What George Michael meant to me in 1998

Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for LGBT people. George Michael was having none of it.

I was about 13 years old when it happened. I felt like I was witnessing it in slow motion. A beloved superstar called George Michael was entrapped, outed and hauled to the mucky tabloid stocks for what I can only describe as a minor sexual misdemeanour. A “lewd act” which not only pales in comparison to the things that many straight  icons get up to with little to no judgment, but was also, of course, conflated endlessly with his sexual orientation. His outing and his “lewd act” were treated as one and the same. I was horrified, anxious, angry, as I listened to my friends and classmates snigger endlessly about George Michael and toilets and how he was a fag and ha ha ha isn’t it hilarious and disgusting, let’s all pour over the delicious details and be sickened with delight. For a long time, my stomach churned whenever his name was mentioned. 

Sometimes I would weakly laugh along, occasionally speaking up, usually not speaking up, terrified at the constant, snagging, sickening weight in my gut caused by the knowledge that one day, in the future, maybe not far from now, I would have to have The Conversation with people. That conversation. The one where you Tell People That Thing about yourself, that thing that you work so hard to hide. Not only was I fearful but I felt like such a cowardly little shit because I didn’t say much in his defence at the time. He was such a kind-hearted, generous-spirited person, always thinking about his fans and always concerned about the impact this was all having on young LGBT people. I was so deeply invested in delaying The Conversation Where You Tell People That Thing About Yourself, that I could never quite face it.  

And then. And then. I saw how he handled it. I saw him respond not with shame, not with apologetic respectability, but with a music video for Outside that went so full-scale, off the charts, fantastically gay you couldn’t possibly imagine he was doing anything other than celebrating himself and sticking up two fingers to people who had a problem with the whole thing. I mean, I’m talking about dressing-up-as-a-cop-in-leather-gloves-gay, public-toilets-turning-into-discos-gay; a celebration of queer, sexy joy in all its glory. 

I felt like that song and video made the perfect smack in the face for all those homophobes I’d heard trying to tear him down. And it didn’t matter if they didn’t get it, because actually, it wasn’t for them at all; it was for me. I felt like George Michael was going up to all those kids who were like “ha ha you’re GAY” as if it’s the worst insult in the world, and laughing in their faces: “You think this is gay? MATE. You’ve seen nothing. You haven’t lived. I am not even being gay right now. You’ve seen nothing. Damn right I’m gay. I’m gayer than gay. Oh babe, you think it’s an insult? Look how awesome being gay is!” Which is what I always longed to say but never did. 

I secretly adored this song. Not only the song itself but everything it meant to me. I loved the idea of making a song like that so much it hurt. This song that one of my friends told me I was not allowed to buy when she was with me because it was “so gay.” This song that caused one friend to keep pretending to be sick whenever it came on because “it’s so gay.” (It didn’t escape me that the same people who had mocked George Michael for being in the closet were now mocking him for making a song that was “too gay.”)

But the most beautiful thing for me was the evening I sat in my family living room to watch George Michael’s interview with Michael Parkinson. I saw that this man was still someone my family admired, someone they wanted to watch on TV, a man whose music they still listened to, a man they thought was brave and cool and human – and he was putting into words things I had not being able to spell out very well even to myself; things I had timidly attempted to scribble about in my diary, perhaps, but that was pretty much it. 

And actually, whenever I truly want to explain my sexuality, even to this day, I often still refer back to the way George Michael put it in this brilliant interview. It’s hard to find better words than this for how I feel. I never felt as if I entirely fit any of the labels, the way I’d understood them, the way straight people had defined them to me. George Michael summed up what, for him, made the distinction between being bisexual and gay so neatly, with such clarity, yet without removing the complexities of human experience – or, importantly, without trying to speak for anybody but himself – that even then, with no meaningful romantic experiences to speak of, I stopped dead. I thought my heart might stop with excitement. I forgot all about what other people might call me, and, perhaps for the first time, I began to think about what I might actually want to call myself. Even at 13 this distinction spoke to me so poignantly. This is what he said: 

“No, I wasn’t confused [about my sexuality]. I thought I was bisexual. When I could take it or leave it from either side of the fence, I just thought I was bisexual. The day I knew I was gay was the day I fell in love with a man. I thought it was about who you can get it up for. I realise now that it’s not about you get it up for, but about who you can get it up for – and love. So now I don’t think I’m bisexual; I am gay.”

