Words are the weapons of democratic politics – the mechanism by which what would otherwise be violent conflict is turned into a peaceful, if sometimes vicious, wargame. Those one chooses to deploy in one’s own cause take two forms – the first is active, in which one side puts across its own arguments, and the second is reactive, in which they turn the words of their opponents against them.
Both are valid and common parts of the daily battles in any democracy. It’s rare to find a successful campaign which doesn’t include both, to one extent or another.
However, if you’re going to weaponise the words of your opponents, you really ought to try to ensure that your criticisms are consistent with how you use words to make your own case.
There is a peculiar inconsistency visible at the moment in terms of when it’s ok to be general and when it’s ok to be specific.
Consider, for example, Donald Trump’s response to the horrific events in Charlottesville: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides.” It was shameful – he knew that people were asking whether he condemned the actions of open and self-described fascists and Nazis, many of whom identify with his cause and support him, but he chose to generalise in order to dodge explicitly condemning them.
That drew widespread, and justified, criticism, including here in the UK. But we have our own practitioner of just this type of evasion: Jeremy Corbyn. Here he is being asked to condemn the actions of the government of Venezuela:
‘Asked whether he condemned Mr Maduro’s actions, Mr Corbyn said: “What I condemn is the violence that’s been done by any side, by all sides, in all this. Violence is not going to solve the issue.”‘
And here he is on the violence of the IRA:
‘When asked if he could unequivocally condemn the IRA, Mr Corbyn said: ” No, I think what you have to say is all bombing has to be condemned.”‘
In fact, it’s habitual tactic for the Labour leader. Throughout the anti-semitism scandal that engulfed his Party, he held to the generalised line that he opposes “all forms of racism”, even though he was being asked to condemn a specific type that was evidently a specific issue among some of his supporters and allies.
It’s odd, therefore, to see a variety of Corbyn fans now attack Trump for evasion and moral cowardice. They’re right in their critique of Trump, but they turned a blind eye to the very same behaviour on the part of their idol here at home.
There’s another example of this inconsistent attitude to using generalities or specifics in the British press over the last week.
Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham and at that time the shadow equalities minister, wrote for The Sun on Friday that “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.” She was sticking her neck out on a hugely concerning issue, evidently not for her own good but because it was something which she believed had to be discussed.
The reaction from some parts of her own Party was predictable – not only had she written for The Sun, a crime in itself in these Corbynite days, but she had, it was claimed, written something racist. Her critics charged that her sentence was too general – by not inserting the word “some” before “British Pakistani men”, she had slandered all British Pakistani men as rapists.
That’s self-evidently untrue. For a start, that isn’t how the English language works.
Take a pertinent example – in response, Abi Wilkinson, the left-wing commentator, argued that ‘”Britain has a problem with men raping girls” is a statement that better describes the situation’. No-one would reasonably read Wilkinson’s alternative sentence as branding every man as a rapist. Indeed, the misreading of such sentences is widely mocked on feminist Twitter as #notallmen, a reference to the tendency of some self-described meninists to reply “not all men are like that”. If those deploying #notallmen are idiotically misreading reasonable statements of concern, then so are those accusing Champion of racist generalisation. If anything, Wilkinson’s assertion isn’t a replacement for what Champion wrote. Both women can be correct in their general and specific concerns respectively.
In Champion’s case, we saw a repetition and an inversion of the criticism of Trump for generalising “many sides”, when he ought to have specified criticism of Nazis. She was blasted by Wilkinson and others for specifying “British Pakistani men” rather than generalising “men”, while other critics simultaneously argued that she had been too general, with the absence of the word “some” turning her article into a racist attack.
These wilfully inconsistent tactics might occasionally score points for one side or another. Champion, for example, has now been drummed out of the Shadow Cabinet (admittedly not helped by her foolish attempt to bow to the criticism by falsely blaming the newspaper). But they can also backfire – a legitimate criticism of Trump can be weakened by illegitimately defending Corbyn when he commits the same sin of evasion.
In the meantime, operating among such shifting sands makes reasonable discussion of crucial but difficult issues, such as those which Champion sought to raise, harder, and a proportion of those brave enough to try despite the danger get crushed for their temerity. Without honest consistency our democracy becomes less effective, our politics loses good participants, and – out of sight – victims continue to suffer.