According to Sunny Hundal’s new web service Rippla, Joseph Harker’s Guardian article, about racism and the demonisation of communities, was the most shared article in the UK yesterday.
And quite right too. It’s a truly sublime piece of analysis, comparing recent news sources, real demographic data, and an apt turn of phrase, to analyse the differing media coverage given to the same crimes, when committed by different perpetrators. When Muslims are convicted of sex crimes, the stories receive much more attention than when generic white Englishmen are found to have done the same deed. Worse, the actions of wayward Muslims are deemed to be somehow inspired by their culture. This same extrapolation never happens for white people.
This article feels like the definitive statement on the issue of how the media treats minorities. It raises its head in various guises all the time. Like many people, I have been mulling it for years. Back in 2003, when I was part of The LIP Magazine‘s editorial team, we published ‘Do You Belong To A Community?‘ by Aisha Phoenix which begins with a bite: “Whenever the media describes someone as coming from a ‘community’, you know they are not white.” Almost a decade later, and I see the same anxieties in this comment from the novelist Kamila Shamsie to the columnist David Aaronovich: “Could we have a moratorium on the phrase ‘Muslim leader’ please?”
Much rhetoric in politics is of a kind where the speaker (or writer) claims that his or her special interest group are being treated unfairly, and if they were of a different skin colour or religion (or whatever) they would be treated better. This is often an incorrect assumption, which betrays a lack of understanding of the society in which we live.
Harker makes precisely this kind of argument in his article, too. However, instead of making a vague assumption, the nature of the issue means he does have the ‘data’ to back up the rhetoric, and the article becomes akin to a scientific experiment. Since the two prosecutions he examines are so similar, it is almost as if one is the control group for the other, in one of those attitude surveys invented by psychologists: Keep the details similar but change the ethnicity of the person, and see how attitudes change.
I would love to see other scientific analogies used in political discourse. In particular, I yearn for an equivalent of dye tracing or radio-active marking when a controversy flares. This would be very useful during some of the free speech arguments I follow, when some kind of institution has to decide whether to support or withdraw an offensive text, event or artwork. It would be great to trace the decision-making process in such a way as to perceive the point where the support for the principle of free speech breaks down. That would help us identify where these values should be reinforced. Unfortunately, I cannot quite imagine how one might set the ‘tracer’ off… short of manufacturing an argument. So, if Anjem Choudary is reading this, perhaps he would give me advanced warning of his next stunt? Then I can track the reactions he provokes with academic precision.