I am sure this kind of thing has been said by countless others, of course. But I had never heard anything like it before. I had certainly never heard it from anyone who was such an enormous star. I watched the interview again after George Michael died and realised I still love, love, love everything about this. 

I love that he isn’t dismissing or minimising bisexuality. Unlike so many straight or gay people for whom “feeling bisexual” was a transition phase, he’s acknowledging that what he feels is not bisexuality, and so, by logical extension, that bisexuality is real and does exist. Bisexuality is not being “confused.” Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’d heard anyone talk not only about being gay, but about bisexuality with any measure of respect, any measure of acknowledgement that it is, in fact, real. 

I love that he doesn’t say being a lesbian or being gay means you automatically have no desire or curiosity or hot one night stands or enjoyable kisses with people of the opposite sex. Its funny, because if a woman says she enjoys casual fun with women but would only have a relationship with a man, the assumption is that she’s heterosexual, even if she herself says she’s bisexual. Yet if you are gay, people find it much easier to process it if you say you have never, ever so much as looked at someone of the opposite sex. 

Yet it’s well-known that for many people, including straight people, there’s a world of difference between being into someone for Netflix and chill, and actually liking that person in a meaningful way. Far before falling in love comes into it, there are some people where it’s just not about anything deep, and it never will be, and that’s fine as long as you both know it. Casual fun with the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily make you straight – or even bisexual. We are not supposed to say this. But he did. 

And I love the truthfulness and authenticity of his answers to these questions all the more for the fact that at this time, he was trying to rescue his image from a very public trashing. He could have thrown bisexuals, promiscuous people, polyamorous people, and kinky people under the bus to save himself and play the respectability and hypocrisy game that the media loves. He didn’t. 

I love the conviction with which he rejects the familiar old self-flagellating narrative he gets offered up by Parkinson time and time again as a lifeline throughout that interview. Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for a lot of LGBT people in the public eye. It is a tempting rope to grab. George Michael was having none of it. 

I love that he talks about getting it up and falling in love in the same sentence. In 1998, as far as I could see, we were supposed to be either  entirely sexless, or degenerate animals. We could not be whole. Bollocks to that, George Michael seemed to be saying. We have sex and we fall in love and guess what, it’s not always with the same people. But sometimes it is with the same people. Because we are whole. 

Sexuality is so personal. It would be amazing if any of these labels entirely fit any of us. Yet even at 13, George Michael’s definition, as uniquely personal as it was, touched upon some level of truth for me. I had never heard anyone express anything so honest about queerness. Clumsily, chaotically,  I listened to this interview, heart racing, and thought: wow, yes, that’s it, that’s how I feel, that’s how you tell people. Maybe I can have The Conversation. Maybe it will be okay. 

It was largely because of George Michael that I realised there are different ways of loving and having relationships and having sex. You don’t have to pretend that arbitrary boxes fit your reality when it’s obvious to anyone with the most basic understanding of human interactions that the boxes are painfully small for the task. 

George Michael’s coming out was my earliest memory of hearing someone seriously suggest that perhaps it was the boxes that were wrong, not me.

It was like someone was reassuring me: you’re allowed to exist. If your existence is too confusing for people, they need to change their silly, pointless, self-imposed boxes. You don’t need to not exist. The boxes need to not exist. You are not wrong for existing. Your existence is not a problem to be solved. Maybe one day you, and others around you, will even celebrate it. Not tolerate. Celebrate. 

Hearing that George Michael has died, seeing the outpouring of love for him (including the hypocritical tabloid press that hounded him), I’m flashing back to George Michael’s coming out, his Parkinson interview and the fabulous self-acceptance of Outside. I want to celebrate his life and his music. The truth is, I feel slightly sick. Because I am also flashing back, vividly, to how all-consuming the terror was of being 13 years old and thinking that my very existence was an anomaly, an error, a bug in the system. A society that teaches a 13 year old that their existence is a problem to solve is abominably cruel, however unintentionally or subliminally it’s done. If you tell a child repeatedly that they should not, by rights, exist, what do you think they will do? It is not melodramatic to say that hearing these things articulated saves lives. 

I want to feel like that’s all in the past. I want to end my blog by saying how far we have all come, and how wonderful it is. I can’t make myself feel this. We live in a world now where the most powerful person in the world, the American President Elect, does indeed view entire groups of people as a problem to be solved, and is not shy about saying so. That is scary. That is how true horrors happen. 

