‘Gam­mon’ is a play­ground in­sult, not some­thing to be cel­e­brated

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Poppy Noor

Gam­mon has been named one of the Collins dic­tionary’s words of the year. Not be­cause we’re fi­nally cel­e­brat­ing the un­der­dog of all Christ­mas meats, but be­cause of its place in the po­lit­i­cally charged de­bate around Brexit, in which it is used to de­scribe angry, mid­dle-aged, white Brex­i­teers – pre­sum­ably made red in the face by all their fury, big­otry and na­tion­al­ism.

It’s been greeted by some as a nat­u­ral bed­fel­low for other words on the sur­pris­ingly “woke” list – which also in­cludes gaslight­ing, #MeToo and sin­gleuse. When “iden­tity pol­i­tics” is dis­missed to be­lit­tle mi­nori­ties for car­ing about who they are, I can see why peo­ple are happy to have a word that mocks the ma­jor­ity for be­ing pas­sion­ate about their iden­ti­ties too.

But make no mis­take: this is a cel­e­bra­tion of one­up­man­ship, not of a word that mean­ing­fully changes the dis­course. By prais­ing it, are we ig­nor­ing some of its prob­lem­atic con­no­ta­tions?

Call­ing peo­ple gam­mons in­vokes the image of an emo­tion­ally charged Brexit-vot­ing con­tin­gent, who don’t think with their heads. It reeks of in­tel­lec­tual snob­bery. Mock­ing peo­ple for hav­ing feel­ings. They are the pigs, we are the peo­ple – the peo­ple who de­serve a peo­ple’s vote. It’s that old idea of the feck­less masses, who need to be gov­erned by an in­tel­lec­tual elite who re­ally knows what’s best for them – it in fact gives cre­dence to the idea that iden­tity pol­i­tics is unim­por­tant be­cause it’s just about pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s feel­ings. It’s not. Iden­tity pol­i­tics is marginalised peo­ple fight­ing back and show­ing that we have a right to be heard, to be rep­re­sented by peo­ple who look and think like us.

While some ob­ject that it’s racist – some­thing the dic­tionary was keen not to be drawn on – that’s nei­ther true, nor the point. Racist words (which do ap­pear in dic­tio­nar­ies, by the way) have the pull of broader in­jus­tices and sys­tems of con­trol be­hind them. They are hurt­ful be­cause they re­mind some­one of their place in the world. Call­ing some­one a gam­mon doesn’t re­mind white peo­ple of how they suf­fer on the ba­sis of their coun­try of birth or re­li­gion. It doesn’t re­mind them of the mass in­car­cer­a­tion of their peo­ple; or how they will be de­nied ac­cess to equal pay and em­ploy­ment be­cause of the

colour of their skin. But just be­cause it’s not racist, that does not make it a use­ful ad­di­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion around iden­tity and pol­i­tics.

Ra­cialised words can be used to push the de­bate for­ward. Us­ing “white peo­ple”, for ex­am­ple, has made the white ma­jor­ity in this coun­try, whose ac­tions are not of­ten at­trib­uted to their race, think about what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot. It re­minds us that not only black and brown peo­ple make de­ci­sions based on the colour of their skin. In con­trast, gam­mon is a play­ground in­sult. Em­ploy­ing it draws at­ten­tion from the real cul­prits – the many Brex­i­teers who aren’t “ham-egg-and-chips-lov­ing, trashy-tabloid-read­ing pro­les”, but are in fact in­cred­i­bly priv­i­leged peo­ple, such as Nigel Farage, Ar­ron Banks and Boris John­son, who hoped to make a profit out of Brexit, po­lit­i­cal or oth­er­wise.

Call­ing some­one a gam­mon might give a ma­ligned group a mo­men­tary feel­ing of power – now all of us can make fun of some­one on the ba­sis of how they look and who that makes them. But the fact that we’re fight­ing on that ground in the first place is de­press­ing. Pol­i­tics is per­sonal. Some­times it gets nasty. Some­times it gets funny. But let’s not con­fuse sling­ing bet­ter in­sults at one an­other as the pin­na­cle of po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

• Poppy Noor is a Guardian colum­nist

‘Em­ploy­ing the term gam­mon to de­scribe‘tabloid-read­ing pro­les’ draws at­ten­tionfrom the real cul­prits of Brexit – priv­i­leged peo­ple such as Nigel Farage andAr­ron Banks.’ Pho­to­graph: Matt Cardy/GettyImages

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