Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Racism and Lovephobia in Media and Ourselves

Posted by jembendell on April 6, 2018

WhatsApp groups are a strange thing. One minute people are wishing each other happy birthday and the next minute angrily debating current political flashpoints. You know, the ones we have all been told to debate by mass media. One group I belong to includes about 60 past participants on a Harvard Uni Global Leadership course. As you can imagine, we aren’t shy with sharing our views on politics. Today one member of the group posted a link to a recent article from The Economist magazine, and appended a comment:

“Nasty Corbyn”

The arguments around whether the leadership of the UK Labour party has done enough to challenge anti-semitism amongst its members or it’s wider supporters has been raging in the British media. It is not to deny that there is racism in Britain and political parties to point out that many of the opinions expressed by journalists and politicians on this subject are influenced by interests other than combatting racism. The problem with that is if it drowns out the opportunity for serious reflection on how any of us might be contributing to the problem of contemporary racism, including anti-semitism and then what to do about it.

This became clear to me after clicking through to that article in The Economist. For those of you who have read this magazine, you will know that their style is to try to convey an objectively-reasonable and factually-informed opinion. If you read it, you are being invited to think you are learning what is the most respectable opinion to have on any matter – not just economics.

The article made the argument that left-wing people are susceptible to anti-semitism and that the leader of the UK Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn will be incapable of ridding the party of such racism because he doesn’t care for minorities if they are not economically oppressed.  Given that Corbyn has been a lifelong anti-racism campaigner and risked arrest in doing that, I thought that was a rather weak and speculative analysis of his psyche. After googling I found that the Economist has also expressed concern about the far right and its influence on actual regulations in Eastern Europe from governments that the Conservative government of the UK is allied with politically within the European Parliament. Fair play, I thought, the Economist is criticizing any deviation from what it considers a Centrist viewpoint. But still something felt unhelpful and uncaring about the message in this article – as if the victims of racism were not the prime concern of the author. But I didn’t understand why I felt that and thought it just might be my own bias in what has become a conflictual debate, rather than an exploration of how we rid society of anti-semitism and racism.Angry1

I switched off my phone, as I had arrived a the group meditation I was going to. Some moments into the meditation I calmed down from that feeling of intellectual combat. Rather than thinking, I just began to feel compassion for everybody involved in this debate as well as the dignity and individuality of everybody being talked about in this debate. I’m bad at meditation in the sense that my thoughts don’t stop coming. But in this moment of compassion, one line from that Economist article came into my mind’s eye. Here it is:

“British Jews – particularly those who support Israel – are being marginalized in the Labour Party. There are three million Muslims in Britain compared with about 284,000 Jews and they are concentrated in areas vital for Labours future such as Birmingham and Manchester.”

 

In a flash I realized the subconscious racism of this statement and my own subconscious racism for not realizing that when I first read it. The sentence uses that typical Economist tone of offering numbers and (geographical) facts so you think it is merely describing reality, rather than their particular viewpoint. But do you see the unconscious racism in this argument from The Economist?  

If not, then you are not alone.

But if we are to overcome racism in society, we need to be able to examine at our own assumptions and how they are normalized by those with power such as an economist writer. As I meditated, I saw an image of one of my best friends and colleagues who worked for the Labour party during last year’s General Election. I saw him with one of his friends who he plays tennis with. He is a British Jew and she is a British Muslim. I am a British Christian and we have had fun times together.

Okay, semi-Christian, but you get my point?

The Economist writer and editor assumed that most Muslims in Britain dislike Jewish people. Moreover they assume that most Muslims in Britain would dislike political leaders who fight anti-semitism. Really? Let’s look at that sentence again.

“British Jews – particularly those who support Israel – are being marginalized in the Labour Party. There are three million Muslims in Britain compared with about 284,000 Jews and they are concentrated in areas vital for Labours future such as Birmingham and Manchester.”

The argument is predicated on the view that politicians do not choose policies and priorities based on values or what is good for the country, but on pure electoral calculation. That can be debated. But the Economist invites you to assume that the Labour Party is cynical. Their key racism, however, is to suggest that a significant majority of 3 million people will have a negative view of almost 300000 people and any politician who supports them purely because of religion. They don’t qualify the statement, so they could be implying that ALL Muslims should be assumed to have that kind of negative view of all Jewish people.

Despite me knowing Muslims and Jews in Britain, and not experiencing racism from them towards each other at any point in my life, and me witnessing Muslim-Jewish friendships amongst my own friends, I did not immediately see this racism from The Economist.  Therefore I cannot blame the person who wrote it, the person who edited it, or the person who shared it, or the people who did not immediately object to it. Instead, I could point this out to friends and colleagues, in a harmless way, such as a blog post.

Aha!

But before I click publish,  I should take a moment to dig deeper: to inquire into the complex reality of race relations and what to do about it.

A quick search led me to a study on anti-semitic opinion in Britain today. It found that on average Muslims express some anti-semitic views slightly more than the average in the UK. But the same study found that those who described themselves as far right are two to four times more likely to express anti-semitic opinions. In addition I found that one of the key questions used in the study to demonstrate increased likelihood of anti-Semitic views from Muslims was actually flawed. They asked for agreement or not with the statement. “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person.” The question is flawed because minorities in the UK may be more aware that any minority is less likely to be universally considered as “British” as a non minority. Let’s say you are a British Jew: you may be aware that British Pakistanis may not be seen by all Britosh people as British as any other British person. This question could have avoided that with a slight change into: “A British Jew should be considered just as British as any other British person.” Yes, a bit too much detail for a blog, but I’m an academic so I can’t let methodoligical mess-ups pass me by.  The result from the flawed question was that 80% of British Christians agreed and 61% of British Muslims agreed.

I also saw that different journalists had selectively chosen what data to present to tell the race-based story they wanted to tell. Which is why I wont link to them here as I havent got the time to pick apart all their mis-statements. 

The reality is that there is some racism in most organizations in all societies. Which is bad. But there is also a majority of non racist people. Which is good. That the Economist would make such a statement as they did, without validation, shows but they are not exempt from the problem of racism. The way for us to overcome this problem is blocked by both our pride and the desire to reaffirm our existing positions. Yet we should avoid reducing the individuality of people due to a category of identity just so that we can make a self-serving argument.

This insight on the racist assumption of views of Muslims in the UK was not difficult for me to arrive at. It involved me sitting still and breathing deeper than normal. Not tough. That enabled me to drop the feeling of combat and look at everyone with compassion and respect. It made me realize we often have a phobia of feeling such love towards each other. Because some of us have a phobia of not being right all the time. Yet there is no escaping this issue in the field of identity politics. Because the universal value that invites us to respect everybody no matter their religion, race, creed, gender, orientation or politics, is that everyone has their own dignity regardless of any identity ascribed to them. 

We need to be alert to anti-semitism and racism everywhere. We can always improve – all of us. To do that we need to overcome our “lovephobia”. By which I mean we can chill out and move into a spirit of compassion to all, thereby forgiving mistaken opinions and combative approaches, so we can raise the discussion to something more powerful. So I look forward to more celebrations of the inter-religious solidarity that I know exists in Britain today. It’s something I love about the country.

So how might we celebrate that? Here is an idea… A video of Muslim and Jewish friends reading that Economist article together and wondering if they aren’t meant to campaign together against capitalist exploitation.

I’d enjoy posting that in the WhatsApp Group.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: