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Laurie Penny: no, Boris, being called a racist is nothing like dealing with Boko Haram

The mayor of London is not the first to throw a tantrum over ‘call-out culture’ in a growing backlash against online communities condemning racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic behaviour.

Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty
Boris Johnson wrote that we "live in a Boko Haram world", calling use of the 'n-word' "haram" in Britain. Photo: Getty

I've been doing it all wrong. There I was, merrily objecting to bigotry and racism on my modest little Twitter platform, when it turns out that all along the real victims of bigotry were the bigots themselves. 

This week, after Jeremy Clarkson was almost fired and a local radio DJ resigned for accidentally playing a song that contained the n-word, Boris Johnson penned a furious column in the Telegraph, comparing online anti-racist campaigns to the religious group Boko Haram, which is responsible for the recent abduction of hundreds of young women in Nigeria. Apparently, pointing out racism, much less suggesting that prominent commentators should be called to account for their racism, is not only worse than racism itself, it's the moral equivalent of abducting 250 Nigerian schoolgirls. 

“In our own modest way, we live in a Boko Haram world, where it all depends on the swirling rage of the internet mob,” pontificates Johnson. The demotic chaos of the digital world is a palpable threat to the media and political establishment – “mob” rule has ensured that one can no longer make racist jokes and expect to be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds and rewarded with a position in parliament, so how can anyone be sure where they stand? “Don’t give me any of your tripe, you clever-clever BBC folk,” Johnson finger-wags: this has gone far enough.

Boris Johnson is trolling, of course, which would be reason not to favour him with more of our attention were he not also the second-most powerful politician in Britain, the actual mayor of the actual capital, a bad joke that got old six years ago.  Johnson’s concern for Clarkson is understandable in light of his own documented history of racial insensitivity, including calling people of colour ‘picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ in a column about the Commonwealth.

Johnson is not the first to throw a tantrum over ‘call-out culture’. In recent months, as online communities have grown more confident in identifying and condemning racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic behaviour, politicians and celebrities have led a backlash, likening internet activists to religious fanatics and witch-finders.

I understand the fear: the rules of what is and is not acceptable to say to another human being are being rewritten, and everybody’s worried about making a mistake. The last time I got called out for saying something thoughtlessly offensive on Twitter, it was uncomfortable. What it was not at all like, however, was being kidnapped, forced into marriage and offered for ransom in another country. If Jeremy Clarkson has, in fact, been kidnapped and forced into marriage, I for one would like to know: to whom?

Johnson is right that apology ought to count for something, and I’ve found that an honest, rapid, unqualified sorry, backed up by a conscious effort to change one's actions, is generally accepted in good faith. That's not the sort of sorry we've heard from Johnson, Clarkson or their supporters. What we got instead was angry denial, followed by the sort of insulting, vicious 'sorry' delivered by a toddler who is used to getting what he wants when he screams.

Do I think people should lose their jobs for doing or saying obviously bigoted things? Well, it depends on the job, and whether in the course of that job, those personal prejudices are likely to affect other people. The example that keeps being brought up is that of the Justine Sacco, the PR executive who late last December tweeted, just before her plane was leaving for Africa, that she hoped she didn't get AIDs – “just kidding! I'm white.”

Sacco landed to find she'd been fired, amid a global racket of people bored and frustrated in the slow-news holiday period. I wouldn't see anyone starve for an ill-judged tweet. Personally, I think the problem here is the wage relation itself, and it's high time we got on with dismantling it so that individuals are no longer forced to rely for their survival on public relations jobs for which they are, whatever their true feelings on race relations, clearly wildly unsuited. 

But Jeremy Clarkson is not Justine Sacco. Boris Johnson is not Justine Sacco. They are staggeringly wealthy and influential men who are furious that people are questioning their right to stand on an enormous gold platform making jokes at the expense of the less fortunate in order to shore up their own power base.

This is not a new McCarthyism. The state and its muscular flunkies are not stripping people of their jobs in droves for political reasons – well, actually they are, but the people losing their jobs, for reasons that have nothing to do with their personal beliefs about race relations, are public service workers, young precarious labourers, nurses and teachers, the sort of teachers who Jeremy Clarkson hilariously suggested should be “shot in front of their families” for going on strike. 

