Jim Jepps examines today’s so called twitter controversy and asks whether Diane Abbott is a racist or facing a backlash of racism.

One unexpected aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence murder convictions is the vilification of the first female black MP, Diane Abbott, who has the unasked for distinction of being at the center of a ‘race’ storm. It is particularly perverse that the media headlines should move from the deadly serious topic of justice delayed and racist murder to an ill-judged tweet so quickly and with equal vigour.

The BBC reported that Diane Abbott, one of Hackney’s three MPs, tweeted “‘White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game” which some Tories (a party not entirely renown for its anti-racist credentials) took to be racist bigotry against white people.

Sadly Abbott has now deleted the offending tweet but it actually read “@bimadew ’White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism” and by removing the preceding ‘at’ and concluding ‘hashtag’ the BBC have inadvertently distorted the meaning of what was being said.

There’s some justification for removing the first ‘at’ as it would probably have led to Hackney journalist Bim Adewunmi (@bimadew) being deluged in the media storm (which she was anyway, as explained here). There is no justification though for not informing readers that a) the tweet was part of an ongoing conversation and b) the tweet contained a hashtag, which serves as a shorthand to give some wider political context to the remark – which, on a site that only allows 140 characters per tweet, is a crucial piece of information.

Was Abbott right?

Historically British colonialism has played a game of divide and rule among those it sought to subjugate (including at home) and sadly the racist mark of that legacy is still with us today. It’s perfectly legitimate to discuss that legacy.

It’s also crucial to recognise that a discussion that takes place on twitter is often clumsy, due to the medium itself, no matter how careful the tweeter is. Twitter users are forgiving of these necessary imperfections, those less accustomed to the site are less aware that each tweet is not a fully thought through and polished statement of the speaker’s politics. The media is too focused on a short-termist agenda of catching people red handed in a “gaffe” to recognise that nuance and context.

As adults we should not pull out single sentences from people’s arguments and subject them to a detailed forensic analysis devoid of context or, in the BBC’s case, devoid of even the entire tweet. By removing the word colonialism from their quote the BBC make the evidence look far more damning than it actually is, although in fairness while the full tweet does not appear in the text of the article, further down the piece they display a picture of the full tweet with @ and hashtag.

While it’s perfectly possible to be bigoted or chauvinist against white people, and that’s not a good look, there’s no real evidence to think that Abbott has that failing. It’s important to state that right now is not the time to get oversensitive about the feelings of a small section of white people who feel their civil liberties are under threat because they aren’t allowed to be racist anymore.

 

Political culture

While I should be used to the butterfly mind of today’s media I still find myself kicking against it. With the ink still wet on the convictions of two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers the focus of most media outlets should be on whether we as a society, and the police in particular, have learned our lessons from these tragic events. Sadly it was not to be and we have quickly moved from real meat to a bit of meaningless puff.

Treating tweets as news is bizarre but it is not a surprise that the complaints originally came from members of the Conservative Party who have rarely been at the forefront of fighting racism, or even gently coughing against it. It is extremely worrying that at a time when there are still unequal divisions in pay, housing, services and opportunities we find respected media outlets indulging in a false row about ‘inverse racism’ against white people.

But it isn’t just the media. Twitter itself loves a good scandal. Whether it’s false reports of Fidel Castro dying, preempting murder investigations or faux outrage at Melanie Phillips it seems prone to get itself into an ill-informed lather, and that’s us to blame. The twitter rumour mill was particularly dangerous during August’s riots when a false report could take wings and even find itself being passed on by the media.

That implies that we need to do our best to improve our political culture by developing a network of trusted sources and by ensuring that each of us is endevouring to be a trusted source, resisting the urge to stick the boot into our ‘enemies’ before knowing all the facts, without passing on convenient rumours before checking if they are true and by keeping a sense of proportion between what is ‘news’ and what are ‘remarks’ by people in the ‘news’.

 

Conclusion

Diane Abbott has apologised to anyone who was offended by the tweet although it seems she has little to apologise for. It is the reporting from sections of the media that made the tweet out to be more than simply one part of a longer, reasonable conversation.

She also received a dressing down from her leader.  A fellow Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, said that ”Ed Miliband has spoken to her this morning and made it very clear in no uncertain terms that the contents of the tweet were unacceptable.” It’s a shame that Mr Miliband, who used to go by the nick name ‘brains’ is incapable of either understanding context or loyalty on this occasion.

We need to think about how to tackle the real problems we face today and, by discussing the legacy of colonialism, Abbott was engaging in that debate. Those Tory MPs who are jumping up and down about this fake scandal are deliberately trying to prevent that discussion taking place, the media should not indulge them.

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8 Comments

  1. Bill says:

    I look forward to reading this same article when a white Tory MP makes the same comments about black people. Oh wait, no you won’t, you’ll be frothing with rage and demanding his resignation. Leftist apologism for racism just doesn’t fly with the electorate I’m afraid.

  2. Anna says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the same article with the spelling and grammar corrected. Come on Jim, it’s really off-putting!

  3. Caroline says:

    I don’t know her personally but I’ve followed her career, and we have mutual friends, I don’t entirely agree with her politics but I know that she has campaigned for better race relations and social cohesion since the 80′s, which in my mind is admirable given that spends many of her waking hours in the house of commons surrounded in white, upper class, public school educated, excessively right wing men. Is there an institution anywhere else in the UK that is the bastion of colonialism that parliament is?