The people who minimise the importance of things like famous people coming out and nullifying some of that terror are usually people who have not grown up believing their own existence is seen by others (perhaps even by their own loved ones) as a problem to be corrected. They have never sat in a room where respected people debate their right to exist, or debate what conditions should be attached to their right to exist. They do not know the fear that never quite dies; the fear that the people who think you are a problem to solve will one day hold serious power over your life. 

I used to be in awe of the cognitive dissonance these people were capable of. You know who I mean. The people can moan on Monday about political correctness and cheer on “locker room talk” from the President Elect, but by Tuesday they are attacking a musician for being a poor role model or for having too much sex. People who smear and humiliate anyone queer who is open about their sexuality, but also criticise people for staying “in the closet”. They attack LGBT people for “flaunting” their love in public or wanting to get married but also for being dirty disgusting queers who use public toilets or night time parks or pay sex workers in secret. 

These are also, amusingly, often the same people who pounce on any deviation from our boxes as evidence of dishonesty (“You said you were a lesbian but you kissed this man!”) then have sneering tantrums when we make bigger boxes (“Why are there so many letters in LGBTQIA, why can’t it just be gay and lesbian, yawn”). 

I used to be in awe of their cognitive dissonance but I’m not anymore. If 2016 has convinced me of one thing, it’s that these people don’t even believe that they believe any of this. They couldn’t possibly mean it all. The contradictions are too great, too ridiculous. And many of the people spewing it all out are too well-informed, too clever with logic, too self-aware to believe such directly contradictory things. What they are is homophobic, and what they want is for people like me to go away. 

In 1998, I sat in my bedroom, wondering if I would ever be able to be happy, if I would ever get to have a romantic relationship with a woman, and if so, if I could do it without everybody finding out. I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if I just never told anybody, ever. And I wondered if I would dare to buy Outside on cassette. What would the salesperson in the shop think of me? Would I hide it when my friend came round, or would I show her it, defiantly? Perhaps, even if I didn’t buy it, I would just admit, quietly, that I liked the song. Perhaps I would admit to myself why it made my heart leap every time it came on the radio. (I never did buy it. I picked it up in the shop and turned it over several times in my hands. I put it back. I pretended I didn’t like the song.) 

As I go into 2017, decades later, I am living with my wonderful girlfriend who makes my heart sing every day, who my family  members welcome into their lives with open arms. And I feel so much gratitude to people like George Michael, whose battle with the media vultures helped me, and thousands of others like me, know that we are allowed to exist, that we are not an anomaly, that we are not a problem that needs correcting. I never write to celebrities – they get so many letters, what would mine matter? – but I have often thought of writing to George Michael. I never did. Just like I never bought the Outside cassette. In 1998 I wanted to blast that damn song from the rooftops. Maybe this weekend I will. Let’s go outside. In the sunshine. I would like to be playing it as a victory anthem. But for now, a celebration will do. 

Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor

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?

UKIP, “politically incorrect” jokes, and boundary pushing

Ukip, “politically incorrect” jokes, and boundary pushing 

I don’t like UKIP. There, I said it. I don’t like them. I’m bored of indulging them, indulging their little defenders and apologists. The party scares me enormously, with their insidious drip drip drip of what they call “political incorrectness” – a self-righteous, self-romanticising, self-indulgent way of describing any views that people object to. From the moment they proscribed HopeNotHate as a hate organisation, it was obvious what kind of organisation they are. They are extreme. I am talking specifically about the party itself, in its fundamental world view, which is extreme. How could you think HopeNotHate are a hate group unless you are extreme?

Is the party racist? That accusation inevitably gets met with a similar response to individual accusations of racism. That response is more or less: in my life I’ve done things which aren’t racist, and that proves that I’m not racist. Okay. Fine. I daresay there are people in UKIP who are not racist every minute of the day. There are people in UKIP who have done not-racist things in their lives. There are individuals in UKIP who aren’t white and the party is okay with that. (Give them all the cookies, seriously.) But there’s no getting around the fact that at their spring conference, comedian Paul Eastwood told a series of racist jokes, and not only did the crowds laugh, but Nigel Farage defended the jokes –  although he hadn’t actually heard them, he says – on the basis that they are ‘national, not racial’ stereotypes. Then fell back on the classic straw man defence: we must be careful not to kill comedy or censor people. No-one is doing either. What I am doing is saying that I do not trust the values and decency of a party that laughs at those sorts of jokes.  Farage also advocated a free market solution to racism; that if the man’s jokes are racist no-one will book him again. That might be true, but only if people talk about it and challenge him. How does he think these potential future customers find things out and make a decision about whether to book him again?