Nor is this 'reverse racism'. Wealthy Anglo-Saxon men with dodgy ideas about equality remain extremely well-represented at the top layers of business, culture and politics, whilst just pointing out that this continues to be the case gets people like me harassed and threatened and encouraged on a daily basis to end our lives, and I don't even see the worst of it because – thanks, Justine Sacco – I'm white.

Nor is this an assault on free speech. Constitutional protections for freedom of speech, where they exist, are designed to shield individuals from the threat of state retribution for expressing their opinions – not to insulate them for the consequences of such expression. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to be enormously offensive without being called on it.

There is, in fact, a terrifying tally of people being imprisoned or threatened with jail for rash things they said on social media, people like Azhar Ahmed, or the Northwich teenagers who were imprisoned for four years in 2011 for inviting their Facebook friends to a riot that never happened. But that has nothing to do with the anti-racist ‘mob’, and everything to do with overmighty state power being wielded against the poor and angry.

Racist slurs and bigoted tropes are far from 'unsayable' in this society. I hear these supposedly unsayable things every day, from people who seem to truly believe that they’re being radical and daring rather than simply rude and offensive, people who have convinced themselves that basic decency is ‘political correctness’ and that it’s gone ‘too far’. Racism is not taboo. What’s still taboo is discussing and calling out racism with any degree of honesty.

There has been a great deal of censoriousness at play in the mainstream press for quite some time when it comes to clear discussions of racism and prejudice, especially in Britain, where accurately describing a well-connected racist could land you with a libel suit. 

Culture is used to seeing bigotry of the grossest sort discussed with reticence and delicacy, hedged with words like 'allegedly' and 'seemingly', in contexts stripped of all anger and hurt where every possible effort is made to absolve any given powerful person of meaning what they said.

The really dangerous taboo isn’t the ‘n-word.’ It’s the ‘r-word.’ We all need to get more comfortable with discussing and identifying racism, with all of its ugly implications. Because here’s the thing: whether or not he intended to say that disgusting word in jest, Jeremy Clarkson is probably racist. Even if there weren't numerous documented experiences of him saying and doing wildly racially insensitive things (that episode of Top Gear where they pretended they’d murdered a ‘fat Albanian’? Calling an Asian man a 'slope'?) it would be extremely unlikely that Jeremy Clarkson were not at all racist.  That is because almost everybody is racist, because we were all born and raised in a society whose fundamental assumptions have been racist, colonialist and white supremacist for an extremely long time.

I’m not claiming to be some sort of magic exception. I’m racist. I’m not proud of it. I'm not very racist, and I do my best to be as not-racist and as anti-racist as possible. I'm trying to unlearn the ugly, embarrassing assumptions I was raised with and absorbed through culture whilst I was growing up, and I'm doing a great deal of reading and a lot of listening, but I still fuck up, and when that happens, all I can do is say sorry, mean it, and try my very best not to do it again. 

And I get it. I get the angst and paranoia of feeling that the rules have changed in a way that might make you seem like a bad person. What’s unacceptable is allowing that anxiety to prevent us from working on ourselves, from taking responsibility for behaving decently towards other humans. That’s what truly matters: not the prejudices we inherit, but what we choose to do when they are made clear to us.  The reason we need to end the taboo around the ‘r’ word is that until we can face up to our own racism, we’re not going to be able to change it.

We can't sack all the racists in the world because if we did, nobody would have a job. What we can do is work extremely hard to mitigate the effects of racism in our everyday lives, to call on our public figures and politicians to reject bigoted ideas and backward language. 

Communities are entitled to shun people in positions of influence who express abhorrent views, profit from those views, act on those views, and suggesting that maybe people should be a bit more tolerant and polite to one another is in no way equivalent to McCarthyism, to programmatic state censorship or, for god’s sake, to mass abduction by religious extremists. I’m sorry if this is a bit “clever-clever” for you, Mr Johnson. But an expectation of basic decency is not censorship. You’re not oppressed, you’re just uncomfortable – and for damn good reason.