Let's call a bigot a bigot

Some people need offending.

Things have reached a slightly ludicrous situation when a gay rights group can be patronised for labelling as "bigots" those individuals who have gone most out of their way not only to prevent gay rights becoming a reality but also to viciously insult and ostracise the entire homosexual community.

Nelson Jones tells Stonewall to “grow up” and calls its Bigot Of The Year award “offensive and out of date”. To whom could the award be construed as offensive? The bigots it describes? That is unfortunate but something with which they will have to live. They will continue having to live with it if they insist on calling gay marriage “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” or, in pathetic attempts to attract sympathy, comparing their objection to gay marriage to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. If they cease to make such crass and ignorant statements they may find themselves not being described as bigots. Nick Griffin is probably offended when people call him a racist; he's still a racist.

Nelson Jones is also mistaken when he describes as “abuse” what Stonewall are doing through their Bigot Of The Year award. It seems immediately apparent that – much like the New Humanist's Bad Faith awards – Stonewall are with an ironic smile and a sense of humour highlighting the people who have done most to retard the gay rights situation. If you want a glimpse into what abuse is, read Martin Robbins' Guardian article "Gay marriage "Nazis" and the disgrace of Lord Carey". In staging its award Stonewall are fighting against a society that has been intolerant of homosexuals for thousands of years, and they are doing so with great dignity and wit. They are also, I'm happy to see, yet to apologise for the award despite hysterical outcries from clerical spokespeople.

Let's look at the word 'bigot' and see whether or not it can be accurately applied in this instance. A bigot is someone who “regards or treats the members of a group … with hatred and intolerance”. He has attempted to raise £100,000 in order to oppose same-sex marriage and compared it to slavery: if 'bigot' doesn't accurately encapsulate Stonewall's victor, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, I don't know who else it could. Nelson Jones seems perfectly happy to describe as a bigot a Chief Constable from over 25 years ago – and rightly so – but why is he afraid of being consistent in this case? A large reason is of course the religious element of the condemnation. If we were to take religion out of the equation, thereby confining to the closet the kid gloves with which it is handled, O'Brien would not be receiving the same level of support and excuse-making. Given that he is in a position of religious authority, many – including, it seems, Nelson Jones – wish to turn down the volume on criticism of O'Brien and interpret his statements in a peculiarly neutral light. This does not advance the gay rights position and encases O'Brien in the cushions in which he has been cocooned for 74 years.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said that Stonewall “promoted terms like "bigot" and "homophobe" relentlessly in order to intimidate and vilify anyone who dares oppose their agenda”. Given that Stonewall's agenda is the battle to secure equal rights for gay people, I don't think that they can be criticised for responding passionately and with wonderful irony towards the very people keenest to see gay rights suppressed and gay behaviour demonised. If you want a discussion on language, note here its slithery usage – anyone who "dares" oppose the laudable agenda of a group representing a persecuted minority. A homophobe is someone who fears or hates homosexuals; if the word cannot be used in instances like these, when can it possibly be used? Try being told for thousands of years that loving a member of the same sex means that you are an "abomination" and should be killed, and see if "bigot" or "homophobe" are the strongest terms that spring to your lips.

Religious figures like Keith O'Brien cannot expect to be ignored for expressing hateful and outdated opinions. He is perfectly entitled to speak his mind concerning the legal recognition of the love shared between two members of the same sex; and he is perfectly entitled to be called a bigot if what emanates from his mind is extremely bigoted.

Stonewall's award may be offensive but it offends all of the people who most urgently need offending.

A flag at a gay pride festival. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear