Both readers of this blog will be sufficiently aware of my position on free speech to be able to work out what I think about the news that six people are to be prosecuted for staging a racist ‘Grenfell’ Bonfire Night.
The group made a model of Grenfell Tower and set it alight, then posted pictures on social media.
My take is simple: it’s disgusting, racist and worthy of our opprobrium, but should not be a matter for the police. The ‘message’ of this particular stunt does not appear to have any merit, but its far too close to other kinds of political expression—in particular, satire—that we value, and which must be protected.
It is very easy to imagine how exactly the same action, made in a different context, could be deemed political comment. In fact, burning a cardboard tower and sending images to the leaders of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council might be exactly the sort of thing that Grenfell activists might do. Call the campaign ‘Death on your Doorstep’ or something like that: A way to shame the ongoing inaction of the authorities.
On social media I saw several people make the point that the six men1 who burned a cardboard cutout are likely to face greater criminal sanction than the people whose negligence caused the death of 72 people.
It is also exactly the sort of visualisation that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo would come up with. I have noted before how that magazine reworks the racism of others in a way that skewers the underlying hypocrisy, albeit in a way that is too easily misunderstood as simply repeating that racism. Even the most offensive art can have two meanings.
To be clear, I’m not seeking to forge a cast-iron excuse for why these six idiots are actually genius satirists. I don’t think that they are. Rather, I am merely pointing out the fact that horrible speech can and often does have a political or social interpretation, and it is perilous to give the police and politicians the power to shut down such expression.
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
Yes, let’s remember: Guy Fawkes Night is not some organic or charity inspired piece of social banter like Stoptober, Movember or Dry January. It began as a legally mandated day of hate against Catholics.
The Observance of 5th of November Act of 1605 forced everyone in the country to mark the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot. This law was statute for more than 250 years, ample time to entrench the ‘festival’ in the minds of the British population. 150 years after its repeal, we happily continue a tradition that was specifically designed to shore up support for the ruling class and vilify a minority of citizens within the population.
A quick Google image search reveals that the tradition of burning effigies of people you hate is alive and well in contemporary Britain. This NME article from 2017 capture several examples of modern figures of hate being burned – Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Harvey Weinstein. We might also recall that representations of companies that offer poor customer service are also regularly incinerated.
When angry mobs in Pakistan or India burn effigies of Salman Rushdie or the Queen we rightly condemn those who do so. Yet when we British do the same for our own figures of hate, it’s all LOLZ and tradition, innit?
So why on Earth are we surprised when, after years political and tabloid rhetoric at the expense of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, some people use the occasion of State Sanctioned Burning of Hate Figures Day, to burn images of those people? If we are shocked at the actions of these South Norwood twats, we should also be shocked at ourselves.
1. Why is it always men?