I am extremely familiar with that wonderful feeling you get when some moron says, “Why dont the Muslins cant not LERN ENGLISH?????” and you settle in with a mug of Ovaltine for what will probably evolve into a 45 minute, bullet-pointed, cited-and-referenced mini-PhD with a whole section on the characteristics of the fabric ‘muslin’ (pictures? Yes, post some pictures of muslin! That’ll show the little puss-weasel!) I know. I’ve been there. And I bet you have too.
You’ll almost certainly touch on ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’; and ‘your’ versus ‘you’re’ is a given. If you’re as serious an addict as I was, you’ll actually have your explanations already written in a Word document so that you can cut-and-paste for maximum efficiency. (This is real. I really did this, in Real Life. I am so ashamed.)
But the truth is, you need to stop. Right now. And I hope this cautionary tale can illustrate why.
It was a winter evening in 2014, and I had gone along to a local Britain First page to ‘school some haters’ (the main Britain First page had banned me, of course. This is the first thing mentioned on my CV under ‘Achievements’).
I was scrolling through the comments, correcting apostrophes, laughing at spelling, flaunting my adept use of semi-colons (as usual), when I came across a particularly long and passionate take-down of a commenter’s written English from earlier in a thread that I had only skim-read.
The critic had really pushed the boat out: he’d covered spelling, syntax, grammar - he’d even pointed out when adjectives were in the wrong order (did you know that the convention is to go ‘size, age, shape, colour’, so we talk about a ‘big, old, white house’, not a ‘white, old, big house’? Neither did I!)
The post was long, and I was tired, so I didn’t read all the way to the end; I just clicked ‘like’ and moved on.
I went on down the thread, reading and commenting, until the grammar Nazi popped up again - only this time he was behaving like a straight-up Nazi, berating an Iranian woman who had lived in Britain for thirty years. And that’s when I realised: the grammar he had been correcting wasn’t a racist’s grammar. It was the grammar of an immigrant.
He was using his education and his superior knowledge to put someone down and make them feel bad about themselves - and he was doing exactly what I loved to do. I wasn’t trying to show people they were wrong, or using intelligent arguments to change their minds. I only wanted them to feel demeaned. I wanted to dominate them, and show that I was better than them, using my education - something I hadn’t chosen, something that was as inevitable as the colour of my skin.
But that didn’t make me kind, or honourable, or decent, or respectful. I was behaving like a racist.
I find writing really easy, always have done. Even before I could write I was drawing elaborate pictures of fairy villages and making up sprawling sagas about them (turned out gay, who’d o’ guessed?!). I didn’t choose to be good at writing, and I have done precious little to become better. I find spelling pretty easy too, certainly much easier than my brothers, who lean more to the scientific side of things.
I grew up surrounded by books, and my parents read to me every day. I didn’t ever have to ask to be read to; I didn’t buy these books. They were there when I was born. This is the definition of privilege: it’s the unfair advantages that are given to us as our birthright. My privilege includes my race, my gender, my class - and my education.
But you know what I have to WORK AT, every single damn day of my life? BEING A GOOD PERSON! Because being a good person is HARD. And Lord knows being intelligent and educated is not the same as being a good person, not by a long way.
I talk over women, just because they are women. I get annoyed at old people who can’t walk fast enough because they are in Actual Arthritic Pain. I drink milk that I know has been wrung out of terrified, grieving cows. I get fresh plastic bags when I can’t be bothered to bring a bag for life from home.
I have looked a loved one in the eye and lied to get out of a difficult situation, and I will do it again. I enjoy the benefits of an education that was given to me before I even knew how to ask for it. Educated people might have given us chemotherapy and electricity and Harry Potter, but they also gave us concentration camps and eugenics and Jeremy Hunt - you see, being educated is only a virtue if you use it to do virtuous things.
Fighting racism is virtuous; making someone feel bad because they don’t know about apostrophes is not. It is the same instinct that drives racism: the instinct to dominate, to denigrate, and to attack people rather than ideas.
There is one more reason that we need to stop doing this, and it might be the most important of all: we need to change racist thinking, and people don’t change when they are attacked.
In an interview after the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela said that he had realised that when apartheid ended, white people were still going to be there, and so what had to be destroyed was not white people themselves, but white people’s ideas.
Mandela was famous for shaking the hands of his enemies, for remembering their wives’ birthdays, for asking after their children - and all while ruthlessly and relentlessly attacking their racist ideology.
If we ever defeat racism, guess what? Those racist folk from Britain First will still be here! We need to tell those people that they are special and important and valuable - but that they can be those things without being racist, that they are capable of better than hatred, that there is more to them than who they fight against.
We will never change someone by breaking them down, only by building them up - by telling them that their lives will be immeasurably enriched by welcoming refugees, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are kind and gentle and compassionate, and that you don’t need to be able to spell to be a decent human being.
Grammar doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t. Black boys getting shot by police - that matters. Muslim women getting their headscarves pulled off in the street - that matters. Refugees being kicked and spat at and having their accommodation set on fire - that really, truly, deeply matters.
People are getting hurt, and people are getting killed - and not one of them by dangling prepositions and split infinitives.
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