The trouble with “tropes”, in the age of high-velocity discourse analysis

Gerald Scarfe caroon, January 2013. Vicious and brutal – without doubt. But legitimate comment or “shockingly reminiscent of blood libel imagery…”?

JVL Introduction

Tropes are slippery things. One person’s critical comment becomes to someone else a slap-in-the-face assault. Those searching for signs of antisemitism have become very adept at finding them.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg offers some thoughts on this fraught topic suggesting: “The important question to ask is not ‘can I spot an anti-Semitic trope in this rhetoric’. Rather it is ‘is this the most useful framework through which to interpret this person’s words’.

And he concludes with some thoughts about how to survive in a world characterised by “high-velocity, crowd-sourced discourse analysis”.

This article was originally published by Medium on Sat 4 Jul 2020. Read the original here.

The trouble with “tropes”, in the age of high-velocity discourse analysis

The question of what somebody’s words mean is dissimilar to the question of whether there is an elephant in my living room. For all practical purposes, the answer to the latter is demonstrably true or false.

When it comes to interpretation, the important distinction is not true or false but “can” or should”. A phrase , a fact or an event can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. But that doesn’t make every interpretation useful. Some interpretations may coherently draw upon facts, but nonetheless obscure more than they illuminate.

Take Labour’s election defeat in 2019. I could make a coherent, fact-referencing argument that Labour lost because voters in the North were put off by Corbyn’s mostly-Southern accent. However, I will make no such case, since I do not think this interpretation illuminates very much at all.

When it comes to the charges of anti-Semitism that have been aimed at the labour left, and more recently at parts of the BLM movement, there are some some truths, and some outright lies, but most of the things we’re dealing with are arguable interpretations of other people’s rhetoric.

What comes up again and again is the question of “tropes”, and specifically the claim that criticisms that are formally levelled against Israel or Zionism may incorporate slanders that have historically been aimed at Jewish people. First let me be clear: this is a thing. “Zionist” does get used as a euphemism for Jew. However, whilst this can be very obvious when it’s some casualty-of-the-90s-rave-scene dribbling about the Rothschilds, the subject matter is not usually this clear cut.

One thing that makes it a messy business is the sheer diversity of anti-Semitic myth. Jew hatred has sprung up in a very wide variety of social and political contexts — from Norman England, to peasant Russia to the upper echelons of Parisian society. The “global Jewish conspiracy” has at once been seen as communist and capitalist. In short Jews have been accused of an astounding variety of crimes.

And then you have Israel whose actual crimes are many and multifaceted, from day-to-day violence, to the theft of resources, to the construction of an apartheid regime.

It is therefore almost inevitable that as well as the undercover mobilization of anti-semitic myths, there will also be innocent crossover — that genuine criticism of the Israeli state will touch on some of the same topics as current or historic attacks against the Jews. And this is where the business of trope-spotting can obscure more than it illuminates.

The important question to ask is not “can I spot an anti-Semitic trope in this rhetoric”. Rather it is “is this the most useful framework through which to interpret this person’s words”. Take Maxine Peake’s claim that Israeli security forces educated American police in the restraint technique that led to to George Floyd’s death.

You could argue that this was muffled way of reiterating the myth that Jews exercise dodgy cross-border influence. Or you could, as per some interpretations doing the rounds, connect it with the blood libel, despite Peake’s claim involving neither the killing of children nor the consumption of blood. Or you could see it as someone who has a longer record of anti-racism and internationalism making a connection between the counter-insurgency techniques of two allied, and deeply racist, regimes. To me, the final interpretation is really obviously the most plausible and sensible.

Then there’s the case @UKBLM — one of the two biggest online manifestations of the British Black Lives Matter movement. They have been under attack for the past week for tweeting:

“As Israel moves forward with the annexation of the West Bank, and mainstream British politics is gagged of the right to critique Zionism, and Israel’s settler colonial pursuits, we loudly and clearly stand beside our Palestinian comrades.”

Now in some quarters this was interpreted as reiteration of the myth that Jews control the media. Yet to me it is obvious that this tweet can be much better understood as a reference to RLBs sacking days earlier.