Nigel Farage’s response is so old it makes me yawn. Jokes matter. Why do people tell racist – or for that matter, sexist or homophobic – jokes? I don’t believe it’s just about making people laugh. There are much funnier ways to do that. What these people are doing is chipping away at our boundaries.

Comedians are usually quite rightly happy to say that’s what ‘controversial’ comedy is about. Pushing boundaries. Breaking taboos. In fact, many comedians embrace it as the whole point of their ‘controversial’ comedy.

I looked into sexist comedy because I was tired of arguing about rape jokes in terms of trauma and feelings and pain. Those things should matter to people but they obviously don’t, so I decided to look at the broader impact. And it turns out, quite a lot of people have looked into this. It has been found in more than one study that misogynistic jokes, especially those at the expense of a rape survivor, have a direct impact on things like the likelihood of a person believing rape survivors, the likelihood of them believing rape myths, and the likelihood of them blaming rape survivors for their own rape. Here’s just one article by the very funny comedian Raj Sivaraman which explains this rather expertly.

And you know what else? Comedy is honest. When we laugh, it comes from the gut.  Who we humiliate and who we tell to shut up and who we listen to and who we stand up for and who we use as a punchbag isn’t a random coincidence. We should look closely at who we think it’s okay to laugh at. It tells us who we are.

Boundary pushing isn’t an accident. It is an exertion of power. Sexist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind women that whoever they are, whatever they’ve achieved, misogynists hate them. Racist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind people of colour that however safe they feel, there are racist white people who hate them.  When you make bigoted jokes you are reminding marginalised people that their humanity is conditional. You are reminding them that you are being generous for not hating them, and deserve gratitude. When you make an ironic joke to show how funny it would be if you genuinely, non-ironically said a bigoted thing, you are demanding that the subject of your joke embrace you as not-a-bigot and laugh at your definition of what is and isn’t acceptable. Yes, it is a direct exertion of power – whether you consciously intend it that way or not.

This silly myth of “political correctness” is particularly dangerous for our generation because we don’t remember just how recently everybody’s boundaries were so different – and just how easily they could be pushed back. We laugh at rape jokes without remembering that even as recently as the 1990s, ‘rape’ didn’t mean a violation of your body without your consent, but rather, a crime of property, against not you but your husband or father, because rape within marriage was perfectly legal.

When people like Paul Eastwood make jokes about Somalians shooting people, mocks Asian accents, jokes about places being full of Arabs, and throws in insults about  Muslims and Poles to boot, to a roomful of laughing Ukippers, mostly wealthy, mostly white, some who hold positions of elected office, they are not just providing entertainment, they are pushing boundaries. And it works. Of course it does. One racist joke at a time, racial slurs go from “racist,” to “offensive,” to “colourful language”. One sexist joke at a time, sexist slurs go from “misogyny” to “risqué” to “poorly worded” to “old fashioned values”. And before we know it, oppressive bigotry is a matter of hurting people’s feelings with clumsy phrasing. The underlying values become normal.

I am tired of pretending that UKIP stand for anything nuanced or original. We can be capable of understanding why people get frustrated with the main parties, we can get that people relate to UKIP – Farage in particular – we can agree that Westminster is painfully out of touch, all while still holding and expressing the opinion that Nigel Farage is a deeply unpleasant man, and that the party’s core values are rooted in something very ugly. When challenged, they wipe policies off their website and start again. They apologise for their choice of words and explain that they weren’t insulting women for being sexual, they were insulting women for not doing enough housework. But the bigger picture is that any policy coming from the sort of people who will laugh publically and shamelessly at those sorts of jokes will be a disaster for the country. Your underlying values matter.

People tell me, hey, but Nigel Farage is likeable. Likeable? To whom? How can you find Nigel Farage “likeable”? He is only “likeable” if you “like” people because they have learned how to apply charm like a coat of bad paint. I judge people – especially potential future leaders – on their actions, values, and character, not whether they enjoy a pint and have a lopsided grin.

