Ken Livingstone's comments were contemptible. So how come so many people—and news channels—wanted him to keep repeating them?by Julia Blunck / May 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
After two years of acrimonious fights about his membership of the Labour party, Livingstone has quit, claiming it was a “distracting” row. It’s a pathetic and well-deserved end for someone who could have been a beloved politician. Livingstone repeatedly made claims that Hitler was a Zionist, an untrue and racist accusation.
His name was never too distant from the word “Hitler”—so much so that, with every TV appearance, it became something of a game to count the minutes until he said it on air. It was usually not a lot of time, although it’s not clear if he was easily baited, or just eager to get the bigotry out of the way.
As commenters discuss what Livingstone’s fall says about the Labour Party, it is worth also thinking about how we respond to it. Every time he appears on screen, there is still the anticipation, the jokes, is he gonna say it?
There is an argument to be made that a man who says horrible things deserves all the ridicule in the world. But this misses the bigger question: why does he keep being given a platform to say those things?
The media knows what the former mayor of London will do if he is put on air: he will offend Jewish people. To keep giving him airtime doesn’t make life easier for the Jewish community, or expose a part of his character that the public deserves to know about.
If that were true, once or twice would have been enough. Livingstone keeps being given a voice in the media because deep down, the audience wants people to show, and keep showing, the extent of their horribleness.
The truth is, the Hitler betting pool delighted many of the people who oppose the current Labour leader, because Livingstone’s continued presence in the party seemed like proof of what they believe about Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to Jewish members. But the glee was purely self-satisfactory: it didn’t improve the party’s problems, and it didn’t consider the feelings of those hurt by what Livingstone was doing.
This delight is different from justified anger or frustration at party procedure. One comes from a place of legitimate opposition to Livingstone’s behaviour. The other revels in it.
“It is almost as if want bigotry to exist so we can be right about our opponents”
It’s not only the opponents of the Labour left who do it. The recent suspension of Lewisham East chair Ian McKenzie, after a terrible tweet about Emily Thornberry’s hypothetical rape at the hands of ISIS, was met by some not with a profound reflection on how to tackle deep-rooted sexism in the Labour party, but with glee and taunting.
The remark was barely-concealed misogyny, and it is right that the party is investigating. But that doesn’t change the fact many revelled in its existence. At some level, it is almost as if some of us want bigotry to exist so we can be right about our opponents.
These problems are not confined to Labour politics, or indeed politics in general. Whether the topic at hand is harassment allegations or racist jokes, over and over again, incidents that should be handled in a delicate manner are treated as a game of “my opponent’s morality,” with little care for the people affected. Necessary debates on systemic misogyny and racism are ignored in favour of scoring points against a political group.
Of course, political spin has always existed. But in the age of social media, anyone can become the “bad person” of the week. Take how quickly and viciously the internet turned on Hetty Douglas for her tone-deaf comments about two workmen in a queue at McDonald’s—with thousands of comments sent her way—compared to how complacent we are when it comes to actually tackling class snobbery.
Online, social media reduces everything to two camps: one good and virtuous, the other terrible and cruel. It’s always possible to get validation from the first group by taking down the latter—especially when you have evidence of bad behaviour.
Conversely, people can become defenders of the indefensible when they feel their side is under attack. Their side, they seem to believe, cannot be wrong.
Point scoring infantilizes political discourse—always about the existence of bad opponents, never about a system.
It also makes us unable to look at ourselves. Cases like Livingstone’s and McKenzie’s are easy to spot and easy to jump on; but underneath them, there is something more difficult to acknowledge. Not many of us have said such offensive things, but we have all said things that are regrettable, online or off.
We are all capable of terrible acts; what’s more, in a racist, sexist society, we are all capable of being racist and sexist, even otherwise good people. But good people do not only apologize, properly and fully, but make amends for their actions. The men mentioned haven’t, and so it is right that the former has left Labour and the latter will have his case considered by the party’s NEC.
But there is no cause for celebration, especially when the people involved were supposed to know better. Political figures like Livingstone failed themselves, and in doing that, they failed us too. That makes them something much more terrible than villains, and much closer to us: disappointing humans.