Monday, March 12, 2007

Two Controversies Surrounding the Issue of Racism


Most people agree that racism is wrong. More under debate is the issue of what constitutes it.

Does, for example, voicing the view that there are too many immigrants in Britain amount to racism? Some may hold that it does. I would dispute this and say it depends on what one's motivations are. If it is a question of wishing to preserve 'racial purity' or something along those lines then there can be little doubt. If, on the other hand, it is due to worries over Britain being 'overcrowded' or the potential costs of immigration then I would not call this in and of itself racist. I believe it is possible to hold this view without necessarily discriminating inherently against people of a different race or culture, or believing that people of certain ethnicities are inferior in whatever area you wish to attribute. Although it may of course lead to propping up or giving ammunition to people who do hold racist views. I for one do not hold such views and have no objection to immigration, I believe it can often bring benefits. But by simply writing off all those who disagree with me as being racist I will not do my own argument any favour; it will simply be intellectual laziness and a disingenuous method of arguing.

This issue was brought to the news last week, the story being outlined here. I understand why 'Star' wished to raise attention to the matter. What I am suspicious of is the demand for Oxford to fire Coleman, which Oxford has said it will not do anyway. I go along with the freedom of speech argument. Academic institutions should be places where any views should be open for discussion and argument. If a view is simply not credible it will not be taken seriously. Take David Irving, the holocaust denier in jail in Austria. Despite the fact that his persecution by the authorities played into his hands as it enabled him to play the victim and be a martyr for the far right, nobody save for a few groupies took his ideas seriously. The fact that 6 million Jews did die in the holocaust has been established as a historical fact, and no credible historian would claim otherwise.

On the other hand it is possible to debate on the benefits of immigration. It is one thing argue that migrants should be welcome on humanitarian grounds, another argument to say that they bring economic benefit to the country at large. It would appear that the jury is still out on the issue.

Coleman has not, to anyone’s knowledge, been putting forward his own views as being those of Oxford. Star argued that advertising his appearances at the Migrant Watch events as being ‘David Coleman, Professor of Demographics, Oxford University’, would be using his status and the name of Oxford to give the organisation academic ‘credibility’. Hmmm. Whether they like it or not, Coleman’s position and his subject matter do give him some qualification to speak on related matters, whether or not you agree with the conclusions he draws.

At a university students are able to disagree with and to challenge the views of an academic when they wish. In fact, education is supposed to facilitate critical thinking in individuals.

The Head Office of Star stopped the campaign in the end, and have distanced themselves from their Oxford branch. This could well be due to the fact that they are publicly funded.

Meanwhile, is Coleman actually a racist? Not having attended any of his lectures nor read his papers I cannot say for certain. However, I looked online and found nothing that looked heavily incriminating in that direction. Yes, he is the co-founder of Migration Watch (see here). The titles of some his papers seem to indicate that he argues from a Malthusian standpoint (i.e. that overpopulation causes poverty and other social ills). Racists can seize upon this view, and it does tend to blame the poor for their problems, rather than focusing on inequality and exploitation, prime causes of poverty. Malthusianism was sometimes tied in with eugenics early last century.

But it is not necessarily racist in and of itself, although it is very easy to use it for such ends. Some people’s views of what constitutes racism are clearly broader than others.


Secondly there was the Mercer affair. Patrick Mercer had made some comments that were insensitive, especially in the current climate. But they did contain an element of truth – namely that the army is a place in which bullying is common. He stated that soldiers with ginger hair were also subject to bullying, which he interestingly claimed was more severe.

Now I don’t wish to claim that the bullying of ginger haired people is the same as racism. It does not have the same historical significance or context. Gingers have not been sold into slavery, deported, been victimised by imperialism or sent into concentration camps. This is partly what makes race such a sensitive issue. Having said that, though, I do not believe that the bullying of ginger haired people is acceptable. Indeed there are wider issues of bullying concerned. Race can simply be a pretext for bullying. Then again, there are wider factors surrounding racism, it is not a simple discrimination along grounds of appearance in the form of one's skin colour, or the way one dresses, what food they eat etc.

Another factor is scapegoating – finding an ‘out group’ then blaming them for your own grievances and for social ill in general, attributing to them traits you find repellent or are afraid of in yourself (also known as projection). I have no idea where the anti ginger tendency originated from – but one thing it does have in common with racism may be fear of ‘the other’ – an irrational fear of anybody who looks different or who is different in other ways (having ginger hair is less common than say, blonde or brown hair).

I blogged on the Celebrity Big Brother issue at around the time of the incident. While there was racism involved in the treatment of Shilpa Shetty this was far from the only or even the primary factor. Shetty was different from the others in ways besides race – she was smarter and more successful than they, for instance, and not on their wavelength. Much of the bullying seemed down to jealousy, along with the fact she was not one of them.

What focusing on the race issue seems to do is mask the wider issue of bullying. The question can reasonably be asked as to why it is deemed unacceptable to call somebody a Black c*** but not a ginger c***. And you will come to the stark truth that there are all manner of insults and bullying remarks. Yet you cannot pass a law as to make anti ginger insults illegal, as where would you stop? It would be impossible to make every form of insult a crime, even if they are designed to provoke hatred towards an individual. This is why legislation cannot solve the race issue. To forbid people voicing a sentiment will not cure them of it. At the most it will simply let it fester while driving it underground. The far right are fond of claiming victimhood by stating that they are being persecuted.

The wider issues surrounding bullying deserve some investigation. The State has a tendency to fetishise race. But in order to fight racism we should first understand what it is and what it is not. Arguing for censorship or other measures to extend the arm of the State does no favours. Neither does belittling racism by simply using it as an insult and/or a way of attempting to discredit somebody. It will get to the stage where people are frightened of even raising certain issues lest they offend someone. People may rather remain silent rather then suffering the insults of racist, sexist, homophobe etc.

It probably goes without saying that I do not believe Mercer should have been sacked. His remarks were careless but I by no means consider him to be a racist and neither should any other reasonable person.


Political Umpire said...

It seems from all the evidence that Mercer was not racist - evidence, that is, of the black soldiers with whom he served. His comments were a bit infelicitous, however - something in today's climate which, rightly or wrongly, rendered him a bad politician. On that basis he probably should have been sacked (ie bad speaker rather than racist).

The trouble is that the armed forces really are not the place for modern notions of acceptable and unacceptable bullying. Going on assault courses designed to condition one (psychologically as well as physically) for war requires methods not required or acceptable elsewhere.

Funnily enough Mercer's comments are extraordinary close to Full Metal Jacket, don't know if you've seen it. Would one call the Drill Sergeant in that film racist? Or unacceptable?

Political Umpire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
China Blue said...

Mercer's comments didn't strike me as racist. Saying that racism and bullying is common in the Army is telling it as it is, not saying that it is the way it should be. It seems to be incredibly lazy of the media to not make that blindingly obvious distinction.

a very public sociologist said...

I do agree with what you say Liz about racism and immigration. When we're out doing stalls in Stoke it is a very common refrain, and to hear the sentiments coming from the mouths of non-whites is not unknown. Another point worthing noting - when I was out canvassing last year I did get the chance to speak with quite a few BNP voters. Of them only 2 or 3 were hardcore racists.

The task of the left in relation to these sections of the class is to patiently explain that the problems working people face cannot be explained by immigration. It needs pointing out the scare stories in the press are just that, scare stories.

james higham said...

There's no place for a curtailing of freedom of speech. It's the thin edge of the wedge once you start down that path.