The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

White Comedy and the Prejudice of Language

'Oiseaux de Moebius' by M C Escher, 1956

Most people bristle at being told that they have a subconscious prejudice, but we’re all a little bit racist.

A couple of months ago I wrote about how deliberately or accidentally obscuring or flipping the attirbution of a quote can reveal our own (or others’) biases. Related: @Eastmad recently guided me to a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘White Comedy’, that elegantly reveals the way our language is stacked against people of colour. Continue reading “White Comedy and the Prejudice of Language”

Trying To Taxonomize Trump’s Terribleness

Donald Trump

As even his supporters and those who voted for him know, President-Elect Donald Trump has many flaws. The election is still a recent event, and so we still consider each of these flaws as reasons why someone might decline to vote for him. Everything is mentally catalogued simply as Reasons Why He Should Not Be President.

However, now he is going to be president (I don’t think the recounts will stop this from happening) I think it is worth sketching out a slightly better taxonomy of the Terrible Things About Trump, because the different types of awfulness and wrong-doing he exhibits have different implications for politics and the country. America is the oldest modern democracy and the exemplar for the rest of the world, so what happens in the USA concerns the rest of the planet too. Continue reading “Trying To Taxonomize Trump’s Terribleness”

How Margaret Thatcher Hacked My Brain And Made Me Slightly Less Sexist

Margaret Thatcher

“My nephew Luke has no memory of a white male president” says Melissa Ryan.  “Hillary Clinton just made history but for millions of children she won’t be the first woman president. She’ll just be the president.”

This is exactly right, I responded.

I was born right before Margaret Thatcher became the British Prime Minister and she remained so until I was nearly 11 years old. In my head, the word ‘Prime Minister’ was inherently gendered female and whenever, in fiction or historical context, the Prime Minister was referred to with the male pronouns he/him, it felt odd. Continue reading “How Margaret Thatcher Hacked My Brain And Made Me Slightly Less Sexist”

Flags Matter

Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning.  Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War.  Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit.  But that is disingenuous.  The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people.  Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“.   The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag.  A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.

On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster).  His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.

Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags.  He also explains why we should care.

A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”

 

#KillAllWhiteMen? You must be joking

Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, is facing a petition for her removal after she allegedly used hate speech on social media.  Apparently she used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen.  Critics say this is inciting violence:  “Too befuddled by theory to know that killing is wrong“.

Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down.  But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.

Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke.  I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole.  Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender.  Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.

Black people do not get to make that assumption.

Women do not get to make that assumption.

LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.

When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified.  Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.

None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable.  Rather, its just to point out that context is important.  While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not.  Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.

Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag.  For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.

Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Continue reading “Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award”

Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.

On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?

This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

Continue reading “Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism”

BTNG

Earlier this week I had a short exchange on Twitter with Mercury nominated Eliza Carthy, who pointed me towards a ‘Bollocks to Nick Griffin‘ video put together by the Imagined Village collective.  Griffin had claimed Carthy’s English folk music as somehow the preserve of white people, so the musicians created a rude online rejoinder. Continue reading “BTNG”