Michael Fabricant, jokes, political correctness and context
Michael Fabricant doesn’t seem to take much seriously. So it’s not surprising to me that he thinks it’s a right old laugh to joke about punching a Muslim woman in the throat if she gets a bit too opinionated for his liking.
As the defenders of ‘political incorrectness’ like to say: context is all. You have to take it in context. Stop being offended, you’re just taking it out of context. So I have to ask: what is the context to this comment?
Last week, a woman was murdered. The police believe it could have been because she was ‘wearing Muslim dress.’ Tell Mama has reported that Muslim women are experiencing ever-higher levels of hate crime, so much so that, according to reports, just going outside means taking an explicit risk.
The context is that hey, feminists are hysterical, and women overreact, so we need not be taken seriously in our outrage. Not so when the Liddles and the Farages of the world get outraged; no, then it must Mean Something. Ah, we need to respond to this! Their outrage shows the alienation of the public from the political class, or the rise of political correctness gone mad!
It’s not like Fabricant’s tweets are never taken seriously. When Fabricant, back in the days when he was party chairman, tweeted something which embarrassed David Cameron, of course, that was an entirely different matter. He was sacked for saying it was ‘about time’ Maria Miller went. But joking about punching a Muslim woman in the throat, in the midst of a climate of rising racism and violence? Cameron backs him up.
Ah, context. When respected, professional men like Michael Fabricant jokily sympathise with somebody wanting to give a woman a punch, she, not he, is the one who is then subject to a heap of abuse. That is the real context to Michael Fabricant’s joke.
The more marginalised you are the more people believe your right to be heard is conditional. The more people believe your right to be heard, the right to your humanity, is conditional, the more disproportionate the reaction you ‘provoke’ will be. The anger expressed to wards Alibhai-Brown or Diane Abbott (or, in America, Michelle Obama or Melissa Harris Perry) never seems proportionate to whatever they have supposedly ‘done’.
Was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown seriously imagined to be somehow more unpleasant than Rod Liddle was, in the interview that so offended Mr Fabricant? Liddle rudely insulted the interviewer and complained – a typical manifestation of the entitlement ingrained in the faux-anti-establishment brigade – that the questions weren’t about the things he fancied talking about. He pretended he didn’t know what Alibhai-Brown was referring to when she mentioned his comments on Stephen Lawrence’s murder – comments that it is extremely hard to believe he had forgotten, given that he was found to have breached a court order over them, and the Spectator was fined. If Liddle, who writes of ‘black savages’ and compares supporting gay marriage as a conservative to endorsing sex with a goat as a conservative, does not provoke an equivalent violent fantasy from the likes of Fabricant, it begs the question: what would a white man actually have to say to provoke one? You don’t even have to agree with Brown or disagree with Liddle to see that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was certainly not being any more provocative that he was.
Provocative is a strangely gendered word. We do not often hear of men being provocative, or at least, when we do, the bar is set so much higher. A man is provocative, for example, if he is seen carrying a weapon, or if he shouts abuse in the street at a stranger, or if he gets drunk and squares up to somebody in a bar. A woman is provocative if she wears a miniskirt or has an opinion or two.
When we talk about context, which is the third magic word that pops up alongside ‘irony’ and ‘intention’, it always seems to be a very specific context that those people are interested in discussing. “You have to take it in context,” cry endless apologists for ‘ironic’ sexism or racism, before innocently asking why they cannot say the N-word, if NWA can, or why they can’t shout ‘bitch’ at women in the street if Beyonce can sing the word in a song about empowering herself.
Reacting to ‘jokes’ like Fabricant’s is not about being offended, and it’s certainly not about being knee-jerk. It’s not even about the individual joke itself. Would Fabricant actually punch Alibhai-Brown in the neck? It’s highly unlikely that he would. (What a thing, though, to be an MP, and have people rounding behind you to assert that you wouldn’t really punch a woman, as if that alone is amazingly high praise that qualifies you to keep your job.) No, much of the reaction to these seemingly silly little incidents is a dispassionate, structural analysis of the context in which those ‘jokes’ sit. The context, not the single incident, is what makes it matter. The context is not just that two women a week die of domestic violence. The context is how many of those women died because they were made to believe it was a little bit their fault, because they were, in some small way, too provocative.