Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ken Livingstone is no homophobe, but that's not the point

I didn't want to have to write this blog post. I thought someone else was going to write something similar, and I could get on with more productive things. But I haven't seen it, and this issue is more important than what one man happened to say, so here goes.

I was horrified at the treatment on Twitter and in the blogosphere of Ken Livingstone's New Statesman interview. Not all of this was opportunistic faux-outrage by opponents. Some genuinely believe that Ken thinks that being lesbian or gay resulted in preferential treatment in the Blair government and that homosexuality is akin to a disease with which a political party can be "riddled".

But really.

Come on.

[The public] should be allowed to know everything, except the nature of private relationships - unless there is hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it.
Pressed by Khan about his use of "Tory MP", Ken responds:
Well, the Labour ones have all come out . . . As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful . . . you just knew the Tory party was riddled with it like everywhere else is.
Surely he is saying here that being lesbian or gay was welcomed in Labour, whereas many lesbian or gay Conservatives were hypocritical in denouncing their own sexuality? I.e. the Conservative Party was riddled with hypocrisy.

Of course you might not interpret it like that. The "it" is ambiguous. Perhaps "it" refers to "homosexuality".

In that case surely the obvious interpretation is that Ken's voice is dripping with irony. He's saying something along the lines of "With Labour, if you came out, the Prime Minister would come up to you at once and give you a job on a plate, regardless of whether you deserved it." I.e. actually meaning something like "We went out of our way to celebrate diversity: We broke with the past and refused to discriminate against lesbian and gay people; we treated them fairly. You might almost have grounds for thinking (haha!) we gave them preferential treatment, but of course we didn't; I'm just exaggerating for comic effect to show how much we celebrated diversity."

The wonderful thing about human communication is that all of that can be communicated with a certain tone and a twinkle in the eye.

In the same tone and twinkle he goes on to say something akin to "For all the denunciations of homosexuality by these Tory MPs, their party must have been just as riddled with homosexuality as anywhere." I've put "riddled" in italics. Italics are fairly inadequate for conveying sarcasm in print, but in this interpretation such a response is actually signifying something like "The private lives of these Tory MPs were fair game because they were being such hypocrites. They thought homosexuality was like a disease rather than a completely normal part of life, and yet many of them must have been lesbian or gay themselves. In their bigoted terminology, the Tory Party must have been 'riddled' with homosexuality."

If you know Ken, you know he uses that tone and that twinkle a great deal, so maybe this latter interpretation is more likely than the first. You also know that the idea that his transcribed words might be misinterpreted as homophobic would never have occurred to him, because advocacy of LGBT rights is innate to his political core.

Personally, I think you're only going to interpret his responses in the interview as homophobic if you're predisposed to be anti-Ken, or if you've been on the receiving end of a huge amount of homophobia in the past, or if you assume that pretty much every politician has a protective layer of ideology hiding an inner core of bigotry.

I also defended Diane Abbott when she was attacked for racism. Just like Ken, so many people (including Ed Miliband and many Labour supporters) preferred a negative interpretation of Diane's comments, ignoring both the context and the limitations of the medium.

I'm not a big Labour fan right now (Iraq, civil liberties, centralism, the economy, blah blah blah), and I don't happen to agree with Ken's point about how much the public have a right to know about politicians' private lives.

But that's not the point. Presuming the worst about people engaged in public discourse degrades that discourse and consequently our political culture. It inevitably results in the diminution in the rich panoply of ways people have of expressing themselves. We end up with bland politicians mouthing the platitudes, simplistic soundbites, long-winded evasions and empty rhetoric that cause so many citizens to disengage from the country's political processes.

And this is more than about eloquent politicians such as Ken and Diane, who delight in colourful, attractive language to make their points, and who occasionally trip up. Very few of us are classically-trained orators, delivering unambiguous set-piece speeches from on high, and therefore we shouldn't expect our politicians to be like that either. I thought we had grown out of expecting this when John Prescott became Deputy Prime Minister.

We need a political culture that encourages diversity, that accepts we all "misspeak" at times, and that understands how hard it is to develop language to grapple with complex and evolving social problems. This culture needs a generosity of spirit if our minds are not to become prisoners of safe sentences.

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