The politics of words has always been a messy business. Yet it has been been made much messier by the digitisation of the written word — and with it the rise of high-velocity, crowd-sourced discourse analysis.

To go back to my original example: I don’t want to push an unilluminating interpretation of why Labour lost because I’d like them to succeed. In the past we overwhelmingly had access to the words of those with whom we had some alignment. Or if not, to the words of people who we’d invested some time in understanding. In order to encounter the potentially controversial words of a right-wing Telegraph journalist, I would have needed to regularly purchase the Telegraph.

Now, however, things are very different. We have unprecedented capacity to scan through the words of those whom we might regard as our enemies and those whom we have invested little time in understanding. What’s more, it all takes place across crowded, highly gamified, high velocity platforms in which most things are unseen by most people, and interpretations rise to the visible surface based on their capacity to attract immediate attention. And what’s more, it happens in front of an audience that is primed for money shots of bad people doing bad things. This is where “Big Brother” the current of televised entertainment meets “big brother” the crowd-sourced panopticon.

This, btw, is why arguments around “cancel culture” — both for and against — miss the mark if they treat it as a closed phenomenon operating purely within the confines of the left. It is not simply a manifestation of the political weaknesses of the “identitarian left”. Nor is it simply the latest iteration of egalitarian resistance. It needs to be understood as the left variant of a much wider trend; of a trashily accusatory spirit arising from a particular technological moment; of the kind of thing that happens when the cost of critique has been reduced to something approaching zilch.

I cannot offer a solution to all of the above. But i can offer some thoughts on how to navigate this weird world. The first is: don’t expect that you can keep your hands spotless. RLB’s endorsement of the BOD’s pledges turned out to be something of hostage to fortune. In truth, you cannot maintain a lively engagement with current affairs whilst guarding absolutely against the possibility that something you say will be interpreted, by someone somewhere, as a misdemeanour. Secondly, think twice before giving a verbal kicking to a complete stranger based mostly on the interpretation offered by another complete stranger. And thirdly, let’s do what we can to support and build up the left’s independent communications infrastructure. The less that politics is mediated through the gamified mega-platforms and the click-hungry commercial press the better.

Comments (12)

  • dave says:

    A good piece but accusers trawling for tropes know full well that in most cases antisemitism has nothing to do with it, and the decision makers also know this when they send suspension letters to socialist Labour members. It’s a pretext, and the real battle lies in the politics we have all be fighting for many years.

    Eventually, trawling for tropes will die down, probably according to what happens in Israel, but it will be replaced by other things.

  • Harry Law says:

    “Or you could, as per some interpretations doing the rounds, connect it [M Peake’s comments] with the blood libel, despite Peake’s claim involving neither the killing of children nor the consumption of blood”.
    Peake’s comment “is patently not antisemitic. Israel is neither a Jew nor the representative of the Jewish people collectively – except in the imaginations of antisemites and the hardcore Zionists who people the Israel lobby” [Jonathan Cooke].
    The question at issue here is can the state of Israel be criticized by anyone without being called an anti-Semite? Keir Starmer has called Ms Peake an anti-Semite a very serious allegation which has the potential to ruin her career, witness the calls in the Daily Mail and the Sun to ban Ms Peake and never use her again, plus over 800 mainly negative comments, if a bully like Keir Starmer thinks he can abuse someone on a false allegation of anti-Semitism everyone is at risk and we will be entering the American McCarthy era, have you now or have you ever in the past criticized the Israeli state?

  • David Hawkins says:

    “Zionist does get used as a euphemism for Jew”
    Really I have yet to find an example. Please provide one.
    The vast majority Zionists in the Labour Party are not Jews and the anti Zionists that have influenced me most, Sholomo Sand, Gideon Levy, Ilan Pappe, Jacky Walker are all Jews. I don’t object to Zionism because some of the advocates are Jews, I object to Zionism because it is a racist ideology that deprived 85 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population of Israel of their homes in 1948 for the sole reason that they came from the wrong race. I judge Jews by EXACTLY the same standard as Gentiles. If you are a racist and particularly if you engage in violent ethnic cleansing then you are a disgusting human being. There are absolutely no excuses for being a racist. Past abuse does not entitle you to become an abuser.

