The culture of offence

JVL Introduction

In this article for JVL, Stephen Marks looks at the gagging orders emanating from the Labour Party.

The growing culture of “taking offence”, taken to its logical conclusion would, he argues “prohibit discussion of any topic on which anybody anywhere might say something which someone else might find to be offensive”.

It would herald the death of political discussion and debate. The Labour Party, a political party with proud democratic traditions of vibrant discussion and dissent, should have no truck with it.

Stephen Marks, a member of Oxford District Labour Party and the JVL Committee, is writing in a personal capacity


The latest gagging order from Labour’s General Secretary David Evans prevents Labour members from any discussions which “touch on” just about anything to do with the suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.

Apparently this could provide “a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party‘s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members” thus undermining the party’s ability to provide “a welcoming home to members of all communities, with no place for any prejudice or discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion”.

No examples or evidence is provided. The decision is self-evidently absurd and if applied consistently would prohibit discussion of any topic on which anybody anywhere might say something which someone else might find to be offensive.

Of course this right to shut down a discussion by claiming to be offended is not intended to be granted to all members in general – if it were it would make discussion of controversial issues impossible. In practice this privilege is to be reserved to the leadership. And of course the motive is not the desire for a purge of factional opponents – perish the thought! It is to protect “the Jews” – another “humanitarian intervention” no doubt.

Given that any discussion of this absurdity is now prohibited it may well have the effect of increasing antisemitism by giving the impression of a “hierarchy of racisms”.

But this “privilege” is not to be available to all Jews – only to the officially recognised “community leaders” who agree to join in the lynch-mob attack on Jeremy Corbyn. And the lies on which this campaign is based have been placed beyond refutation by the ban.

To point out that Jeremy’s statement was in no way antisemitic is now proof of “antisemitism”. Now we are all enjoined to have discussions on how to combat antisemitism in the party, in line with the EHRC’s recommendations [which Jeremy has of course accepted].

But to have that discussion we must have some guidance on the extent of the problem in order to fashion an appropriate raft of measures to tackle it.  This of course we are prevented from doing by the Evans ban! And the EHRC report is no guidance here; to estimate the extent of antisemitism in the party was not part of its remit.

Clearly to appreciate this infinite regress of absurdities would require more than a mere “British sense of irony”. Even the “Jewish sense of irony” of a Franz Kafka might prove inadequate.

The Council of Hindu Temples, which can claim to be at least as representative as the BoD, called on Hindus to vote Conservative at the last election as Labour is “anti-Hindu”. Most Labour supporters would be puzzled by this – our position on Kashmir, we would say, was not anti-Hindu or pro-Muslim but pro-justice.

But we cannot deny that there must be many of Indian heritage who sincerely feel that all India is doing in Kashmir is defending itself against Jihadi terrorists organised from Pakistan – just as many with pro-Israel sympathies will claim to feel that all Israel has ever been doing in Gaza and the West Bank is defending itself against Islamist Judeicidal terrorists from Hamas and Hizbollah.

As long as the subjective criterion of “offence” is the only standard all these communal reactions would have to be accorded equal weight.

There are several minority communities in this country with ethnic, religious, cultural or ancestral and family ties to communities in other countries where, alas, there are conflicts; in which there may be other communities in this country who identify with the other side. So a vigorous statement of the case of one side in such conflicts may cause very genuine offence to those who identify with the other side.

A vigorous statement of the Irish nationalist case may very well offend someone of Ulster loyalist heritage. A vigorous statement of the Greek or Turkish Cypriot case may well offend those of Turkish or Greek Cypriot heritage.

We know that the same is true of many or most Jewish people where a vigorous statement of the Palestinian case is concerned. But less attention seems to be given to the offence that is caused to many of Palestinian or Arab heritage by crude or crass statements of the Zionist case.

And of course growing numbers may champion that case, or others, for reasons which have nothing to do with their religious or ethnic heritage and everything to do with their conception of justice.

Indeed many of us, Jewish defenders of Palestinian rights, would justify our position in universal conceptions of justice and human rights which we find in the ancient Hebrew prophets.

And we are just as offended by Israel’s claim to be oppressing the Palestinians in our name as Jews, as any of Israel’s defenders would be by us.

The rights and wrongs of these ethical and political disagreements can hardly be adjudicated by the disciplinary procedures of a political party!

But here’s another thought. These examples I have quoted – Ireland, Cyprus, Palestine, Kashmir. Don’t they all have something in common?

Well they have all been partitioned. But isn’t there something else? Ah yes, they were all part of the British Empire. Divide and rule anybody?

This whole approach of “community-based” politics covers up the fact that all ethnic religious or cultural communities are divided by politics and by class. Dealing with them through the leaderships of their “official” representative organisations is a heritage of colonialism, continued by many local politicians who use “community leaders” as vote brokers.

