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

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.

Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.