Towards the end of last year, I took Ted to his weekly swimming lesson, and for some reason known only to a two-year-old, he sat on the edge of the pool and stated “I don’t want to.” If I lifted him into the water, he hung limply in my arms and refused to kick and paddle, skills he’d spent all term learning. Of course the week he chose to go on strike was the week the teacher was doing his assessment and issuing his certificate. We laughed about it, and I told her he was something of a non-participator. He is never one to go along with the crowd or do what is expected.
“Just like a man!” said the swimming teacher.
“Well,” I said, “Like Ted. That’s just how he is.”
“Yes,” she said, “Like a man,” and she smiled, as if she had won an argument. It was neither the place nor the time to push the discussion, but I came away feeling a bit uncomfortable. Being otherwise, and walking your own path is not the preserve of one sex, any more than being nurturing is the preserve of another. In fact, there are very few characteristics we can unequivocally apply to a sex, a race, or indeed any group.
Imagine, for a moment, you walked into a room where it was immediately apparent that people were talking about you without being aware of your presence. “Oh So-and-so,” they might say, “He/ She is such a…” and here they use an epithet, maybe adding a choice adjective or two. What might they say? You’re a… drama queen? A bitch? A complete tool? A stroppy South African chick? A bully? A slut?
How would you feel? Offended? Of course you would. Because even if what they say might be, in part, true, it isn’t entirely true. That is not all you are, or not what you are all the time. Nobody wants to be dismissed with a derogatory name, or to be lumped in as part of a group and rendered anonymous. It’s what makes bigotry so appalling and dehumanising.
Which brings me, in a circuitous way, to Diane Abbott. As you may well be aware, MP Abbott caused a small storm yesterday when something she tweeted in an exchange with a constituent about the Stephen Lawrence trial had her labelled as racist.
I shan’t go into the whys and wherefores of what she did or didn’t say or her highly politicised “apology”, there’ve already been millions of words on that.
I have to admit it’s often amusing when people who are usually the perpetrators of bias are on the receiving end of it, because they shout so loudly. They’re also often quick to dismiss racism, sexism or any kind of bigotry as “not a big deal” when it is not aimed at them (if you want to see what I mean, choose any article with a feminist perspective in the mainstream press and read the comments, often almost exclusively from men saying, “Silly shrill woman, what a fuss over nothing. Do you know how hard we men have it?”). This has very much been the case with Diane Abbott. Clearly, her off-the-cuff comment is in no way comparable to centuries of institutionalised racism against many groups of people of colour, and yet it has generated a wave of hysteria and mass calls for her resignation. But whatever the response, it doesn’t make what she said any more dignified or clever.
Abbott made the comment when the constituent who engaged her in debate said that she disliked people talking about “the black community” as if they were just one homogenous entity. Abbott agreed and then immediately made her comment about “all white people”. The irony seems to have been lost on her. I was not comfortable with Ted’s swimming teacher's thoughtless, sexist dismissal of “all men”, and I am not comfortable with Diane Abbott’s careless use of “all white people” either. I don't like these instances of bigotry any more than I like sweeping generalisations about all black people, all women, all straight people, or all homosexuals.
If you have been oppressed by a group or member of a group, descending to their level and slinging insults back does not make you stronger, it makes everyone poorer and weaker. I’ve just been engaged in a debate on facebook with a friend who is an atheist, about people of faith posting evangelical messages to him. He asked that they desist, and I asked in return that those people I know who are atheists refrain from making derogatory statements about people of faith or their gods. He was fine with that, but a few of his atheist friends couldn’t resist weighing in with comments suggesting that my faith made me an idiot and a joke. I know these online insults are not really comparable to the Spanish Inquisition, but they don’t really encourage a reasoned, adult and constructive dialogue, do they? They’re not going to win me over to their side, any more than my posting “Jesus loves you” will get them to church this Sunday. Result? No one learns anything, and we are all a little more alienated from one another.
I don’t believe there is a league table of equality. Bigotry from one person, because they are oppressed, is as unjustifiable as bigotry from the richest, most empowered leaders of the world. Those at the bottom of any heap are not granted the right to insult and dismiss those at the top by virtue of their disenfranchisement. It makes them no better than those who have disempowered them. When we engage in racism, “reverse” racism, faith bigotry, gender-based bigotry or any kind of xenophobia believing we are justified by history, we start playing a game where some are more equal than others. You only need to dip into the works of Mr Orwell to know where that ends.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.