7 February 2009

When is a racist not a racist...

Scottish Unionist is not alone in feeling that Jeremy Clarkson's most recent stumbling foray into the happy world of personal abuse was somehow racist in character.

I have to strongly disagree. It is crucial, I think, to maintain a bit of analytical distance between the various - perhaps objectionable - ways that people shove others into groups and generate stereotyped categories. While the Unionist agrees with Christine Graham - I think the perils of confusion in this area are made most explicit in her remarks on the subject:

“It is just abuse. It plays to the lowest, lowest denominators of society. You cannot make these racist remarks. If you were to substitute the phrase with ‘one-eyed black idiot’ or ‘one-eyed Muslim idiot’, I’m sure things would be different.”

She neatly identifies - albeit accidentally - the problem of catch-all notion of "racism" covering all forms of inter-group or identity-based slurs. Firstly, Scots are not a race. Only a few madcap Ossian-inspired loons would even claim such a thing. Crucially, however, black people aren't a different race either. There are no necessary, naturalised differences,between us whatever Bell-Curve brained goons might care to imagine. Certainly, the belief that there are such essential differences is racism. However, it strikes me as a bit rum - certainly rather optimistic - to suggest that the rubber-faced car enthusiast is expounding a racialised theory of essential , necessary differences on the grounds of "blood" or any other unit of heredity.

Obviously, to slyly deduce such a thing from a throwaway mention of Jockery in the context of idiocy is stretching credulity.

There are I think, good reasons for limiting our racialised vocabulary to describing those ideas and only those ideas which propound actual theories of races. Slagging off an "ethnic group" then, isn't racism. The only addendum to this being: "white" is not an ethnic group, whatever governmental statistic pickers care to imagine. Not that doing so can't be objectionable either. My point is that we are in danger of confusing ourselves by stirring different forms of cultural conflict into one big stinking pot marked "racism". Even much of the outrage has a tentative quality: seeming confused about what denunciatory vocabulary the fulminating few ought appropriately to impose on the situation.

The impression one is left with, I think, is that "racism" is being used as a handy term of abuse that serves to mask rather than make plain the nature of Clarkson's bandied invocation of "Scottish" and crucially, the nature of the disputants' disagreement with him using it. Also, there is a distinct possibility that this frontierless squeal of "racism", hemmed in by no conceptual limits - will paralyse legitimate criticism.

The second scene envisaged in Graham's quote provides a very concrete example of racism being employed in questions of religious differences. The fatuous idea of "Anti-Islamic Racism" derives precisely from this confusion, and the attempt to make "race" a catch-all, all-mutable ad hominem which we all ought to resist.

Ultimately, this Clarkson hoo-haa amounts to hee-haw. The responses, however, are an interesting expression of the luminous gloom still hanging around these issues in public life in Britain.

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