British writer Sean Gabb analyzes the logic behind another political correctness protest in the UK; his thinking applies equally well to such controversies in the United States.
On Friday, the 25th July, I was called by a female researcher at BBC Radio Ulster for a comment on a story in Northern Ireland. Several members of the Rugby Team there has been photographed at a fancy dress party, with their faces blacked up and wearing chains round their necks. All hell had broken loose on publications of the photographs, and grovelling apologies from all concerned hadn’t been enough to settle things. The local anti-racism bureaucracies were calling for resignations from the Team. Would I, as Director of the Libertarian Alliance, care to make a comment on this?
I could have come out with the boilerplate libertarian reply – that it’s not our business if someone paints his face black or green at a party, or puts on an SS uniform, or hangs himself, or consumes recreational drugs. I could also have said what I do believe about this incident, or what I know about it: that, if the politically correct hegemony makes it almost irresistible not to make jokes, it is uncharitable to laugh at black people in this way. However, I was in a bad mood that day, and so began the following conversation with the researcher:
SIG Can you explain to me why anyone should take offence if a white man chooses to paint his face black?
BBC Because it shows contempt for black people.
SIG I see. Yet there is a black comedian called Lenny Henry who often whites up and mocks white people – and on the BBC. Talking of comedians, the female duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders used to have a sketch where they dressed as fat, working class white men and mocked them. I’m not aware in either case of any outrage and calls for them to be taken off air. Why is it so terrible, then, if a couple of white men paint their faces black? Before I can make a comment on your show, I do need to have it explained what the problem is.
BBC [Long pause] Because they were wearing chains as well. They were mocking slavery.
SIG I think we can both agree that slavery is a terrible thing – and we can celebrate the role of the United Kingdom in putting down both slavery and the slave trade. But is there any reason to suppose that the sportsmen were somehow calling for black people to be made slaves and forced to work on sugar or cotton plantations?
BBC [Another long pause] Making fun of white men is an act of defiance. It’s an attack on patriarchy by the oppressed.
SIG Really? So a couple of women whose comedy has made millionaires of them are oppressed? As for men as a dominant group, is it your ambition to follow French and Saunders into comedy? Men are at a structural disadvantage in divorce and custody proceedings. Men are more often sent to prison than women for the same offences. Men accused of rape are generally treated as guilty until proven innocent. Women who make malicious accusations of rape are seldom punished, and hardly ever harshly. Men die earlier than women. NHS resources committed to male illnesses, such as prostate cancer, are trifling set against the obsession with breast and cervical cancer. Men commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. School teaching and examinations are biased to improving the grades of girls rather than boys. The BBC itself discriminates against men in its hiring and promotion policies. Speaking as a man, I don’t see much evidence of a discourse of patriarchy that consigns women to second place in this country. [Facts here]
BBC [Now impatient] So you think there’s nothing wrong if ethnic minorities are insulted?
SIG I haven’t said that. However, I will elaborate on my earlier comments. We live in a soft totalitarian police state, and the BBC is one of its instruments. Hardly anyone gets locked away for disagreeing with the justifying ideology of multi-culturalism. But dissidents go get stuck in the pillory. They are especially pilloried if there are white men popular with the working classes, and if their disagreement is expressed as mockery. Whatever can be seen as dissident humour – and I really have no idea why those sportsmen blacked up – is portrayed as the start of a continuum than ends in Auschwitz. This has to be done, because nothing is more subversive of a police state than mockery. Also going after these sportsmen in as integral part of manufacturing the appearance of consent. When people can be destroyed for upsetting the inquisitors, the rest of us become vary careful about what we say or do. For most of us, the surest way to be careful is to say or do nothing that is likely to upset. The resulting absence of dissent keeps the unstable equilibrium from falling over….
The debate on air that resulted from this was more Punch and Judy than cultural analysis. To do it justice, the BBC is sometimes a good place for the latter. But a five minute slot, with a nervous presenter to shut me up every few seconds, wasn’t the right place. I sneered at the complainants, pointing out that they were all somewhere on the State’s payroll. At one point, I had to tell the enraged anti-racism campaigner I was up against to shut up and let me have my turn. Before the microphone was turned off on me, I managed to say that this was a story only given prominence because the BBC was a culturally Marxist institution, and that it said more about the obsessions of our ruling class than the wickedness of a few rugby players.
Given another minute without interruptions, I’d have added that apologies never work in these cases. Step on someone’s foot in a railway carriage, or get his name mixed up, and an apology usually works – and may even start an interesting friendship. But do not suppose you can buy off the anti-racist inquisition with an apology. It helps not to get these people sniffing round in the first place. Those sportsmen must have been stupid to think they could get away with what they did – especially in a world where everyone has a mobile telephone packed with recording hardware. After the event, though, the only response should be a shrug and a curt “No comment.” Once you start apologising, these people smell blood and start circling in earnest. Stonewalling works more often than you might suppose. Even when it doesn’t you’ll go down with more dignity on your feet than on your knees.
I sometimes wonder why the BBC lets me so often on air. I’m on the radio once a week on average, and sometimes get an audience of several million. Could it be that the British state broadcaster has a genuine commitment to diversity of opinion, and that, when I make the effort, I can be crisp and entertaining? I doubt this. More likely, the BBC has a legal obligation to go through the motions of allowing a diversity of views, and I have a reputation for not actually swearing at the fools and villains I’m put against. Otherwise, the BBC may be homogenous in its ideology, but is decentralised in its structure. The researchers hardly ever compare notes with each other. Once they have you in their databases, you stay there until you die or the researchers move to other jobs.
Whatever the case, I had a good time last Friday – in retrospect at least, and wholly off-air. Not, I’ll confess, that it did any measurable good.
Sean Gabb is director of the Libertarian Alliance, UK, and is the author of several acclaimed novels, available in the United States at amazon.com and lulu.com and in the UK at amazon.co.uk and other outlets. See details of his new novel, The Break.