One of the newest fashions in British politics is the tendency to attack someone holding or running for office for ‘their comments regarding’. Regarding women. Regarding immigrants. Regarding the LGBT community. Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists. Owen Smith wanted to ‘smash Theresa May back on her heels’. Gareth Snell doesn’t think much of Loose Women. In each case, those on the left (and it must be acknowledged, it’s mainly us doing it) have felt that the key issues about candidates or office holders that need highlighting are not the policies they stand for, but a few sentences often taken out of context, that appear to highlight the worst content of their character.
This is not to say that the underlying issues are not important. They are, hugely. Donald Trump is not fit to be President of the United States. Owen Smith was a deeply disappointing leadership challenger to Jeremy Corbyn. What becomes of Gareth Snell will be seen only after the 23rd February. Racism, Homophobia and Misogyny in politics need to be challenged at all times. But the tried-and-tested method of ‘the opposing candidate has made these comments, and they are offensive’ is at best an ineffective and at worst completely counterproductive strategy.
Firstly, because it leaves far too much room open for interpretation. When Owen Smith made his comments about Theresa May’s footwear, was he encouraging the party to take the fight to the Tories better, or glorifying domestic violence? I’ve heard activists from all wings of the party make a case for both. Yet what Smith actually said is not in doubt. When we argue that because somebody said something they must necessarily think something related, we open ourselves up to those changes of interpretation that break down along political, social and economic fault lines.
Where some see Trump’s comments on Mexicans and see a racist denunciation of an entire ethnic group, others see a recognition that some immigrants commit crime. Where some see a deliberate effort to demean, others see only a joke that only a humourless politics nerd could fail to understand. This is important for a simple reason – if we want to have debates about issues we must first agree the factual basis upon which that debate happens. That cannot happen when those we are arguing with can always respond that it is we have who have misunderstood what was said and not their preferred candidate who has erred. The benefit of the doubt in such a situation will almost always be given to the side with which one feels most instinctive sympathy. Recent elections should give us the loud and clear message – that is not us.
But secondly, it is a terribly unpersuasive form of politics. If you are someone who is involved with politics on a near day-to-day basis, who takes issues of identity seriously and makes an effort to engage with marginalised groups you will understand why the off-the-cuff statements of politicians matter. Will understand the marginalising effects of normalising discrimination these words, and will feel the emotional pain of being erased from public consciousness. But if you are someone whose understanding of politics is derived from the 6 O’Clock News and the Sunday newspaper it is at best unlikely that you feel the force of those words as keenly. When we focus on what has been said per se, we stop talking to people outside of our immediate circle of political allies and start talking to an in-group that shares our views, our prejudices and our understanding. We feel good about ourselves. But we persuade nobody.
None of the above is to say the left should not ‘do’ feminism, or anti-racism, should not support the rights of LGBT folk and immigrants. But we need to challenge ourselves to do it better. Because with the election of Trump in the USA, the Conservatives in this country and the possibility of Geert Wilders and Marine le Pen in the Netherlands and France, one thing is clear: what we are doing right now is not good enough.
It is the focus on offence – the outrage of saying the unsayable – that needs to be excised from our politics. Religious conservatives are offended by decisions I take every Saturday around 2am. Geocentrists are offended by the works of Galileo and Copernicus. What is offensive is irrelevant. What matters is what is right. Let’s think less about why what our opponents have said is offensive, and think more about why it is wrong. Since Brexit there has been a rise in ethnically-motivated violence. Trans folk are amongst the highest-risk groups for suicide in the country. The person most likely to harm any woman is the man she lives with. The facts are offensive enough. If we can persuade the public that our opponents do not have a proper grasp of the facts, then they will eventually stop listening to them. Not because they’re offensive, but because they’re wrong.