The politics of taking offence

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

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2 Comments on “The politics of taking offence”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    In schools it is simple, I feel. If it looks like bullying, sounds like bullying it probably is and should be dealt with.

  2. Vince Says:

    I think the argument runs something like if you are pro Palestinian and think what’s occurring to them as an abomination you are deemed to be on the antisemitic spectrum someplace.
    I am with “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall on this. And this is the stance the universities should take, all of them, whenever they encounter any attempt to trammel free speech. All this right-on googliness that’s percolated into our dealing with opinion we disagree is far more dangerous than having our aural aesthetic insulted.
    What would’ve occurred if Mein Kampf was banned from uni libraries. We wouldn’t be able to examine it, for it exhibited a system of thinking that was so plausible to a huge number of people in the west between the 20s and 40s. So how then would we know we are tracking down the same or similar paths. And we are by the way.
    What would’ve occurred if Das Kapital was banned. Then how soon before all islamic writings. Or the current focus of ire.

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