Bad bigots and good bigots: politics after the election
Gillian Duffy was written off as a ‘bigot’ by the same liberal elite that sanctions bigotry and hatred towards its political opponents.
On election night last Thursday, I was bemused by how many commentators were expressing incomprehension at what was going on. Their frustration was palpable as they gradually realised that the Lib Dem revolution, which they had bought in to and had feverishly envisioned, was actually just wishful thinking.
The predicted rise of the Lib Dems was a fantasy that dominated the minds of the disoriented cultural oligarchy, but which failed to capture the imagination of normal human beings. Sometimes, fantasies are so strong that they can alter and warp the outlook of those who desperately wish they were true. For a moment, the fantasy feels very real. So when the Guardian declared that if it had a vote it would cast it ‘enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats’, it also prophesised through its confidently worded headline: ‘The liberal moment has come.’
Of course, there is no shame in getting things wrong. Every prediction has the potential for error. However, what was peculiarly disconcerting about the frenzy of publicity and the high expectations that surrounded ‘Cleggmania’ was the desperation with which the fantasy was pursued. Suddenly a new reality was constructed. When the Guardian wrote that the ‘liberal moment has come’, it didn’t simply get it wrong – it demonstrated that its view of the world has become an actual barrier to seeing the world as it is. A distorted view of the reality of public life now dictated the newspaper’s editorial policy. It also exposed its isolation from the world inhabited by much of the electorate. Anyone who held conversations with people from various walks of life would have concluded that there was a major disconnect between the media’s ‘reality’ and normal, everyday life.
One of the most important, yet least unremarked upon, developments in British public life is the cultural and psychological chasm that separates the political class and the cultural elites from the thinking and passions of a voiceless majority (see The message of the polls: ‘We don’t agree with Nick’, by Brendan O’Neill). This cultural contrast was most vividly captured in Gordon Brown’s all-too-public reference to ‘that woman’ – 65-year-old Gillian Duffy – as a ‘bigot’. The most striking thing was the casual manner in which Brown waved aside the concerns of this Rochdale resident as simply expressions of ‘bigotry’: from Brown’s perspective, a query about immigration is an instant marker for bigotry.
Such an outlook is based on a deeply held elite prejudice towards people – especially the elderly – who do not tick the right cosmopolitan boxes. This attitude is not dissimilar to the attitudes of nineteeth-century do-gooders, who regarded their urban clients as white savages who had to be saved from themselves. ‘The lower classes in civilised countries, like all classes in uncivilised countries, are clearly wanting in the nicer part of these feelings which, taken together, we call the sense of morality’, wrote Walter Bagehot in 1872. The language may have changed, but the sentiments Bagehot expressed over a century ago are not dissimilar to the way a significant section of the cultural oligarchy thinks about ordinary people today.
Paradoxically, it is often those who accuse old ladies of being bigots who have internalised precisely the kind of intolerance and prejudice that is usually associated with bigotry. Bigotry is generally understood as a fairly visceral impulse of hate. Rhetorically, society recognises that hate is not a particularly enlightened sentiment and today considerable resources are devoted towards encouraging children not to hate. And yet there is a very selective attitude towards different kinds of hatred today. Certain types of people and forms of behaviour cannot be hated, but it is okay to hate other kinds of people and behaviour. Consider a comment piece by Gary Younge, published in the newspaper that enthusiastically welcomed the ‘liberal moment’. The piece is titled: ‘I hate Tories. And yes, it’s tribal.’
At first, it is possible to hope that the title is tongue-in-cheek and is written mainly for literary effect. And to his credit, Younge recognises that his hatred is a ‘gastro-intestinal and emotional response’. From time to time, many of us experience such powerful emotions and allow our hatreds and prejudices to influence our attitudes to others. However, it is one thing to hate but another thing entirely to cultivate this destructive outlook and endow it with rationality and logic. Sadly, that is precisely what Younge does when he argues that his hatred of the Tories is not an ‘irrational response’ – it is a reasonable reaction, he says, to what the Conservatives have done and what they stand for.
And this statement of hatred, and its justification, is not confined to one columnist who felt that only the power of his hateful emotions could propel him to vote in the election. Virtually all of the responses to Younge’s article endorsed his argument and agreed that it’s cool to hate the Tories.
Of course, we have no choice but to accept the fact that individuals possess strong hatreds. However, when such hatreds are culturally sanctioned and even positively promoted, they are no longer an individual matter. In such circumstances, the cultural affirmation of a prejudice can lead to the stigmatisation of the targets of that prejudice. Last week, one of the secretaries working in my university confided to me that she was a ‘secret Conservative voter’. I was touched by her trust in my ability to keep a secret, but also a little unnerved by the realisation that even in an institution of higher education, devoted to freedom of expression, people clearly feel reluctant to state out loud their political affiliation. This secretary instinctively knows that she will receive the Gillian Duffy treatment if she reveals her dirty little secret.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bigotry means the ‘obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief, practice, faction, etc; intolerance, prejudice’. Without needing to stretch the argument too far, the legitimisation of hatred towards the Tories represents a quite remarkable elevation of bigotry. It is prejudice masquerading as progressiveness. This intolerance towards people who feel insecure about their place in the world and who have certain anxieties, and the increasing celebration of hatred towards the Tories, are symptoms of a political culture that has lost its way. At least Younge is prepared to admit that it is hate rather than hope that got him to the polling station. Others flatter themselves by interpreting their prejudices as an enlightened and progressive outlook. Often, they project their bigotry against ‘them’ on to the behaviour of old-age pensioners.
Bigotry can never be progressive – not even when it is directed against political opponents. Why? Because bigotry dehumanises its targets. The bigot thinks he already knows everything there is to know about the Mrs Duffys of this world. Bigotry tends to desensitise people to a true understanding of their own experiences and the experiences of others. Instead they really believe the caricatures they have constructed. That is why they are often so out of touch with the world of ordinary folk. And that is why so many illiberal political observers could confuse their fantasies about the Lib Dems with reality.
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