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

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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