Friday, January 06, 2012

The great Diane Abbott tweetgate scandal of 2012

Here’s the exchange, as reproduced by the BBC:

Bim Adewunmi: I do wish everyone would stop saying 'the black community' though. WHICH ONE?
Bim Adewunmi: Clarifying my 'black community' tweet: I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for 'black community leaders'.
Diane Abbott: I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a "divide and rule" agenda.
Bim Adewunmi: Maybe. I find it frustrating that half the time, these leaders are out of touch with black people they purport to represent.
Diane Abbott: White people love playing "divide & rule" We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism
Bim Adewunmi: I don't advocate 'divide and rule'. But I wish we could deal more effectively with issues without resorting to monolithic view.
Diane Abbott: Ethnic communities that show more public solidarity & unity than black people do much better #dontwashdirtylineninpublic

I should start by declaring that my general opinion of Diane Abbott is pretty low, although my estimation of her importance is also pretty low. I find it hard to get worked up by this.

Still, on the offending phrase: I don’t quite grasp the mental process that starts with wanting a quick and clear way to describe people who seek to weaken black people by turning them against each other, and ends with choosing “white people” rather than “colonialists” or “imperialists” or “racists”.

Nonetheless, I’m sure she knows full well that there are loads of white people who don’t fit that description. My best guess is that she was aiming to be a little cheeky in the vague service of solidarity-building, in the way that Harriet Harman might make some semi-serious unflattering overgeneralisation about men to make the sisters nod along.

If so, it’s still unpleasant and it’s still untrue – I go along with Russell on “the superior virtue of the oppressed”. But the idea that any white person has in any way been harmed by this tweet is just ridiculous. At the very outside you could argue that impressionable young black people might read it and as a result take more of an ‘us vs them’ outlook towards all white people, but I think that’s stretching it well past breaking point.

My real beef with what Abbott said is precisely because of the “context” that she protests her tweet was taken out of. I don’t like the way she rejects Bim Adewunmi’s point.

Questioning the merits of a set of “community leaders” (black or otherwise) is not on any meaningful continuum with the tactics and values of 19th-century colonialism. And the suggestion that black people shouldn’t criticise their so-called “community leaders” for fear of being seen to “wash [their] dirty linen in public” is depressing.

But then, there are far more depressing things to do with race. And yet this is the issue we’re all yelling about this week. Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? We know how to do ‘somebody said something and people say they’re angry at her and other people say they’re angry at them and now I’m going to say something’. We don’t know how to make society more just and people less prejudiced. Well, I don’t, anyway.


Liam Murray said...

”But the idea that any white person has in any way been harmed by this tweet is just ridiculous”
Of course it is and that’s why I found yesterday terribly frustrating.
But something else occurs to me every time I read someone challenging the “if it was the other way around” line of argument. Yes it’s different because of the history of oppression and violence but surely that difference exists on some sort of diminishing scale? However far we have to go – witness Stephen Lawrence etc. – our national attitudes to race have improved massively over the last 20/30 years so isn’t it reasonable to assume crass generalisations that would’ve been deeply hurtful and dangerous back then have lost some of their power now?
It’s not an easy point to make and I’m not suggesting you can develop some sort of calculus of offence here, I guess I’m just saying improved national attitudes towards race must imply some sort of diminished sensitivity on the part of different groups.

John Problem said...

Oh God! Here we are drowning in a tsunami of economic greed and here we are back on the good old anti-colonial stuff. Somebody should set up a think-tank to repudiate all the bad things said about colonialism. Imagine the repercussions! Of course, one must acknowledge that colonialism was replaced by a much better standard of political leadership......oh, yes...