The politics of hurt is everywhere. We know Corbyn’s Momentum supporters in are accused of spite and intimidation but they too have stories of new members reduced to tears by hostile and abusive treatment. Now Angela Eagle’s people are complaining about ‘bullying’. There has to be more to this than meets the eye. There are raised voices and some epithets being used, social media in particular seems to bring out the worst. But it really isn’t that bad; there is a lot more hurt felt than injury inflicted. Why?
Partly it is political, a pretty cynical attempt to silence criticism by putting the critics beyond the pale. This is especially so when to comes to the central figure in Labour’s drama. What better way to undermine Corbyn’s new gentler politics than by painting his supporters as abusive?
But this wouldn’t work for long unless it touched a nerve, and that nerve is a culture that originated in a commitment to tolerance now rapidly turning into its opposite. Language was disciplined to eliminate casual offence (political correctness) and hate speech banned. Stirring up hatred on religious as well as racial grounds was outlawed, and although ‘threatening’ behaviour is required to prove religious hatred rather than language which is only ‘abusive of insulting’, there is a strong public disposition to condemn all language which causes offence. This has got out of hand.
Critics of Israel are lumped in with anti-Semites, the secularist campaigner Maryam Namazie was briefly refused a platform by Warwick University students for fear she would offend Muslims; Germain Greer was initially banned from speaking to students at Cardiff University for her allegedly transphobic views. When Namazie’s lecture at Goldsmiths was disrupted by Students from the Islamic Society, the university’s Feminist Society joined the Islamists in criticising the university for allowing a ‘known Islamophobe’ to speak.
There has to be a political discourse robust enough to accommodate difference, and being offended will have to be part of that. Labour’s decision to close all party meetings for fear of unacceptable behaviour shows the consequences for free speech if we do not start to row back. The liberal press seems to have abandoned the ground although what follows is admittedly a trivial example! My Guardian comment on an article by John Harris (A Cloud of Acrimony, 15th July) was taken down because it breached the Guardian’s standards. I had characterised the article as ‘poor journalism and rotten politics’. Oh dear!