adopt (you know: When. It. Sounds. Like. They. Are. Speaking. In. One. Word. Sentences) occurs because they are just thinking through the many ramifications of what they are saying, as they say it.

We want politicians to speak like normal people, and yet we also want them not to offend anyone. That’s an impossible task—you can do one or the other. Most MPs choose to sacrifice their speaking style in order not to offend. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage speaks normally, but often says something offensive.

Still defending free speech

Nothing above should be construed as a suggestion that we should curb anyone’s right to express themselves freely. Dan Ware has every right to decorate his house however he wants. The flags may send an unpalatable, unwelcoming message, but there is no threat of violence or menace in the display, so there should be no law against him hanging the flags out of his bedroom window.

Likewise with Emily Thornberry: her Tweet was not menacing or harassment. There should be no legal sanction against making judgemental or sneering tweets. If a politician wants to brave the social opprobrium and take electoral risk of being rude about the voters, then they are of course free to do so.

Free speech means a conversation. If you make a public display of ‘patriotism’ then others will photograph and comment on it. In turn, if you photograph and comment on someone else’s display of patriotism, you will find others condemn you and call you elitist. And if you call someone elitist, bloggers will can you a hypocrite! And of course, any blogger worth his salt has an open comments section where either of his readers may pick holes and post dissent. Free speech means that no-one gets to have the last word.

5 thoughts on “Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood”

  1. Free speech means that no-one gets to have the last word.
    Even when the speaker is a known liar & blackmailer?
    Like any priest ( of any religion) or someone claiming that evolution is not true?
    disagree.
    They are either liars or seriously deluded.
    End of.

    1. Well surely the best defence against liars and libellers is more free speech—expose the lies, no?

      But I think your point is whether known, proven liars should be given the right to free speech in the first place? Always a difficult one and most free speech advocates accept *some* curbs on free speech when they directly damage someone else’s right to (say) privacy or reputation, as well as direct incitement to violence.

      But peddling an ideology or an I falsifiable religion. Nope, I think that’s well within the bounds of acceptable free speech. Don’t forget that religious fundamentalists are amongst the most censorious people out there, and we need to be better than them.

      Arguing for a permissive free speech society does not come without its obligations. If I am to argue for the right of people to peddle their damaging ideologies, I also have a moral duty to counter those ideologies using my own free speech. We might even modify the principle above to “don’t let anyone have the last word”!

  2. With regards to politicians ‘not speaking human’ – I don’t think it’s so much about being careful ‘what not to say’ but rather they are thinking about ‘what to say’. Time and time again on Question Time you hear politicians say the same thing – they clearly have been given sound bites that they need to say and are trying to fit it in when they speak – it sounds weird.

    All of us in our professional lives have to be careful about how we speak, making sure we don’t make gaffs, and yet we don’t sound like robots. Yes we probably put on a different voice or character to make sure we sound professional, but we’re not processing what we’re saying while we say it, because we know what we’re talking about. I think politicians are so obsessed with toeing the party line that they’ve forgotten about what they truley think and believe in.

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