It is ironic that the media and political careerists are the first to accuse those of us who have no patience with the question-dodging, fact-dismissing, £2m-in-expenses-claiming Farage of being disinterested in why he connects with people. It is ironic because they are the ones interested in the psephology of the thing. Will it harm the blue vote or the red vote? Will they challenge Labour in the north or should they focus all resource on the south? Should the right have supported the alternative vote? These are the sort of people who say things like: “this is too important to be made into a political issue. ” What the hell are your politics about , if not important things? These are the sort of people who say: “he’s a nice person and I get on very well with him – obviously his politics are horrendous though.” Your politics come from your values. If your values are horrendous you’re not a very nice person.

And why do UKIP supporters still get these generous assumptions that UKIP connects with people because they’re disillusioned or vulnerable? There are a lot of people who do hold racist, sexist, and homophobic views and they’ve just been waiting for somebody “likeable” like Farage to come along and validate them.

What UKIP has done with their boundary pushing is make bigotry subjective. They’ve made it a matter of “political correctness”, a modern fad that some people just don’t sign up to. Far from all being shackled by this mysteriously-defined “political correctness”, it seems that we’re not supposed to call racism ‘racism’ anymore because it’s trivialising the debate or name calling or censorship or being out of touch.

So please, please, please can we drop all this yeah but Farage is a talented politician, yeah but UKIP make some valid points, yeah but Farage is charming and funny and likes a pint. I don’t judge people on whether they like a pint. I judge them on their actions. Just imagine those jokes at an office party. Imagine them in your parliament. Imagine them in the grocery store. Imagine them being normal and acceptable and just how people talk to one another. I find it hard to see it as a laughing matter.

FEEDING THE TROLLS: The put-upon privileged who resist progress need to take responsibility for their actions

Rod Liddle, bless him, has somehow become a big-government, pro-statist left-winger. No, really. Here he is, in the Spectator, calling for regulations on businesses to protect employment rights for workers, even when the employee in question screws up so monumentally that your entire business’s credibility hangs by the skin of your gums.

You see, Rod Liddle thinks it was unfair of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to make a commercial decision about John Derbyshire’s future employment with him following his ‘controverisal’ (read: racist) article in a different, online publication. Derbyshire’s article The Talk includes titbits of wisdom like explaining to white kids that black people are usually less intelligent than white people, and that they should avoid, mistrust, and fear black people whenever they see them. You don’t need to spend much time joining the rather obvious dots to see how tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or, here in England, of Mark Duggan and Charles de Menezes, are the inevitable end result of having people walk around believing such racist nonsense. If it was published in England the article would quite likely be deemed an incitement to racial hatred.

America should be proud of the respect they give to their constitutional right to free speech. But the land of freedom is also famed for being the land of personal responsibility. If you’re seriously going to expect a black man wearing a hood to ‘take responsibility’ for the fact that some people see a hood as a threatening thing (rather than being, say, a good way to keep your ears warm), or a woman to ‘take responsibility’ for how she dresses or what she drinks in case she’s assaulted, you really have to also agree that racists should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their racism – or even to just use their common sense in understanding, as a grown up, that when they say racist things, some people will probably call them racist.

The National Review is a serious magazine, and, apart from anything else, it’s a well-run business. Lowry is perfectly entitled to decide whom he wants to employ and whom he wants to sack. Welcome to the free market.

Justice has been served by the free market itself (and it seemingly has because John Derbyshire has been sacked), so you might ask why I’m feeding the trolls with a blog post about the whining naysayers? Does it matter if people write silly things on the internet?

Well, for a start, the hateful Coffee House blog Rod Liddle wrote about the Stephen Lawrence case almost prejudiced the whole trial. It’s a horrible thing to make victims beg for justice in the first place; to risk dragging the quest for it out even further for the sake of your right to say silly things about a murder case with no consequences definitely does matter.

But this smug veneer of being lazily controversial at the expense of less privileged people than yourself is damaging to us all as a society in a much less immediately tangible way. It helps cultivate a culture of cynicism so pervasive that it serves to do exactly the opposite of what those who practice it pretend they want.

The Liddles, O’Neills, and Delingpoles are not the defenders of free speech. They are the very thing they say they detest: an oversensitive mob, shouting down dissent, and trying to ridicule people into silence.

They contribute to and facilitate a culture which is extremely saddening. It allows people to sit in their bedrooms nursing a convenient, uncharitable assumption that anyone who cares about any moral issue, ever, is only doing it because they’re following some trend, or else for some other selfish, hypocritical reason. It’s easy to miss how prevalent this world view is.

