Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
What was the first word that came into your mind when you read about the Presidents Club dinner at the Dorchester? Seedy? Sleazy? Gross?
If you’re a journalist, you won’t have hesitated. The only word to use in such a situation is “sexist”. It appeared in almost every report. Columnists from the Sun to the Guardian agreed that the revolting event was somehow comparable to a dinner at White’s, part of a seamless system designed to demean women.
I suspect this is one of the occasions where there is a divergence between how pundits and politicians talk, and how almost everyone else talks. While both groups are disapproving, the reasons for their disapproval differ. Most people object to vulgar, paunchy, middle-aged men groping waitresses, not because they represent the patriarchy, but because they are behaving squalidly.
That, though, is not the approved way of signalling disapprobation in the present age. We are uncomfortable with words like “ungallant”, “lewd”, “faithless”, “sordid”, “ungentlemanly”, “louche” and “dissipated”. We retain the moral code of past generations, but no longer feel able to express it. So we use “sexist” as our all-purpose boo-word.
Words are funny like that. Once they take on positive or negative connotations, their precise meaning becomes almost irrelevant. “Democracy”, for example, is a hurrah-word. When people say “private schools are undemocratic”, they don’t mean that only Etonians have the vote. They mean “I disapprove of private schools”.
“Empowering” is another hurrah-word. When Lisa Simpson tells Marge that dyeing her hair is empowering, a startled Marge reminds her that she said the same thing about not dyeing it. Lisa smiles indulgently: “Well as a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering.”
We have likewise elevated a series of boo-words, verbal Swiss Army knives that can signal our censure of almost anything. At the top of the list are “racist” and “sexist”, with “homophobic” a little further behind. George Orwell observed the phenomenon three quarters of a century ago. When someone says “Jones is a fascist”, Orwell wrote, all he really means is “I don’t like Jones”.
The trouble is that Swiss Army knives become blunted with use. The original meaning of words is lost. Sexism – attitudes or institutions that systematically discriminate against women – certainly exists. But it does not apply to every situation in which a woman is badly treated. Some such situations call for older and truer words.
Consider, as an example, Donald Trump. I can think of lots of older and truer words that apply to him. He is boastful, sulky, vain, bullying, bellicose, dishonest, needy, self-serving and peevish. These, though, are not the words his enemies generally reach for. Instead, they snatch at the labels that make them feel warm: “homophobe”, “sexist”, “racist”.
There’s a reason these words have such slight effect. “Homophobe”? How many Republican presidential candidates can you remember launching their campaigns with rainbow flags, as Trump did? When you airily apply such a word to the President, you don’t change people’s view of him, but you do change their view of you. It’s not just that they don’t believe you. It’s that they stop listening to other criticisms you may have of the President, including the well-founded ones.
“Sexist”? OK, maybe. But think how much better Trump suits almost any of the alternatives I used earlier in this column: faithless, lewd, seedy etc. These, incidentally, are words that might cut through with some of his supporters in a way that “sexist” never will.
As for “racist”, again, it has been scraped against so many targets that it has lost any ability to cut. Think of some of the things now preposterously labelled racist. Here is a list pulled more or less at random from news reports:
Airports. The British branch of Black Lives Matter closed London City Airport after chaining themselves to a tripod on the runway. Apparently, airports cause climate change, and climate change kills non-white people.
Grits. British conductor Matthew Halls was dismissed as director of the Oregon Bach festival after a dimwitted white woman complained that he had said, “Want some grits?” in a Southern accent.
White turkey meat. According to Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum, “Despite its superior taste, dark meat has dark undertones for some. Dark meat seems to summon up ancient fears of contamination and miscegenation as opposed to the supposed superior purity of white meat.”
Farmers’ markets. Apparently, they are “often white spaces where the food consumption habits of white people are normalised.”
When turkey meat and farmers’ markets are called racist, then calling Trump a racist is meaningless. If everyone is a racist, then no-one is a racist. When we come across actual, literal racism, in the sense of people being differently treated on grounds of ethnicity, we find our vocabulary is exhausted. When, for example, Labour invites people to an event with tickets differently priced according to their race, we have no words left accurately to convey what we mean. So we ignore it, and go back to complaining about sexist dinners. It’s a funny old world.