As a card-carrying Leftie, I’m a little unnerved by the times I get irritated by opinions of other card-carrying Lefties that irritate card-carrying Rightists too. One example is the ‘statue’ thing of a few months ago, which I blogged about at the time: https://bernardjporter.com/2020/06/12/imperial-statues/. I’m sorry, comrades, but it isn’t important! And wouldn’t it be better to leave the statues there, properly labelled, to remind passers-by of our national crimes (the point I was making in that post)? And to avoid riling reasonable people to no good purpose?
The same applies to some (not all) of the ‘politically incorrect’ landmines we are supposed to avoid these days. A few years ago, after a lecture I gave in Melbourne, a woman in the audience went at me for referring to nations as ‘she’. The talk was about the persecution of refugees, for pity’s sake. (I wondered how she got on in ‘la France’.) I’ve been similarly attacked for calling an 18-year old waitress a ‘girl’. (Maybe ‘waitress’ is wrong too, in the same way as ‘actress’.) I do now avoid referring to ‘cripples’, ‘blindness’, ‘American Indians’, ‘men’ when I mean both genders, ‘blacks’ until I know what they currently want to be called, the ‘English’ when I mean ‘Brits’ and vice-versa; and a whole lot more. But I still don’t think it should matter, as much as it seems to in certain ‘progressive’ circles. Once in South Africa I asked a ‘Cape Coloured’ friend what they called themselves now, after the end of Apartheid. ‘We call ourselves “the people who used to be known as Cape Coloureds”’ was his reply; an admirably relaxed one, I thought. And it should have enabled ‘the people who used to be known as Cape Coloureds’ to concentrate on the important problems they have in their country, rather than taking offence at mere nomenclature. The same applies to British Leftists. We have a pandemic to deal with, an incompetent and corrupt government, the Brexit mess, and Priti’s incipient Fascism. And you choose to focus on what the transgendered amongst you are called?!
It’s for this reason that I also take the side of the Rightists on the question of ‘No Platforming’ in British universities: speakers being banned on the grounds, for example, that they have ‘incorrect’ ideas about gender – even if the topics of their talks are something else entirely. Of course there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed: a speaker explicitly inciting an audience to violence against gay people, for example, which existing legislation should cover in any case. Otherwise the ordinary standards of ‘free speech and discussion’ should always apply. I would even allow Holocaust deniers a platform; though I’d understand if that were felt to be a line too far for – for example – Jews. The only critical argument I would make against the no-no-platformers is that they are probably exaggerating the ‘problem’, for their own propagandist reasons. But that just shows the harm that these protests can do. Why give the Right the oxygen they need, allowing them to take the libertarian high ground, for no really important purpose? And should we no-platform speakers who want to no-platform others?
The other grouse I have against the ‘Left’ concerns its use of the word ‘imperialist’ as if it equates with ‘Nazi’, and damns anyone even mildly associated with the British empire in the past to contumely as on a level with Hitler or (at best) Adolf Eichmann. That offends me professionally. I reckon I’ve always been as anti-imperialist as the next man (or woman); and I grew up as ‘our’ empire was being – thankfully – dismantled. But I’ve also studied it, enough to realise the complexities behind its accumulation and its governance, and to know that the ‘exterminate all the brutes’ version of it – the title of a book by the Swedish writer Sven Lindquist, the phrase taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – not only does scant justice to some ‘imperialists’, whom I’m not particularly concerned about, but also enormously oversimplifies the whole picture of European ‘imperialism’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; which is annoying to me. The misunderstandings implied here are too deep and too numerous for me to delve into and try to untangle in a blog post: especially when you can get hold of my recent British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2015: a snip at £20) to find out. But some of these comrades really do cheese me off. And – again – they distract us from the battles that need to be fought just now.