How to challenge prejudice or hate speech is a tricky one. I remember lots of conversations at work when I was the one left to challenge the homophobic, sexist or reactionary comment. I’ve probably chosen to forget the occasions when I just let it go for a quiet life. Quite often I felt that people were watching what they said because they knew my views which isn’t really achieving very much in the long term. It’s nearly always best to call out unacceptable speech. You never know who within hearing is vulnerable to what is being said. Then there are the times someone has said to me afterwards, ‘I am glad you said that. I was not comfortable with what was being said’.
I read a report recently of a Hope not Hate open meeting in a Cardiff mosque to discuss prejudice and racism. The audience was mainly white non Muslim. The reported conversations included one young woman who said “What usually happens is I either move the conversation on to something else, or I get angry.” Someone else said, “I want a third way.” One woman in her 50s, from a village in the south Wales valleys, said she was struggling to discuss these issues with her fellow allotment gardeners. A younger man living in Cardiff worried that facts and statistics were no longer getting through to people he spoke to.
Personally my dilemma is always between acquiescence or anger. Hope not Hate espouses a better approach. If someone is telling a dodgy joke or spouting hate then by all means just say that you don’t find that acceptable. But if they are mouthing off their prejudiced views you should try to listen to what they have to say, to understand where they are and what has brought them there and to ask open questions, explaining your own feelings and views.
When Gordon Brown was caught on a live microphone calling Gillian Duffy ‘a sort of bigoted woman’ after she had raised with him immigrants flocking in from Eastern Europe, all hell broke loose. The political damage was immense but in reality he hadn’t said anything very terrible. His original conversation had covered her concerns and then he asked about her family and their ambitions. He hadn’t left her immigration comment unanswered. He stressed the two way benefits of people from this country moving abroad for a better life. A more cynical politician might have had no unguarded remarks for the microphone to pick up just so long as she had assured him of her vote.
I find it infuriating when people think they have licence to say anything they want and pass it off as small talk or general conversation but then accuse you of being controversial if you challenge them. An old friend of mine in the Labour Party (long since dead) used to tell me his approach to all Tories was to treat them with total contempt and a hint of violence. Very tempting, but we have to try to be better than that.
Naming unacceptable speech can also be quite difficult because prejudiced people find quite sophisticated ways of getting round what they are doing. We are told that we are now living in a ‘post’ everything society. The ‘isms’ have been called out and tackled and we should now lighten up about innocent remarks. The other defence against having your prejudices challenged is to claim reverse oppression. How often do you hear the male whine ‘but what about the men’ when women’s issues are under discussion. Gay people are accused of heterophobia. We are told ‘The pendulum has swung too far the other way’. Ultimately, reverse oppression mostly results in hurt feelings, which really can’t be compared to the violence, psychological abuse, or even murder that marginalised people are subjected to on a daily basis.
Did I get my haircut? Yes I did. I had to wait a bit but once in the chair we chatted about whether quorn mince and quorn sausages were as good as the real thing and, of course, what our holiday plans were.