‘Gam­mon’ isn’t racist, but it’s mock­ing the wrong tar­get

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - 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 sin­gle-use. 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 one-up­man­ship, not of a word that mean­ing­fully changes the dis­course.

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.

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.

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, trashytabloid-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.

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 for the pin­na­cle of po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

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