The only way to adjudicate in these clashes of opinion is not by appeal to “communal” authorities but by reasoned political debate. That’s what the Labour Party is for – or at least used to be for. None of these differences of opinion on can be settled by screaming “I’m even more offended than you are”…

 

 

Comments (9)

  • Harry Law says:

    Stephen, “But to have that discussion we must have some guidance on the extent of the problem in order to fashion an appropriate raft of measures to tackle it. This of course we are prevented from doing by the Evans ban! And the EHRC report is no guidance here;”
    Here is the guidance from the EHRC.
    The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recent report on the British Labour party said “Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights ECHR] will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal party matters, such as the scale of anti Semitism within the party.”
    “We [the EHRC] note the approach of the Home Affairs Select Committee, namely that it is not anti Semitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, to criticise the Israeli government, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest anti Semitic intent.”

  • JVL web says:

    Before anyone writes in to say it is not Evans or Starmer who are being gagged, we do know that! We are suggesting that maybe they should be…

    And if you have a better idea for an image send it in!

  • goldbach says:

    All is becoming clear.
    “To point out that Jeremy’s statement was in no way antisemitic is now proof of “antisemitism”.”
    This reminds me of watching Senator Joseph McCarthy at work decades ago. If you don’t denounce someone who has had the finger pointed at him then you are also denounced ….. and then I see a reference to Kafka …… yes, The Trial.
    Oh, and we seem nowadays to have developed a Ministry of Truth.
    In my youth I simply regarded such stuff as something we had consigned to the past …….. but, as Tony Benn said, we keep having to fight the same battles again and again.

  • Excellent post by Stephen. I wish I could say the same of Harry Law.

    Please, please don’t quote from this flawed and insubstantial report. Bury it, don’t praise it.

    We now know from the Guardian that the Commissioner responsible for overseeing its production, Alasdair Henderson is a first class bigot – a homophobe, misogynist and a racist.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/nov/30/ehrc-board-member-under-scrutiny-over-social-media-use

    Henderson described those who took offence at the comments of Roger Scruton and Douglas Murray as “offence-taking zealots” who accused Roger Scruton of antisemitism, Islamophobia and homophobia.

    Scruton for those who are unaware believed that Black people were genetically less intelligent than Whites (‘the Bell Curve’) and he edited Salisbury Review – which was a publication that acted as a bridge between the Monday Club and the fascist right.

    The Report of the EHRC is rubbish. If Harry Law had continued to read on, then on p.30 he would have read that
    ‘Labour Party members told us that the comments by Ken Livingstone in relation to Naz Shah caused shock and anger among Jewish LP members. They felt his comments were appalling, highly offensive and very distressing.
    Thus Ken was guilty of ‘harassment’ as was Pam Bromley.

    Stop buying into our enemies discourse.

  • Edward Hill says:

    A persuasive picture of how the Labour Party ought to be, or perhaps used to be , but two interventions this year from outside the party have altered the climate for ‘reasoned political debate’. In January all leadership candidates accepfed the Board of Deputies’ 10 Pledges, adopting its fixed view of Labour antisemitism, rather than allowing members’ input. Now the EHRC has found the Party guilty of breaking the law, and put it on probation. In the two serious breaches of the 2010 Equality Act the initial complainants did more than ‘take offence’, they said the comments in question contributed to a “hostile” or “hostile and intimidating” environment for Jewish members. Under the Act if unwanted conduct “has the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, it is harassment. Perhaps the actions of Evans and Starmer should be seen in the light of convicts trying to go straight. Their way of avoiding re-offending is for the Party to adopt a quiet life. No discussion means no offence, no hostile environments, and no charges of harassment.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Between about two and three years ago someone on skwawkbox posted a link to the page on the Tory Party’s website in relation to members, saying that they – the Tory Party – have no jurisdiction over their members, which in the light of what was happening in the LP, it had never occured to me that that would be the case. BUT, once I KNEW that to be the case, it made perfect sense that the Tory Party wouldn’t want to upset their members by having such authority over them.

    Anyway, when I then checked out the page in question, all it said was something to the effect that if you believe a party member has broken the law in some way, please contact a solicitor. And THAT was it!

    Sometime later when I checked the page again (to link to a comment I was going to post on skwawkbox) it had all changed, and I realised of course that they felt compelled to change it so that they DID have an internal complaints system (that also included members, and not just politicians and staff) because of all that was going on in the LP regarding the ‘many thousands’ of claims of A/S being made against members.

    But THAT is how it SHOULD be – ie how the Tories had it before in respect of their members – because apart from anything else, any internal process – or even ‘independent’ process – is always open to factional ‘bias’. And that old chestnut – ‘Brought the Party in to disrepute’, or whatever.

    NB I mean I think just about ALL of us on the left are now aware that the ‘independent’ organisation that investigated the Labour Party ISN’T in the least bit ‘independent’, for example!

    PS I’m sure someone else could explain what I’m trying to say more clearly.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Afterthought: And if any allegation made against a member was then leaked to the media, then it would be down to the police, and one would hope much less likely to happen anyway, precisely because it would be.

  • DJ says:

    A very good article which has educational value. Those who try to shut down debate usually have weak arguments. The Israeli lobby want to cancel debate on ethnic cleansing and apartheid for obvious reasons. Their claim to be offended by critics of Israel is merely an attempt to hide the truth about the state they support.

  • Allan Howard says:

    (Re my 04.23 comment) OR, the person who made the complaint/allegation.

Comments are now closed.