I’m writing this in a particular context.
There are allegations of sexual harassment in public life, and some tragic responses to those allegations.
There are criticisms of politicians and political activists for racism, or anti-Semitism specifically.
There are discussions about gender self-identification, riven with misunderstanding and hurt.
I write this to myself, to colleagues, friends and strangers, to members of the Labour Party and beyond, to anyone who believes in the value of equality and wants to be open to anything which could help fulfil that belief.
I write this because this is often hard; people feel uncomfortable; and sometimes language is hurtful, discriminatory or hateful, and it has an impact.
I write because we all need to find ways of hearing each other and being willing to learn, if we really believe in equality.
First, some definitions.
Language is discriminatory (sexist, racist, able-ist, homophobic or trans-phobic or prejudicial on grounds of religion) when it relies on stereotypes or demonises people because of their gender, colour, race or religion, their disability, sexuality or trans status. This is likely to be explicitly prohibited in workplace policies or guidance. It is usually not illegal, unless intended to cause hatred. Discriminatory or prejudiced language matters because use of stereotyping and demonisation of a particular demographic group helps to create a social and public space in which people who wish to harm others get encouragement, possibly unintentional, for their views.
Incitement to hatred is a crime. However, the context for this ‘hate crime’ includes the ways people speak about a particular group of people. Those men who believe they have a right to hurt their partner, for example, if they do not get their own way, gain comfort when they hear other male friends demeaning or stereotyping women, or making jokes about women which give out the message that women are worth less than men. Those who spread prejudiced ideas about Muslims, or people of colour, or foreigners – from the President of the USA to the angry person in the comments section of online news using thoughtless, unintentionally racist language – can all also create a context for acts of hatred. And this needs to change.
It is perfectly possible to be sexist or racist without intending to be. It would be naïve to imagine that any of us is immune to prejudice or stereotyping, no matter our intentions. We live in a world where prejudice has informed, caused and been a consequence of profoundly unequal and oppressive power relations for many centuries. Our history of discrimination against women, the history of slavery and colonialism – these are all still very present in our language, customs and recent history.
It is uncomfortable when we are challenged on our language. We may be hurt, we may want to defend ourselves from what we feel are unfair or undeserved accusations, or we may indulge in some ‘whataboutery’, where we try to excuse what we have said or done by comparing it with something else and saying it wasn’t that bad.
I learnt a lot about this, how to get past it, and why that is helpful, from working with men who were violent to their female partners and ex-partners, my job before I became an MP. They usually had an idea of themselves in their heads of being a good man, who respected women, but their behaviour gave out different messages. They often tried to justify what they had done, or minimise the impact, often by saying ‘it wasn’t that bad’, or they would blame someone or something else for it.
When I questioned them on their use of sexist language they would often deflect with classic ‘whataboutery’, saying that because these were words, not deeds, and not as bad as their physical abuse, that it did not matter. They might blame their partner, or me, for being sensitive, or not understanding them properly. They would often feel defensive or uncomfortable. They’d place themselves in the role of victim, for being unfairly challenged. But their feelings did not make them the victim. What’s more, focusing on their own perceived victim status could get in the way of changing their behaviour, as well as their speech. In my work with them, my (male) co-worker and I would have to help them to learn to sit with their discomfort, reflect on what they had said, and move beyond it to learning new ways of being and understanding others. It was particularly important that my male co-worker demonstrated respectful behaviour and speech about women in general and to me in particular, and that it was not left to me to challenge the sexism.
This work helped me to learn a lot about changing myself. So I say to us all: always consider that you might be mistaken. Of course, you might also be right. That’s possible. But what do you lose by being open-minded about the possibility that you may have something to learn?
Putting up barriers because you feel unfairly criticised is understandable, but it is unhelpful. Of course, you can decide you don’t care – and that’s up to you. But for those of us who believe in the value of equality and want to demonstrate those beliefs in how we are with the world around us, it’s a good idea to take a different approach.
Next time someone challenges your language, just try sitting with the feelings of discomfort. They will subside. Instead, listen to other people about the messages things you have said give to others about how you think the world should be. Don’t stoke up the situation with the fire of righteous indignation and try to quiet the internal monologue you have about ‘not meaning it in that way’. Just focus on the impact of your words on others. As the discomfort and defensiveness pass, if you take a decision to be open-minded, to accept that your language may not have matched up to the beliefs you hold dear, you will be in a better position to learn something which helps you to live up to your beliefs.
In the Labour Party, a belief in equality is written into our constitution and also our organisational DNA. Our party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has made it clear in recent speeches that he is utterly opposed to racism, and this includes specific mentions of his opposition to anti-Semitism and his commitment to policies to tackle this in the Labour Party. He has also declared his opposition to sexism and the sexual harassment which arises out of that ground. I agree with what Jeremy has said – his beliefs are truly Labour beliefs. But of course people inside the Labour party and outside sometimes struggle to live up to these beliefs. And of course there are many people outside the Labour Party who also feel that way, who believe in the value of equality.
This must not be left up to the group of people affected. It’s not enough for you not to be prejudiced. If you want the world around you to change, you have to get involved. Don’t just leave it to women to challenge sexism, or black people to challenge racism, or anyone else affected by prejudice to have to challenge it themselves.
So I call on all of us, me included, inside the Labour Party and outside, who believe in equality, to be willing to hear challenge, to listen, to debate. Doing so will help us all live up to the values which matter so much to us.