David Mesher – the retired railway worker who verbally abused a 77-year-old black British pensioner on a Ryanair flight back from Spain – has apologised for his actions. Well, for a given value of the word “apology” at least.
Speaking to ITV, Mesher “apologised for all the distress” caused by what he blamed on what was “probably” a result of him losing his temper and added for good measure that “I’m not a racist person by any means”.
It feels like a perfect illustration of the widespread delusion that being racist is a moral condition, only practiced by the immoral, rather than a specific pattern of behaviour.
The issue at hand isn’t whether David Mesher is a “good” person, whether he steals his neighbour’s milk bottles for his own, whether he cheats on his taxes or if he would commit violent acts. The issue is whether or not shouting at someone that they are a “black bastard” and telling someone speaking English with a slight Jamaican accent not to speak in a “foreign language” is racist behaviour – which it palpably is. That Mesher thinks the issue is even in contention would be funny in almost any other context, but instead it’s just sad.
Although Mesher is an extreme example, he is part of a society-wide trend which sees acts of racism or sexism as a question of someone’s moral standing – so the debate becomes not “has this person done or said something racist?” but “is this person a Good Person?”
In politics, we see this with the ongoing row over Shaun Bailey’s remarks about people celebrating Hindu and Muslim festivals or the Labour party’s ongoing failure to tackle antisemitism in its ranks. Defenders of Bailey or the Labour leadership talk about their moral qualities and their achievements in life, as if the question at hand was whether the accused had any redeeming qualities and not about a series of specific words, actions and choices.