Shifty words and shifting attitudes to race

I understand Green's outrage: expressions like 'these people' are often used to disguise prejudice
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The Independent Online

God bless the BBC for revealing the putrid politics of the BNP, all too well disguised under good suits and polished rhetoric. But thank heaven for the BNP too. Their obvious villainy and repugnant racism brought most of the country together in one collective chant of disapproval. We all understood the wrong here.

God bless the BBC for revealing the putrid politics of the BNP, all too well disguised under good suits and polished rhetoric. But thank heaven for the BNP too. Their obvious villainy and repugnant racism brought most of the country together in one collective chant of disapproval. We all understood the wrong here.

Mingy right-wing nationalists, nostalgic Little Englanders (Michael Howard, Peter Hitchins) joined with New Labour apparatchiks and New Imperialists (Peter Hain and the whole Cabinet) to condemn the BNP. Then Barclays decided to close BNP accounts. When did banks ever put ethics first? How cleansing was this national moment; how clear and unambiguous, too.

The rest of the time we appear in a state of perpetual unease and conflict as previous certainties, rules and myths are questioned and sometimes dismantled. The various tribes of this nation know cohabitation means they must try to do better than merely tolerate each other. Women, faith groups, older citizens, black and Asian Britons, young urbanites and other forces are turning over the dominant culture.

The rules of engagement and of speech itself shift all the time. The result? Confusion and resentment circulating aimlessly and everyone feels victimised by the pressures of having to change. Meanwhile all groups crave victim status and exemption from comment or criticism.

Just consider this latest furore over anti-Semitism. Philip Green, the business tycoon, last Tuesday turned up at the Dorchester for dinner. He warmly greeted Jeff Randall, the BBC business editor. Nearby was that huffy and puffy aristo, Nicholas Soames, the Tory spokesperson for defence. Unprovoked, Soames allegedly roared: "Now we know how it works. There will be favourable coverage in the BBC tomorrow. We know how these people work, don't we?" Green took this last remark as a slur on his Jewishness. Soames says this accusation is "simply rubbish".

How to adjudicate this episode? The sentence has other possible interpretations which are not anti-Semitic and may even be accurate in a generalised way. The media undoubtedly operates through networks and favours, and moneyed people and politicians are able to exploit these. It is also incontrovertible that the watch looking out for anti-Semitism claims the evil everywhere and that this disables valid censure of Israeli government policies and of individuals such as Shirley Porter and Robert Maxwell.

Sadly, politicised Muslims emulate these techniques and calculatedly blur the difference between real Islamophobes - people who fear and hate Muslims and Islam - and those who seek a critical discourse on the activities of some British Muslims. Inevitably the apologists in all such camps incessantly complain about each other and the "censorship" they are able to enforce.

But I understand Green's outrage too. Expressions like "these people" or "you people" or "you lot" are often used by middle- and upper-class bigots to disguise their prejudices. These routine expressions deliver the poison lightly, politely. Unlike the more upfront BNP, whose hatred you can touch and slap. I have just had a letter from a reader who writes: "The pity is your mother didn't abort you. We English have had to suffer you people long enough."

So was Soames suggesting that powerful Jews control everything - one of the enduring myths of the world and readily promoted by English, Arab, black, French and other Jew haters? How can we know for sure?

Does it matter?

Yes, absolutely. As Professor Stuart Hall writes: "Our relationship to reality is always mediated through language and that language is therefore central to the operations of power." Why should any group have to put up with demeaning language? Does anyone but the BNP miss the right to call us "wogs" and "niggers" and "yids"? Green has as much right as a Brixton Rastafarian or a Bradford Muslim child to challenge prejudice against his heritage and his being. And yes, that right now extends to the English who are discovering their ethnicity and to white working-class people who are too often and easily dissed by people like myself.

Absolute freedom of speech creates a jungle of untamed words gnawing into each other. But if freedom of expression is always be subsumed to the demands of cultural and political protectionism, truth itself gets buried under niceties and consideration.

On Friday night an excitable Muslim cab driver came to pick me up. He wanted to go to the mosque and was frightened of crossing the short distance from his car to his mosque because he had been attacked three times this year, once until he was unconscious. He meets up now with five friends at a precise time so they can walk together. We passed a crowd of loud women queuing outside a pub. "All of them prostitutes," he said. We argued. "It is not so easy, this England," said the driver, "too many different people, too much ideas, and changes. Very difficult." Exactly so.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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