What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart

Free speech furores now happen on a weekly basis. The latest iteration concerns the ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, who has stepped down from his duties following some regrettable posts on social media.

At the centre of the controversy is a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which he posted during an argument with activist Martin Shapland. It includes the line “His glassy essence, like an angry ape.” Shapland is black, so the post attracted accusations of racism (comparing black people to apes is an undeniable racist trope).

In that respect, it echoes a controversy last year, when Danny Baker posted a picture of a chimpanzee and likened it to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby Archie (who, like his mother, is mixed-race).

The Stewart resignation caused consternation among his fellow journalists. All the comments I saw paid tribute to his career; and many said that the offence taken at his tweets was misplaced.

This was similar to my own, initial reaction. It seemed to me that the outrage was overblown. The Isabella quote from the play talks about humanity in general, rather than describing an individual as monkey-like.

However, reading comments from other people online have made me rethink that position. Those who saw the discussion unfold in real-time say that it was not just a single Shakespeare quote, but a mean-spirited and out-of-character pile-on. And when someone else wryly drew attention to the ‘ape’ slur embedded with the quote, Mr Stewart posted an emoji in response, suggesting he was aware of, and indifferent to, the offence he might cause.

Unlike the ‘hot take’ demands of commercial websites, there’s no obligation for me to post a definitive statement on my blog, taking one side or the other. When I’m uncertain of my own position, I find it helpful to at least note down what I think are the issues at play; the true points of contention.

In this case, I think the debate is coloured and clouded by the fact that at least four different issues are wrapped up in one incident. Much of the anger and incredulity at Other People’s Wrongheaded Opinions on the matter stem from the fact that we are arguing about different aspects of the situation.

I think the distinct elements are these:

  1. Was Alastair Stewart ‘classically’ racist? By this I mean, did he deliberately use racially charged language in order to bully and demean someone?
  2. Was Alastair Stewart an ‘accidental racist’? Has he fallen for some unconscious bias, or unwitting prejudice?
  3. Should he have lost his job?
  4. Do we know the whole story or are we being manipulated?

On racism and intent

From my reading of this situation, and the recent arguments about whether Meghan Markle is the victim of racism, I think the distinction between ‘classic racism’ and ‘accidental prejudice’ is an important one (I’m happy to be corrected on those labels, by the way, if anyone wants to do so in the comments). Much of the indignant pushback comes from (white) people who hear ‘racism’ and assume the accusation is of something conscious. That’s why their defences and excuses always centre around intent of the offender, rather than the effect on the person to whom the remark was addressed. If you don’t mean to deploy a racist trope (they say) then you can’t be a racist, surely?

Not a deliberate racist, no. But you may still be accidentally perpetuating racism. And often, that’s is exactly what the complaint is about: a carelessness, an indifference, a dismissal. A lack of interest in the wellbeing of certain kinds of people. By definition, intent is absent from such behaviours.

Some might say that this distinction is irrelevant, because the negative outcomes for black people are similar, regardless of intent.

But the distinction does matter to the accused, because the charge of racism carries with it a moral element. And we tend to think that for an act to be moral or immoral, there needs to be some kind of conscious choice attached to it. By contrast, doing something unwittingly is a different kind of accusation, which carries less of a moral ‘sting’.

Personally, I would never concede to being a racist; but I readily admit to unconscious bias, and listen to those people who are eager to help me avoid doing it.

So as a point of pragmatism and persuasion, if anti-racism campaigners want ‘buy in’ to their efforts from those who might part of the problem, clarity of terms is essential. Are you accusing someone of deliberate racism, or just carelessness?

What’s depressing is that both sides in the debates usually fail to recognise this distinction. They mentally distort the opposing side’s position. Arguments that seek to show that the meaning of the words, phrases and images have racist content is taken to mean that the speaker is a conscious racist.

Here’s Douglas Murray in the Spectator, asking if ITV genuinely think that Stewart is a closet racist. Of course they don’t, and that is not the issue. Here’s Brendan O’Neill in Spiked, indulging in the same false lemma. Here’s Trevor Phillips doing the same in the Daily Mail.

It is not only Stewart’s defenders that miss the point. At the same time, arguments that seek to show a lack of intent are taken as an attempt to minimise or deny that the message has a racist meaning at all, or that ‘ape’ isn’t really a racial slur.

And to cap it all off, those of us without the luxury of a newspaper column find ourselves conducting the debate in 280 character nuggets, which works against the nuance that these discussions so desperately need.

Losing Your Job, and Other Types of Censure

The ‘deliberate vs. unwitting’ distinction is also relevant for my third consideration: should someone lose their job when they cause offence on social media?

Freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequences. But the loss of employment is a tricky one when we think about what those consequences should be.

It’s easy for free speech advocates to argue that the state should not punish offensive speech. When it does, we know we are unequivocally against it.

Similarly, no serious free speech defender says that there should be no social consequences to being offensive. We cannot force people into changing our opinions, nor stop them voicing their dismay on social media.

But what about the loss of employment and income? This sits in a grey area between the public and the private. Should something you say, in public but on your own time, affect a contractual relationship with your employer?

I tend to think not, and I will write more on this another day. But I will note that Alastair Stewart is not the only recent example. Other ‘live’ cases include Seyi Omooba’s religious discrimination case (she lost an acting role after homophobic Facebook posts came to light); and Maya Forstater’s employment case (she lost freelance research contracts because of ‘gender critical’ Tweets).

For now, what is crucial is that the person at the centre of this particular storm, Martin Shapland, has offered answers to the questions I post above. He clearly thinks that Stewart unwittingly caused offence; and that he should not have lost his job.

Not that you would know this from all the foaming anger in response to the incident. Which brings me to my final point…

We Are Being Manipulated Into Outrage As Part Of The Culture War

All Shapland did was point out something that he felt was incongruous. He has every right to do this on social media. He did not seek to have the newsreader sacked.

It has also emerged that this particular incident was part of a pattern of inadvisable social media use by Stewart. The reasons for his resignation are many and varied.

But who cares about facts when you can report another ‘Wokeness Gone Mad’ story? Everyone is taking the bait, and pre-conceived ideas about how minorities have “too much power” or are “over-sensitive” or are “playing the race card” are reinforced.

In a bizarre and troubling twist, the response to this perceived over-sensitivity has been a torrent of righteous anger, mixed with a healthy dose of overtly racist abuse. Ironically, the Measure for Measure quote is a perfect response to the deluge:

ISABELLA
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does,
Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Shapland has now received so much abuse that he had to lock down his Twitter account and leave the platform. I wonder how many of the journalists lamenting the squeeze on Alastair Stewart’s freedom of speech have also expressed outrage that his interlocutor has also been hounded off the platform, all for exercising his own right to freedom of expression. In the maelstrom, this glaring double standard seems to have been overlooked.

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