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