Don’t sweat the small stuff

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Jen­nifer Lip­man

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?

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