Conversing not culture-warring

Norman Geras has written a response to my post about Richard Dawkins. This is my reply to him.

It’s important to make clear what the difference between us is. I’m not looking to defend Dawkins’ remark, and I said as much in my post. Nor am I saying that it was unreasonable for Norm to take him to task for saying it, as I also made clear. I am criticising the manner in which he did it.

Norm lays out his objections to my sentence: “the really important question is: Is Richard Dawkins an antisemite?”

I accept his reasons for doing so: he’s right. What I should have said is: “a really important question is: Is Richard Dawkins an anti-Semite?”

Norm agrees: “I’m not saying the attitude with which the act is carried out doesn’t matter. It does.”

I stand by my complaint that it was incumbent on him (and the other writers I mentioned) when discussing such an important topic as racism in public life, to address this side of the coin.

Norm has written about the power of racist language, the potency of words and symbols, and their impact beyond the intended meaning of those who use them. My point is complementary to his: it is about the power of anti-racist language, and the need for accuracy and appropriateness. Here too, precise words matter.

Norm looks at Richard Dawkins’ comment, and considers its implications when taken at face value (and very ugly they are too). It seems only fair to do the same for Norm’s original post. He said: “Dawkins’s organization is to be called the ‘Out Campaign’. What, not the ‘Association for Propagating Poisonous Myths’?”

Taken literally, the scenario conjured up is one where Richard Dawkins has set up an international organisation devoted to spreading poisonous myths about Jews. i.e not only is he an anti-Semite, but an obsessive, evangelising anti-Semite.

I don’t suggest for a nanosecond that Norm actually believes anything so ludicrous, and he now explains – unnecessarily – that he meant it facetiously. But had I, Norm-like, written a post in which I addressed “only a question about the character of what he said”, divorced from the related questions of why he said it, or what he actually thinks, then that’s where we would leave it. Would that be fair to him, or to this site’s readers? Or would I have been remiss?

So, when Norm writes: “my concern wasn’t to state, imply, assume, that Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite”, I’m bound to observe that is the literal implication of his words nevertheless. His lack of concern about it is *precisely* the source of my complaint.

Norm insists that his intention wasn’t to discuss Dawkins’ opinions at all, but simply to “register” the nature of his words. But Normblog isn’t some neutral depository of information, it’s the weblog of an influential opinion-former. People visit it, in large numbers, and leave with their ideas about the world modified. Therefore Norm’s words, like Dawkins’, are liable to have consequences beyond his immediate aims.

There has been a discussion taking place in the blogosphere about Richard Dawkins: not about his words in isolation, but also about the man himself, and specifically his attitudes to Jews. Some writers have levelled accusations of outright bigotry at him, a few others have come to his defence. Despite now stating that he had no intention of discussing this question at all, Norm’s first post has nevertheless been understood by some as coming down on the side of the prosecution. (A look at Technorati confirms this point.)

Is Norm responsible for the meanings that other people read into his words? To the extent that this reaction was entirely foreseeable, yes he is. By focussing exclusively on half of the issue (Dawkins’ words), and leaving his readers to fill in the remaining blanks according to taste, he unwittingly suggested a conclusion that he himself sees no reason to accept.

He now says “I don’t know [Dawkins] at all, but I would be surprised to discover that he was [an anti-Semite].” For myself, I’d be flabbergasted. That doesn’t excuse his words, and I’ve never said that it does. But it is obviously relevant to their ordinary digestion: interpreting them in context, trying to discern their intended meaning, and so on. It strongly suggests my “foot in mouth” hypothesis over, for instance, Daniel Finkelstein’s: that “Dawkins… believes… that Jews control world power.”

Says Norm:
“Prejudice is not only carried in people’s minds; it resides in language, it resides in symbols, it can be part of certain institutional practices…. Racism is more than an attitude or a set of emotions, though it is these things. But there is also a language of prejudice, there are forms of words that come to be associated with particular racisms…”

I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. Furthermore, I believe that it has consequences for anyone (such as Norm or myself) who opposes racism: when you are confronted with a racist incident and wish to discuss or counteract it, you need to consider its nature with some care. This might not be straightforward: racists may go to great lengths to conceal their true views; non-racists may use racist language through carelessness, or whatever; there are endless other examples.

I’m certainly not arguing that blind eyes need – ever – be turned. What I’m proposing is a “horses for courses” approach to racist language. The neo-Nazi needs exposing and excluding from the public sphere. The naif who unintentionally uses a racist term needs taking aside and having the error of his ways politely explained. In between is a whole spectrum of accidental, unconscious, and conscious bigotry. Anyone wishing to combat it should tailor their criticism to the case in hand.

To sum up, I’m in total agreement with Norm that racism is a complex and subtle matter, concealing itself within common language and culture, just as much as in the clear, conscious opinions of any individual. But my conclusion is that those of us who wish to combat it must be sensitive to this subtlety, and in turn mindful of our own use of language.

Norm wasn’t. He tossed out a one-size-fits-all, facetious accusation of anti-Semitism. Well I say it didn’t fit.

Postscript: Norm says the following in his response to my post:

“The only puzzle here is why some people think that in one case and one case alone, namely that of anti-Semitism, you have no evidence for it unless you have an overt expression of hatred or an act of discrimination or violence.”

I don’t know if “here” in the first sentence is a reference to his and my discussion, or if “some people” includes me. But if so, then I reject this allegation.

  1. Confused nonsense piled upon yet more confused nonsense!

    What on earth does “racist” mean? Does it mean dislike of an entire group based on their ethnicity? Or can it include *admiration* on the same basis? Or are we supposed to banish the whole notion of ethnicity and the fact that certain generalised claims can be made concerning their nature? Can one dislike a group as a political and social entity but still like individuals and if so is one still a ‘racist’? And where does ethnicity end and nationality begin? Is it ‘racist’ to dislike a nation of people? Was I a racist when I disliked Germans in the 1940s and the southern Irish in the ’80s and ’90s? Or am I to be granted a sort of absolution on the grounds that many of then were trying to kill me and mine and honestly I just didn;t have the time to go throught them one by one to pick out the ‘goodies’ from the ‘baddies’?

    Is it now a requirement before entering polite society to *like* everyone? Or is it only necessary not to mention one’s dislikes, in the manner of Victorian ladies avoiding the subject of sex? I, like everyone else I have ever known, dislike quite a few people. Why is it especially wicked (assuming it is wicked at all!) to dislike groups of people?

    And why shouldn’t the Jews try and control the world, everyone else with half a chance has tried to do it?

    Finally, is it really better that we never find out which people are nursing a dislike of other groups of people because they make sure never to let their guard drop in case they are pounced on by the thought police and banished into the outer ring of Hell by the likes of our host?

    Let people speak their minds and then we can all make our own judgements.

  2. Larry said:

    David, thanks for adding yet more confused nonsense on top of the pile.

  3. dsquared said:

    I think that the basic point is that everyone needs to be very careful about the implications of the words they use, apart from Norman Geras, who is allowed to chuck accusations around with impunity, and then to decide what he *really* meant in retrospect and act all arsey if anyone should choose to argue against what he has later decided is an erroneous interpretation of his words. It’s sort of like playing chess against an annoying twelve year old who keeps deciding to take back something he did four moves ago[1].

    [1] this meaningless analogy is by way of a tribute to Manchester’s greatest man of letters.