While white feminists argue among ourselves, Rod Liddle gets away with racism

“Don’t feed the trolls”: race, privilege, and intersectional feminism.

“Not only do you slap us, but you tell us how to react to being slapped.” I first saw that quote tweeted by Ava Vidal, during an argument about racism last year, and now that I know it, it seems to be applicable to almost every argument about racism or sexism since. Sometimes I think bigots have more fun telling us off for reacting to their microaggressions (and macroaggressions) than they do making them. Sometimes I think that’s the point of them: to give them an excuse to punish us for reacting.

When the Spectator published Rod Liddle’s blog referring to the Woolwich suspects as “black savages,” (since edited) there was an instinctive, understandable reaction from a lot of people to not “feed the troll” by reacting. Then, after engaging in debate, Laurie Penny, among others, changed her mind and concluded that public censure was actually a better idea than shrugging and ignoring. This newfangled idea of publically changing your mind and admitting you were wrong about something has upset Louise Mensch so much that she wrote a whole blog post about it, which was then republished in the Guardian. So far, so blah.

Now, if an individual doesn’t personally want to “feed the trolls” by wasting time and energy on someone who either won’t learn anything or will just be given greater publicity for their views, then that’s obviously their prerogative. But last week Mensch was doing something beyond just asserting that she, personally, wasn’t going to respond to Liddle. She was actively telling other people how they should or shouldn’t react to him.

It’s worth pointing out first of all that even aside from the question of whether it’s worth publically condemning racism when it comes from a known provocateur, a lot of the questions people were asking about Liddle’s piece weren’t actually directed at him. After all, it’s not like he was making a point to be debated; he was just calling people “black savages.” A lot of questions were being asked of the Spectator – specifically, its editor Fraser Nelson – about the professional decision to publish that language. Unless Mensch believes the Spectator is a troll, asking questions about how the decision to publish racism was taken is a bigger question than “ignoring” or “feeding” the trolls.

I don’t want the whole blog to be about Mensch, because she’s just a recent example of something bigger; the ugly prioritising that keeps happening within white feminism. And she’s not even the worst offender. Still, I can’t help but feel this assertion about not feeding the trolls is doubly uncomfortable when it comes from someone who has responded to “trolls” time after time again when she wants to. In fact, she got oodles of praise heaped upon her (including some from me), and, I seem to remember, a healthy dollop of positive media coverage for herself when she decided to go through all the sexist abuse she got on twitter one day and favourite it, to highlight the problem of internet trolls. White feminists – including Louise Mensch in more than one instance – have reacted regularly to sexism that could easily be called “trolling” from George Galloway, Austin Mitchell, Brendan O’ Neill, Roger Helmer, Nadine Dorries, Chris Brown, Jan Moir, Samantha Brick, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Justice for Ched tweeters, some of them anonymous, faceless, internet accounts, and, bless him, Nick Ross. The Everyday Sexism Project has been running a well-organised online campaign to report hate pages (from underage pornographic photos to ‘comic’ rape memes) on Facebook. Most of those pages could be described as “trolling”. We don’t ignore them, we react to them. That’s how we make them unacceptable.

Ironically, the Everyday Sexism campaign is often explained by drawing parallels with racism: if this vitriol was directed at black people, instead of women, we say, would Facebook allow those pages to stay up? Well, perhaps not. But what if it was semi-intellectualised, and written in an article, in a national publication? What then? Perhaps we’d be angry. But perhaps we’d say, calm down, dears. Don’t feed the trolls.

Sometimes, ignoring trolls is necessary for your own boundaries, your own mental wellbeing, or just the reality of there being too many trolls and too little time. But sometimes, “don’t feed the trolls” feels a hop skip and a jump away from “it’s just banter.” Whatever your intentions, when you tell someone “don’t feed the trolls,” you’re still telling the person on the receiving end of the trolling/banter how to react. The problem is with their reaction, not with what was said. They’re taking it too seriously. They’re missing the broader point. They’re distracting from the Real Issues. Ignore it because context. Ignore it because irony. Ignore it because banter. Ignore it because trolls.

And I will be honest: my first reaction to Liddle’s post was the same as Laurie Penny’s. He’s a troll. Ignore him. But then I remembered how Liddle’s trolling in the past nearly prejudiced a trial and cost Stephen Lawrence’s family justice. And I saw tweets from Musa Okwonga, Ava Vidal, and others, about the importance of challenging a racist voice with his platform, and, yes, I changed my mind about it, just as Laurie Penny did. I genuinely cannot see why Mensch finds that so upsetting.

Of all the tweets on the recent #blackprivilege hashtag, the one that I recognised most, both unconsciously manifested in my own behaviour as well as in others, was this one: “#BlackPrivilege is white people telling me how awful racism is, instead of telling other white folk.” (I’d like to credit whoever said this, but I can’t remember, and I can’t find the tweet.) Yes. We do this: lots of us do this, all the time, without even realising it. Because it’s easier to tell Ava Vidal how much we hate racism and expect a cookie and a re-tweet than it is to ask the nice, influential editor of the Spectator why he chose to publish racism in an environment of near civil unrest.

It’s not unique to feminism but it’s just so embarrassing when its white feminists doing it. We are so familiar, after all, with men doing it. You know, the Liberal Dudes who go on and on about how clued up on all that feminism business they are – usually in the most authoritative, patronising way imaginable, too – but when their mates make misogynistic rape jokes, when their colleague hires a man over an equally qualified woman for the sixth or seventh time, when their friend or favourite singer or footie player or just some Dude they think is cool is accused of rape or assault? They explain. They excuse. They tell us it’s a joke. It’s not worth responding to. It’s not the Real Issue. It’s not their problem. It’s banter. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some people might not ever respond to any trolls, and that’s fine. But speaking for myself, if I’m honest, I know perfectly well that if Rod Liddle had made some sort of comparable comment about women, especially if it was in an equivalent climate of increasing sexist hostility, with MRA marches doing pro-rape salutes around London – just imagine, white feminists, how we would feel if that was happening around us – there is no way in the world I would have shrugged and said to myself: “Yeah, I’m not responding to that. Don’t feed the trolls.” What’s more, I don’t believe Louise Mensch would have done, either.

This piece originally appeared on Louise McCudden's blog, and is republished here with her permission

Trolls: should we feed them? Photograph: Getty Images
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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