In one of his early noughties stand-up routines, after a gruesome gag about a budgie and a teaspoon, the comedian Sean Lock reassured his audience that the joke was not based on fact. He then went back through the entire set: this wasn’t true; that wasn’t either. Referring to one joke about his doctor’s concern at his level of alcohol consumption, he drew the biggest laugh of the night: “My doctor doesn’t think I drink enough.”
I was reminded of this while watching Labour MP Chris Williamson’s comments to a Momentum meeting in Sheffield. Williamson, member of parliament for Derby North, believes Labour has been “too apologetic” over allegations of antisemitism.
According to Williamson, whose comments drew applause in the room but condemnation outside, the party has ceded too much ground in the debate around the issue.
Williamson, who claims never to have seen antisemitism in the Labour party, has form here. In 2017, he provoked the ire of Jewish groups by claiming allegations of antisemitism were invented (“a dirty, lowdown trick”) and just three months ago he was forced to apologise for sharing a petition defending Gilad Atzmon, who has described torching synagogues as “a rational act”. His comments though speak to a wider issue in our cultural moment.
An apology is not necessarily or even primarily an admission of guilt so much as recognition that there’s a problem that must be addressed: as another comic, Demetri Martin, points out, saying “I’m sorry” at a funeral should not be taken as a confession but does acknowledge a degree of misfortune.
In this regard it’s the bare minimum. But when it comes to racism, apologies have always been fraught with controversy.
It took until 2009 for US Congress to “express its regret” at the “maltreatment” of indigenous Americans, and even then the acknowledgement was hidden in an unrelated spending bill. During a 2013 visit to the site of the Amritsar massacre in India, the then prime minister David Cameron stopped short even of that low bar. Cameron claimed it would be wrong to “reach back into history… In my view, we are dealing with something that happened a good 40 years before I was even born.”
In so doing he echoed the sentiments of many who consider apologies – and the call to deliver them – a personal rebuke for crimes committed at institutional levels. Never mind that resisting apologies is a denial of the conditions that made them necessary, the refusal to be personally tainted by accusation of wrongdoing – the imperative, as Williamson puts it, not to cede ground – is so great as to make them politically awkward.
But once again, this is a case of oppressors placing their own feelings over those of their oppressed, of institutions valuing their reputations over the comfort of those they might exclude. In chastising colleagues for apologising too much, Williamson unwittingly speaks to the heart of an issue with Labour’s self-perception.
As he puts it himself, “the party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, negative party.” Once again, it is the perception of Labour as non-racist that allows some within it to gaslight Jews who report racism against them and discourage others from coming forward.
In many ways Labour should be grateful to Williamson and the timing of his latest comments. In a month when MPs have left the party citing Labour’s inability to deal effectively with antisemitism, he has provided the party’s leadership with the perfect opportunity to show that they’re listening and are prepared to take these concerns seriously. Anything short of Williamson’s expulsion must be seen as a failure.
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