Real, serious work, such as that done by charities like Refuge, gets denigrated by Carol Sarler in the Daily Mail with no basis for the assumptions made whatsoever. Protesters get denounced because they drink coffee. In fact, activists, writers, and ordinary people taking any moral interest in anything are continually met with the most tenuous accusations of “hypocrisy” because, for example, they care about X, but not Y. And the criticisms usually come from people who feel no particular need to give a toss about X or Y. Or a A, B, C or D, for that matter.

Just look at the comments on the Guardian article by Ava Vidal about the Trayvon Martin case. Why don’t you do more about gang violence, demand page upon page of furious commentators? Why don’t you criticise black killers? Almost as if a black person’s opinion is only valid if they criticise some unrelated other black people first, which, come to think of it, is probably the inevitable logical conclusion you come to if you hold everyone of the same race responsible for each other’s actions (i.e. if you’re a racist).

And this fake concern for every other issue under the sun bar the one the person in question happens to be addressing at that particular point in time is more than just a mild irritation. It actually gives validation to whatever is being spoken out against. When Brendan O’Neill decided that the most pressing issue worthy of space on his blog was to criticise all the people who protested the execution of Troy Davis – protested it on the rather important grounds that he might have actually been innocent – he accused them of inverse racism. He may not have a racist bone in his own body, but the article spewed comments from a stream of people who had several, and who saw his sneering at anti-racism campaigners as a validation of their hate. When he criticised the language in the government’s gay marriage consultation by pretending to be offended that “us, the little people” are not welcome in the consultation process, he attracted pages of comments from people who “agree” with him that gender reassignment is nonsense, that people can’t ever truly change gender, and, weirdly, that the feminist movement should be honest and rename itself the militant lesbian movement.

It’s not just that these kinds of columns dismiss very real concerns from people who are often vulnerable and voiceless. By peacocking his own ignorance about gender reassignment and framing it as ordinary, O’Neill actually shifts the centre ground in terms of social progress. And, needless to say, he isn’t shifting it forwards. Keeping an issue like trans rights on the sidelines is the perfect way to provide yourself with endless column-fodder for years to come. While an issue is only defined a minority issue, it can be derided as irrelevant to ordinary people, and then, when awareness is successfully raised and people start to actually care about the issue in question, everyone taking an interest can just be mocked – then completely ignored – for being nothing more than fashion-following sheep.

To say nothing of the fact that declaring minority issues to be all bang on trend can be repulsively insulting to the people who know, with painful clarity, just who the most powerful “mob” really is.

Homophobes who sometimes have to – shock, horror – have their views challenged may think that being gay is “fashionable,” but a child bullied for being gay – whether they actually are gay or not – who is terrified to walk home after school, or go into the school toilets, for fear of being beaten up or worse, would probably disagree. Rod Liddle may be able to make money from writing in the Sun that disability is fashionable (before mocking and denigrating disabled people in the same article) but Fiona Pilkington and her daughter? They knew only too well that it wasn’t.

Yes, welcome to the smelly nub of the hypocrisy of these faux-libertarians. These people who side with the dominant groups in society, usually make money from doing so, and then pretend to be bravely rebelling against a fashionable trend. These people who say they agree that people are better at solving problems than governments are, but when people try to solve problems, they throw their toys out of the pram and call them names, because, as it turns out, they don’t like that very much either.

After all, when News of the World was closed down by the free market, because consumers and advertisers alike voiced their disgust in a great example of real free speech, against an organisation that actually was powerful, and had actually been engaged in illegal, harmful activities, Liddle, O’Neill and Dellingpole didn’t applaud that, or hold it up as an example of why government doesn’t need to regulate the press. No, they demonised the people speaking out about phone-hacking as biased, vindictive, and stupid.

There are some people who genuinely do value personal freedom, but we also value personal responsibility. There are others who use the very precious concept of liberty as an excuse to defend the indefensible. Make no mistake: that’s not about freedom of speech, or about freedom of anything else. It’s about resisting progress. Are these people to blame for every racist murder and every assaulted trans person? No. But every piggish snort they give out, every minute they spend finding reasons to mock the voices trying, however imperfectly, to drive social progress forwards for all of us, sets the whole fight back just a little bit further. And for that, they really should take some personal responsibility.