How unappealing it is to imagine British Member of Parliament Dianne Abbott being given a “severe dressing down” and “ordered” to apologize “unreservedly” by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. All for the crime of a tweet in which she opined that “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’,” in a discussion that arose from, and has shamefully overshadowed, the conviction of two white men for the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Tweeting uncomfortable historical truths about white people, unlike murder, is not a crime even in the United Kingdom, of course. So the fact that police action has even been discussed as a possibility by malicious, partisan members of the media and clueless members of the public is an alarming reflection of the current state of British political culture where race is concerned – not to mention a wider malaise also infecting the United States when it comes to freedom of expression via social media.
The thought of Abbott being chastised by Miliband is infuriating, and not just for anyone who has ever been given a dressing down by an incompetent boss. Abbott has a long history of opposing Labour’s most misguided policies, on the Iraq War, ID cards and new nuclear weapons. Miliband has a recent history of repeating the same talking point six times (no, really – watch it here), as part of the ongoing Labour attempt to be just left-wing enough without showing any solidarity with workers.
While she has served Hackney North and Stoke Newington as MP since 1987 and joined the Shadow Cabinet in 2010, Abbott is best known to me from her tenure as pundit on the BBC political discussion program This Week in the mid ‘00s.
In that capacity, she was often a lone insightful voice on matters of race and power, during a period in which the British media and political class competed to see who could most closely paraphrase the prejudice of the British National Party into a respectable, fake concern about the “need for debate” and the “genuine concerns” of the British white working class. At a time when self-styled “provocateurs” like Julie Burchill were citing black British aversion to more recently arrived Eastern Europeans as justification for anti-immigrant sentiment, Abbott said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that she had indeed been approached by black constituents who believed Albanians were stealing their public housing – and had done her best to disabuse them of such myths.
Tweeting Out of Context
Claiming that an offending statement was “taken out of context” has become so over-used as to be meaningless. For regular Twitter users, pleading that complex ideas are a “Bit much to get into 140 characters,” as Abbott also said, is almost equally overused.
Guardian assistant editor Michael White summed up a widely held belief:
Is 140-character Twitter a sensible medium for elected public officials to use when expressing complex thoughts? …probably “not very”.
There are two problems with that point of view. The first is that the last thing we should be asking elected representatives to do is to engage less with the public. Twitter isn’t the only means of online communication out there, but it’s arguable best one currently for public figures to interact with the public in a genuine way without compromising their privacy. Twitter does, indeed, reveal the idiocy, vapidity or mean-spiritedness of some public figures, like @RupertMurdoch – but that’s actually also a good thing.
Most people don’t actually try to express complex thoughts via Twitter: They write them elsewhere and then use Twitter to post a link. But if it’s difficult for public figures to come to grips with communicating in a responsible way via Twitter, they will simply have to buckle up and learn how – like the rest of us.
The second problem, however, is that sensible communication relies not just on the Tweeter, but also on the reader. When Abbot claims she’s been taken out of context, for once she’s partially right: She was writing a number of sentences meant to be read sequentially, but the nature of Twitter is that those are often displayed and read as isolated statements.
That’s not necessarily how Twitter was intended to be used, but enough people do it that savvy readers can parse the sense and intention with a little work. But right-wing attack dogs and media sensationalists don’t tend to be either wise to the nuances of online communication, or willing to put in that work.
Reading Race Out of Context
The bigger problem with such readers is, of course, that they don’t really care about what Abbott was trying to communicate. They just spotted a chance to scream “reverse racism!” – and couldn’t help themselves.
This is par for the course. Whether it’s white suburbanites in the Detroit Metro Area bemoaning who has clout in the Motor City or white farmers in Zimbabwe longing for colonial times, white complaints about “reverse racism” on the part of black populations always need to be taken out of context – national, historical, even global – in order to be entertained even for a moment. And those are examples in which localized populations do actually exist in power relationships which are the inverse of the bigger picture. That’s not true in London, a city whose police force, more than a decade after it was found to be institutionally racist during an inquiry into Lawrence’s case, is still seven times more likely to stop and search black people than whites.
When you put the concept of “reverse racism” in context, it is revealed as entirely morally, intellectually and politically fallacious. Much like “political correctness gone mad,” it is less a phenomenon that actually exists than a right-wing dog-whistle.
British journalist (and American resident) Gary Younge makes this point in his must-read book about identity, Who Are We:
Far from being neutral and abstract, our identities are rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in relation to one another… to try to understand the role of identities outside of their power relationships is to misunderstand them completely.
All too often, this is a deliberate misunderstanding. As The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny says:
What’s missing from the story — what’s always missing — is power. Defenders of privilege and hierarchy will do anything at all to distract attention from power, and to re-phrase attacks on power as attacks on the powerless.
That’s why there are those in the political and media class who were just looking for an excuse to have a go at Abbot: It’s not just that she’s a black woman (though there are some for whom that’s a major part of it, to be sure), it’s also that she’s too far to the left within the Labour Party for comfort, too radical for the political class. After all, in the same offending tweet she referenced colonialism – as if it was a bad thing! Hasn’t she read her Niall Ferguson?
Younge used Twitter himself to express his feelings on the manufactured controversy:
If only the political class’ response to Stephen Lawrence’s murder had been as swift and forceful as it was to Diane Abbott’s tweet.
You might call that a cheap shot. For less than 140 characters, I call it one with extremely good value.