Roseanna Doughty |
The children’s author Lemony Snicket advised that ‘If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf’. The recent scandal involving the former Mayor of London and Labour MP Ken Livingstone has certainly been a lesson for all of us. His comments defending Naz Shah’s remarks on social media about relocating Israel to America have caused outrage and as a result Livingstone has been suspended from the Labour party over ‘grave concerns’ about the language he used: ‘Let’s remember that when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel, he supported Zionism, before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’.
Coincidentally while all this has been going on I’ve been working on the Greater London Council’s (GLC) records from the 1980s investigating the work of the Ethnic Minorities Unit to combat racism under none other than Ken Livingstone. My own interest in this material is because it contains documents pertaining to the GLC’s press complaint and boycott of the London Standard after it published an anti-Irish cartoon in 1982. The Council also sought to combat racism towards other ethnic minorities including the Jewish community, and supported the social and cultural clubs that served them. So it is hard to reconcile the man who was part of the team driving these initiatives with the alleged anti-Semite being portrayed in the media. I’d like to hope this is more of a case of ‘adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf’ in aid of an extremely ill-advised cause.
Whatever you think of Ken, I feel there are few who would argue that the language he used was anything but insensitive. It is a wildly inappropriate historical analogy that seemingly reduced the Holocaust to Hitler just gone mad, which is simply unacceptable as it ignores both the calculated horror of the Nazi’s Final Solution as well as hundreds of years of anti-Semitism. The tendency to use historical facts poorly in defence of offensive statements is a rant for another day (anyone fancy writing a guest post?). Although it is not the first time a public figure has misspoken or had their meaning misconstrued, Livingstone continues to doggedly repeat these ‘historical facts’, rather than take the opportunity to apologise for the misunderstanding and clarify his meaning. I think that there is a danger that we might be missing the bigger picture and failing to question why he thought it necessary to defend Naz Shah and how MPs negotiate constituents from conflicting ethnic groups.
There are of course several debates to be had and not least the persistence of anti-Semitism and racism, both in British politics and British society more generally. What these recent events have particularly demonstrated, however, is the significance of language and the careful selection of the language we use. This is incredibly important in academia where we are often grappling with difficult and contentious issues that challenge the status quo. Perhaps even more so in the age of twitter when your words are out there forever and available for all to see. A few badly chosen words or the emphasis placed on the wrong part of the sentence can completely distort our meaning and it is often easy, especially when we are so absorbed in our work, to forget to consider how our words might be misconstrued and indulge in throw-away statements. As the current media diatribe against Ken Livingstone highlights we can never think too much about what we say, write and do.
Roseanna Doughty is Pubs and Publications Deputy Editor-in-Chief and researches media representations of the Troubles, 1969-1997, and their affect on the lived experiences of the Irish in Britain. You can find out more information about her through various social media outlets including Twitter, where her handle is @RoseannaJane, or her academia.edu page.