  4. Jim Jepps says:

    Bill: you’ve chosen the wrong person to level that accusation at I’m afraid.

    I was making myself unpopular just last month by arguing that Clarkson’s remarks on strikers were being taken out of context and the left should not be wasting time and energy on them. I also defended Ken Clarke when he made his ill-judged comments about rape asking people to keep things in proportion.

    I can’t remember the last time I called for someone’s resignation. If I ever have it was a long, long time ago and it would have been over something real not a remark.

    Anna: apologies, I’m trying to get on top of it. I’ve corrected this article. You’re right, it is off putting.

    I’m normally very careful but seem to have slipped up a few times in the last month. I blame the aging the process. Sadly there’s no money in the kitty for a sub-editor.

    Caroline: I think you’re right there. Abbott has done more to reduce racism in this country than any of her current critics ever have, which is why I’m inclined to take her side on this occasion.

  5. I have to say that I have issues with the rather sweeping assertion that British colonialism was founded on divide and rule. I’m sure there are examples but there are also exceptions.
    Two notable ones spring to mind. The first was in India where in the run up to independence the British authorities pushed for India to remain a diverse but united political entity. The impetus for partition came from Muhammad Ali Jinnah leader of the all India Muslim league and the founding Governor General of Pakistan. His intransigence played a key part in the bloodbath of partition and, arguably, the political process he started eventually led to the split with East Pakistan and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the Bangladesh Independence War.
    The second is Malaya (or Malaysia as it eventually became). There the British were constantly trying to manage ethnic conflicts not lleast between the Malay majority and the large numbers of Chinese migrant workers who came to the Malay peninsular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
    British attempts to set up the Malayan Union in 1946 were strongly opposed by Malays as it gave citizenship to non Malays and reduced the power of the country’s nine hereditary ruling families. In the run up to independence in 1957 the British insisted that they wanted representatives of the three main ethic groups to work together – Malay, Chiunese and ‘Indian’ (predominantly Tamil) represented by three ethnic political parties; UMNO, the MCA and the MIC.
    I interviewed Umasundari Sambanthan the widow of V.T. Sambanthan who led the Malayan Indian Congress during the independence negotiations and beyond. She was quite adamant that the British were determined to knock heads together to get the three parties to work together. Indeed the three parties which formed ‘The Alliance” in 1951 and subsequently formed the core of the Barisan Nasional – the two coalitions having ruled Malaysia continuously since independence.
    The irony is that contemporary Malaysian government politicians are masters of divide and rule with UMNO in particular routinely using threatening language, waving Malay daggers and raising the spectre of race war if the minority communities make a fuss about the wholesalle discrimination they face.
    And when I challenged UMNO politicians over this they’d routinely retort that they’d learned divide and rule from the British as though this were a justification notwithstanding the fact that if one talked to the better respected Malaysian historians and political sciientists they’d pour scorn on the idea and point out that it wasn’t true.
    So along with an end to lazy generalisations about race I’d like to see an end to lazy generalisations about history.

  6. Anna says:

    Thanks Jim – I also blame the ‘ageing’ process ;) I’ll be your sub-editor if you like!

  7. Jim Jepps says:

    Jonathon. I’m not sure if I’m being picky here – if so apologies.

    When I said “Historically British colonialism has played a game of divide and rule among those it sought to subjugate (including at home)” I don’t think I was implying it was *founded* on divide and rule but that divide and rule is one tactic used by those who seek to subjugate others, including here in the UK, but not the only tactic.

    When Britain was negotiating its managed withdrawal from India and other colonies it was extremely successful at retaining its assets and business interests while relaxing political control. This was something that the French were much poorer at who tended to refuse to leave until kicked out and would thus lose those assets entirely (there are exceptions but I think the general sweep is true).

    I know next to nothing about Malaya though – but as I wasn’t attempting to set up a general rule I’m relaxed if it doesn’t hold up as an example of divide a rule – just murder and rule I guess. However both of those examples are from the end of colonial rule, not its general condition.

    Regardless, getting back to Abbott we should remember that she was having a twitter conversation so each 140 character snap shot will always be a truncated version of what she thinks so we shouldn’t be too hard about generalisations as that is the nature of the medium.

    ——

    Anna: I’m sending you an email to take up your kind offer even though my dictionary tells me aging is acceptable (although I suspect it’s generally regarded as American English).

    :)

  8. The comment about the British retaining business assets is entirely fair and was very much the case in Malaya. However in many cases those were assets that had been developed by British companies – Malaya grew rich on rubber – rubber trees were brought there by British business people.
    During the 70s and 80s there was a wave of nationalisation in Malaysia – in some cases it was less nationalisation than a state aided asset grab by people well connected to the ruling party.
    I think my broad point is that the British Empire, outside Africa at least, was rather more benign than some commentators on the left would have, though rather less so that many on the right fancy.
    The most interesting thing though, and I found William Dalrymple’s book White Moguls hinted at this, was how a ‘philosophical’ framework emerged to support grabbing others land and natural resources.
    It wasn’t so much that racism preceeded colonialism as that it followed it and arose to provide a justification of what was happening, and still, if you look through our history, you find the strongest tradition in our politics, going back 250 years or more, of liberal British statesmen standing against the worst of what was happening in the colonies.
    The reality of what happened is far far more fascinating than the simplistic reduction that some modern politicians prefer.

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