When the reaction becomes the news story

It is all too easy nowadays for feelings and emotions to become the news story. They are tough to argue with: how can you tell another person what they should be feeling? This is especially true if this emotion is distress and/or fear. Focusing on the reaction can make the reader assume that a sufficient cause exists without actually having to prove one does. It is a neat tactic.

A few Labour MPs recently decided that one of their number needed help to get through a group of 20-odd people standing around peacefully with placards. Labour, let us not forget, used to be the party of the workers and are still the party of the unions, with peaceful protest literally in their blood. There is no history of violence at these sorts of events, the most you can expect is chanting and heckling.

And yet the implication of coming out onto the streets to protect somebody is clear — the Left is violent, it needs to be guarded against, like some bunch of racists in the American South during the civil rights movement. Without any evidence regarding the causes of said fear[1], the reader is swayed by the reaction, made assume that it has a cause. We cannot argue with feelings: faced with a reaction of fear you can never prove that the said fear is not genuine.

The MP in question was of course Ruth Smeeth and she was going to the hearing of Marc Wadsworth. A black rights activist, author and occasional reporter, Wadsworth had been suspended for the labour party for suggesting that Smeeth worked ‘hand in hand’ with the Telegraph. As well as creating a sense of physical danger, the merry procession served to create an impression of a victim going to confront a powerful institutional anti-semitic abuser. The reality is very different — Smeeth is a member of parliament, Wadsworth a barely known activist and the case itself is highly ambiguous at the very least.

Did Wadsworth know Smeeth was Jewish? Did he realise that his words would be taken as anti-semitism? Is there a way to suggest that a Jewish MP works in any sort of agreement with any organisation without sounding anti-semitic? Can you really judge a man’s whole career based on one single remark? All those are legitimate questions, creating more than enough doubt for the hearing to not be an open-and-shut case. Wadsworth vehemently denies his guilt, and he is not alone: the likes of Peter Tatchell publicly back him. Moreover, the National Union of Journalists took Wadsworth’s side. A top human rights lawyer has had to write to the party in Wadsworth’s defence. And yet, when Wadsworth’s accusers are challenged, the reply is all too often: ‘if you don’t understand why he is an anti-semite, you are one yourself’. Lynchmobs don’t tend to give detailed judgements, but this really is Kafka territory.

The consideration in detail of the academic (is this really an antisemitic trope) or legal (can the party actually expel Wadsworth without breaking the law) issues that this raises has not happened, yet without it the shows of solidarity lose meaning. Sure, it is much easier to come out on the street en masse and get the attention focused on the reaction than consider the underlying issues in detail. When people see you reacting strongly and publicly, perhaps they will believe you have a case, no matter what domain experts on antisemitism might say? It is true that it is primarily up to the victims of racism to decide what is racist, but that concept has its limits[2] and must not be abused: if it is, the whole fight against racism could lose credibility.

This is by no means the first time the reaction becomes the news story and whatever caused it is not really delved into. Ruth Smeeth hires a bodyguard for the Conference and one is made to assume this was to ward off some real physical danger. Jess Phillips changes her locks, and the implication is that she is trying to protect herself from a maniacal misogynist Leftist thug. It is put like this so that the suggestion of a real threat is clear. And, of course, this kind of substitution is a general problem with political discourse, not confined to the Labour party by any means. It is a problem across the whole political spectrum, from the left to the right.

How do you fight against this? Len McCluskey is fighting it in the only way he can, by confronting it head on. But this will not help, as people will focus ‘on the reaction of the people offended'. And then you are back to square one: how can you tell people to not be offended? You cannot control other people’s feelings.

There should be a common agreement to ignore any and all news items that focus on people’s reaction without either describing in enough detail the underlying cause for this reaction or linking to a place where such detail can be found. Articles that cover, in great depth, the reaction without even linking to the offence can be safely ignored. Interviewers cannot let replies such as ‘you are wrong because people will be insulted’[2] stand without justification. Outrage needs to be discounted unless a clear basis for it is given.

[1] When challenged on this, one tends to be pointed to Smeeth’s speech in Parliament about the antisemitic abuse she received online from people claiming to be supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, online trolling is something that is faced by absolutely everybody, so the connection between that and physical danger is not clear. One cannot tar the protesters with the same brush.

[2] See page 5 paragraph 1. ‘ It is sometimes suggested that when Jews perceive an utterance or action to be antisemitic that this is how it should be described. In the UK this claim looks for support to the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, written by Lord Macpherson of Cluny. There
Macpherson wrote that ‘a racist incident’ is ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ If we look at the context in which this quotation appears, it is unambiguously clear that Macpherson intended to propose that such racist incidents require investigation. He did not mean to imply that such incidents are necessarily racist. However, Macpherson’s report has been misinterpreted and misapplied in precisely this way. Its authority has been thrown behind the view that such incidents should, by definition, be regarded as racist. In short, a definition of antisemitism which takes Jews’ feelings and perceptions as its starting point and which looks to the Macpherson report for authority is built on weak foundations.

More fundamentally, if we rest our definitions of racism on the perceptions of minority groups then we open the way to conceptual and political chaos. For if the identification of racism becomes a matter of subjective judgment only then we have no authority other than the perception of a minority or victim group with which to counter the contrary subjective opinions of perpetrators who deny that they are racists. Without an anti-racist principle which can be applied generally we are left in a chaotic situation in which one subjective point of view faces another. An equally damaging objection is that Jews in the UK have diverse and, in some respects, contradictory perceptions of antisemitism. This gravely weakens any attempt to take Jews’ perceptions as the basis for a definition of antisemitism. None of this means that Jews’ sense of offence, where it arises, is insignificant. But it does mean that their sense of being offended should not be elevated so that it becomes the touchstone for judging whether or not something is antisemitic.

[3] One is reminded of an iconic interview during the last Labour government by, I think, Hazel Blears about the NHS where she batted away every question by saying ‘well, I think the doctors will be thoroughly insulted by your question’, even though the questions were about doctor complaints. It really was the typical instance of a politician focusing only on the feeling to avoid scrutiny.


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