  • Iain says:

    Presumably that´s why IHRA guidelines state that the overall context should be taken into account to determine if a statement (or action?) is actually antisemitic.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I am not sure I get what is being talked about. I don’t understand what is meant by ‘is this the most useful framework through which to interpret this person’s words?’ Useful to whom or for what purpose? Who decides? There is no objective answer here – no elephant that is or isn’t in the room. Surely a better question is: where is the independent evidence that can be produced to suggest that Maxine Peake was thinking ‘this’ rather than ‘that’? And as in a great many of the Labour Party so-called antisemitism cases, evidence is there none.

    On the other hand, I do like the idea of ‘ . . . a trashily accusatory spirit . . . .the kind of thing that happens when the cost of critique has been reduced to something approaching zilch’. That covers so much, from Trump, to Johnson, to the so many of the supposed antisemitism spotters.

  • John Webster says:

    Finding ‘excuses’ to use to ‘legitimately’ accuse your enemy of heinous crimes in order to get rid of them is as old as the hills. It features in the Old Tesrtament. When you fail to rebut them, you fail. Politics is crude but one thing is clear. You have to dominate the narrative. Nice as he was, I always felt that Corbyn was stunningly underqualified as a bruiser. The mass of people instinctively see through false claims but if they have little confidence in the person who is targeted by them, they will not disturb their intellects too much to think about it. Corbyn’s biggest failing – and that of those advising him – was not to fight back.

  • Harry Law says:

    The Labour party never fought back against the anti-Semitism allegations, witness this pathetic sight at a Labour Party husting hosted by the JLM just before the last General election.
    Robert Peston…. Do you regard it as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, is that an anti-Semitic statement?
    RL Bailey.. Yes
    Peston.. So J Corbyn presented to the NEC a document in which he wanted the NEC to approve which would have said that statement is not anti-Semitic, that was a disgrace wasn’t it?
    RL Bailey… I can’t remember the exact words…… huge laughter from the audience followed by a shouting rant from Peston.
    RL Bailey was humiliated and clearly out of her depth but then so were all the other candidates or stooges.

  • Vera Lustig says:

    Excellent piece; so many good points. At the risk of expulsion from the Labour Party, I’d take issue with the lack of quote marks round the word “myth” in the author’s “reiterating the myth that Jews exercise dodgy cross-border influence”. Read Jeff Halper’s “The War Against the People” to learn more about Israel’s role in policing, surveillance and oppression worldwide. I rest my case.

  • Vera Lustig says:

    To Harry Law, posting on 10 July at 11:12 : thanks for the link to the JLM hustings. What a shameful episode. I wish RLB had had the courage to say no to Robert Peston’s question about the supposedly anti-Semitic statement. But that would have required immense courage in the face of a witch-hunt and of the acquiescence of her fellow candidates.

  • DJ says:

    That televised hustling was an ambush. The leadership candidates should not have agreed to it. The audience did not include a full cross section of the Jewish community including JVL and nobody from the Palestinian community in the UK was invited to attend. Furthermore the chair was clearly not impartial. The ITV should ashamed.

  • Liz verran says:

    I’m neither a Jew nor a Labour supporter but I totally support your wise words. I’ve come across this with my nuanced views in feminism and trans. We need people to stop and see the shades of grey in issues.

  • ruby lescott says:

    Oh dear, John Webster, it breaks my heart to say so, but your succinct summing up of Corbyn – “was stunningly underqualified as a bruiser” – is sadly right. (As leader, he often reminded me of when my husband made the mistake of becoming head of a very run-down school where the children ran amok. All the staff, from teachers to cleaners to dinner servers, kept saying “what we need is a strong man. ” Being a kindly, non-abrasive soul like JC, believing in co-operation, not confrontation, he only lasted a couple of terms, and went back to class teaching, at which he was brilliant.) The question is, why do we NEED a bruiser? Our seemingly unchangeable DNA demands a king, a god, a Big Daddy,a powerful ‘leader’ – and it’s been our ruination. (I’m sorry to digress from the main topic here).

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