Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor
This week I can’t turn my head without seeing articles, tweets, blogs and comments about how Ukip is representing alienated voters, and if we ‘label’ them as racist or bigoted we will further alienate those people. This is where journalists start to opine about the ‘white working class’ – presumably hoping that class is so rarely mentioned explicitly that everyone will be distracted by ‘working class’ and forget that they’re specifying ‘white people.’
I guess it’s easier to pretend you’re standing up for working class people who happen to be white and conservative than to say you’re standing up for conservative white people, some of whom happen to be working class.
Anybody who did GCSE history knows that it’s common to turn towards extremism when people are alienated, particularly in challenging economic times. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend in some patronising way that everybody who turns to the far right is ‘alienated’ or that there’s no other factors involved. Ukip voters are slightly more likely to be working class than Labour or Tory voters but overall they span all different class demographics – and that’s before we even analyse the backgrounds and wealth of the party officials themselves.
The thing is, lots and lots of people feel alienated, and don’t turn to extremism. And a lot of those people don’t get pandered to like this. A lot of those people don’t get heard at all. Is it because they aren’t scary? Is it because Nigel Farage, with his fag hanging out his mouth is ‘likeable,’ while disability rights campaigners, or asylum seekers asking for basic rights, or trans people denied healthcare, are somehow less fashionable to leap up and defend?
Is it just me or are some people just a tiny bit too enthusiastic about listening to the voices of the ‘alienated’ racist, homophobic, sexists – out of compassion and decency, they insist – but not the voices of the alienated people who end up on the receiving end of that bigotry? It’s not to say all those trying to engage have an ulterior motive but fake concern for the alienated far right voter can be a way of expressing sympathy for the bigotry without owning it.
It’s a pretty common thing, after all, for people in politics and in journalism to project less than pleasant views on to us, the public, rather than defend them. They like to present their ‘discomfort’ at same sex marriage or women having casual sex or ‘Romanians moving in next door’ as the views of ‘ordinary people’. And I don’t know about you, but as a member of the public, I don’t want that kind of crap said in my name.
If someone feels alienated and they turn to a far right party, there are two things happening. One of them is alienation. The other is what they do with that alienation. If you choose to take your vote and use it to show the ‘political class’ (a term increasingly applied to anyone who watches the news and dislikes Ukip) that you care more about sending them some vague message of being pissed off than you do about racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape apology and Islamophobia, then expect me, and others, to conclude certain things about your priorities.
As I type, I know what the response will be. Farage doesn’t care what I think. I’m not his target voter. And his voters don’t care about these issues. (Well, quite.) So it isn’t ‘productive’ to talk about the party’s problems with bigotry. But I’m not here to filter every opinion I have through the prism of political tactics. That suggests to me a mindset too obsessed with positioning, a world where opinions aren’t rooted in anything real, but are only expressed as a means of political strategy.
It also gives an awful lot of power to ‘oppressor’ or dominant groups, as soon as you allow them to dictate what counts as an acceptable response to their behaviour, and what does not. If we’re not allowed to call things sexist in case we alienate sexists, if we’re not allowed to call things racist in case we lose the approval of racists, if we make the broader debate about what is oppressive or bigoted and what is not conditional upon appealing to the most oppressive and bigoted mindsets, then it’s over, we’ve lost, we might as well go home. It’s wrong to police people’s reactions to bigotry and, worse, actually blame those reactions for fuelling the rise of the far right. Bigotry isn’t caused by people standing up to it. Racism isn’t caused by people talking about racism. Homophobia isn’t caused by gay people demanding too many rights too fast.
I know what else people will say. That I should shut up and listen more. I agree. I do listen to people. I listen to friends who say they’ve no interest in politics but they are thinking of voting Ukip. I listen to other people too. I listen to all sorts of people, some I agree with and some I don’t. I listen to a lot of people that many of the ‘don’t-call-Ukip-names’ brigade never even notice exist.
So I do listen but not just to you: I don’t think that by virtue of being angry and loud, you are entitled to my attention any more than the voice than, say, an asylum seeker being held in a detention centre without basic medical care. You are not entitled to a larger platform than the Muslims on the receiving end of hate crime which spikes dramatically when the far right up their rhetoric. You don’t get a bigger microphone than gay people who want to get married and feel safe in the streets. You aren’t entitled to a bigger platform than everybody else just because you’re loud and aggressive, and claiming to be ‘alienated by the modern world’ rather than intolerant.
Listening is good, but listening is an active thing, and if you’re listening properly to things, they usually spark a reaction. To assume an ‘alienated’ person isn’t capable of engaging with any kind of disagreement is far more patronising than telling them you disagree with them and having a conversation about it. That’s what you do, ironically, when you don’t actually care about what they’re saying. Let the disillusioned Ukip voters have their rants, they’re almost saying, because it’s all they have. Ignore them, don’t challenge them, they don’t know any better and can’t be expected to expand or explore their ideas.
It’s telling that so many of the apologists feel the need to frame discussions about bigotry with phrases like ‘screaming racism,’ ‘shouting racism,’ or ‘playing the race card,’ or spike accusations of sexism or homophobia with words like ‘hysterical.’ The assumption seems to be that in calling an opinion racist or homophobic or misogynistic, you aren’t engaging with it, or you must be seeking to silence it. But defining things is part of how we debate them. Words like ‘racism,’ ‘homophobia’, and ‘misogyny’ exist for a reason – and bigots hate them for a reason, too. Those words allow us to name and challenge broader structural issues behind what they say, instead of treating each occurrence as a random, isolated incident – which is exactly what Ukip want us to do when they demand we only use words they are comfortable with.
Saying that Ukip aren’t intentionally a racist party and it’s just a coincidence that they attract so many bigoted people isn’t good enough for me as a voter, and I’m entitled to say so. When I say there’s a problem with bigotry in Ukip I’m including people who are quietly okay with other people’s bigotry. When we say we shouldn’t focus on racism, or homophobia, or sexism, because that’s not why their voters are voting for them, we are accepting an ugly premise: that those things are side issues, not important to most people. We are saying that people’s views on equality shouldn’t be a central part of how we judge them. We are accepting that we can only talk about racism if the racist actually wants to be called a racist, and isn’t a potential voter. In other words, we can never talk about this. The fact that the bigotry isn’t a factor one way or the other in how so many people choose to vote, far from being a reason to change the subject, is exactly what I am so concerned about.
Ukip want to present the case that the party is accidentally stirring up racial tensions with their xenophobia, and accidentally riling up homophobes, but they don’t intend to do that. I don’t think it matters as much as they do what their intention is. If you vote for someone you know could be a racist or a homophobe or a rape apologist, then what use is it to me that your vote was cast because you wanted to send Westminster a message? If pissing off ‘the political class’ is really more important to you than whether the person you’re choosing to represent you and pass laws on your behalf is hateful or not, then, well, what exactly are we supposed to conclude from your priorities?