Don’t sweat the small stuff
AFEW WEEKS ago a Conservative MP found himself in hot water for referring on the BBC to his staff as “girls” – despite their being women, some fairly far from the first blush of youth. “Inappropriate and sexist,” complained one disgruntled soul on Twitter, and she wasn’t wrong. It grates that women are often as not referred to as such, when adult men are rarely described as boys. And, especially in professional contexts, it is patronising, inaccurate and really rather easy to avoid.
Yet for all that I’m a feminist, I couldn’t bring myself to care very much. Not because language doesn’t matter, but because there are bigger fish to fry; that women are more likely to be underemployed, say, that one in four will experience domestic violence.
I bring this up because of a road sign, and the frankly disproportionate reaction it caused. Not one from the Highway Code, but a red-bordered sign that appeared in Stamford Hill outside a Shul recently, depicting an Orthodox Jewish man. The consensus was that it was a warning to beware those dreadful Jews. Words like outrageous and hateful began to swirl around the web, and the press rushed to cover this striking instance of antisemitism. “Despicable, nasty behaviour” commented MP David Lammy.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the next chapter in the never-ending story of awful things said about or done to the Jews, but a rather poorly thought-out stunt by an artist seeking to document the diversity of the area. Red faces all round.
But here’s a question. Not, what was the artist thinking — the cynic in me says he wanted the free publicity and knew exactly what he was doing — but why are we (both within the community and our champions beyond it) so quick to assume the worst? It seems like every time the word “Jew” is mentioned in public life these days, on or offline, it triggers a debate on whether it was a slur (and not just when employed by Ken Livingstone).
The echo chamber of social media makes righteous outrage so easy. It makes it too easy for those keen to “virtue signal” how right-on they are via kneejerk condemnations, without pausing to confirm the truth of a matter or indeed whether it is of any import.
In the context of reports of rising antisemitism, of swastika graffiti and defaced gravestones, and the wider sense that extremist views are on the rise, not to mention the very real threat of terror as we saw in London last week, it makes sense to be vigilant. And of course it’s welcome that there is such willingness to condemn slights against us.
But I worry that in our enthusiasm to condemn even the tiniest insult — every trolling tweet, every insensitive headline — we and our champions might be screaming ourselves hoarse; using up the airtime we get to highlight antisemitism on issues that matter only a little.
Earlier this month the Home Affairs Committee took Google to task for not removing a video entitled “Jews admit organising White genocide”. The admission that it was abhorrent but also not in breach of Google’s guidelines was greeted with shock, as if the world was discovering for the first time that hateful views exist in cyberspace. But far more interesting was Yvette Cooper’s comment. “Most people would be appalled by that video,” she said.
That to me is the point. For all that the oldest hatred may be on the rise here — even if not, it certainly hasn’t gone away — we are overrun with influential voices willing to point it out; just as there are people lining up to complain about antifeminist or racist behaviour.
Yes, we still have plenty of battles to fight, not least against the kind of views that lead to Jew-hating videos appearing on YouTube, and I’m not suggesting we should accept even the most casual antisemitism as unavoidable. But we live in a time when most people, more perhaps than any other point in history, recognise prejudice and consider it unacceptable — and have an outlet to say so. In other words, we defenders of Jewish virtue can afford not to sweat the small stuff and put all of our energy into fighting the fights that really matter.
In an early West Wing episode, Leo asks Admiral Fitzwallace, who is black, whether hiring a young black man to wait on the president would present the wrong image. “You going to treat him with respect?” asks the Admiral. “I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight, Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.” Indeed.
Why are we so quick to always assume the worst?