Discrimination: under the skin

At its most basic discrimination is the positive or negative selective treatment of one group over another. The treatment may be unequal, unfair, or prejudicial; sometimes illegal.

It is well on the way to being a ‘catch-all’ term for negative, perhaps toxic, attitudes particularly in situations of ableism, ageism, chauvinism, classism, heterosexism, racism, sexism; the list goes on.

Accusations of ‘discrimination’ in recent news

In public life the use of discriminatory language can lead headlong into the abyss.
Is it always so?

Case One: David Starkey, Historian

Within days of a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement in which he used racist language the eminent historian had been stripped of every academic distinction and honour.

  • Starkey stated that slavery was not genocide. I read up on this and found that there is academic debate going on about what constitutes ‘genocide’. From the Greek ‘genos’ (race) + Latin ‘caedo’ (to kill) it literally means to wipe out a homogeneous group of people. Enslavement was total subjugation for power and profit; obliteration was not desirable. He should have stuck to the academic argument, but he chose to emphasise the point in very non-academic terms. He apologised “unreservedly” for his “deplorably inflammatory” remarks. PinkNews chose to distance themselves and pour scorn on his apology; as an openly gay public figure who champions gay rights he may have hoped for a less vitriolic reaction to his humiliation.
  • Starkey said that he had paid heavily for “one offensive word”. Well, it wasn’t just “one”. No single word was offensive; it was the combination of them that made this such an incendiary comment, “so” “many” “damn” “blacks” “awful” “lot”. As an academic and a writer he should have considered the whole package of words.
  • His publishers severed connections. He has had to step down from prestigious colleges and trusts with which he has been associated for decades. For as many years he has had a reputation for confronting and disparaging others to the point of crassness.
  • Colleagues have said in interviews that Starkey is known to be racist; that his racism was evident years ago. Why was nothing said then? I do not ask this as a way of defending him. I ask because I believe it should have been stopped.
  • Left-wing papers and magazines are out for blood. But they are attacking his reputation by conflating the racist remarks with his stance as a Brexiteer and his belief that some positives came from Empire. Again, why? A direct and concentrated argument is so much stronger.
  • At 75 Starkey has lost everything he has worked for. Having lost his long-term partner five years ago he must be feeling a very lonely man.
Case Two: J K Rowling, Writer

Rowling was accused of being transphobic in a backlash against her stance over a “people who menstruate” headline. She wrote, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

  • She upset a lot of people, and many wished to distance themselves, from the Trans Community, fans, stars of the Harry Potter films, celebrities, and employees at the publishing company. Her lack of authority to comment on such issues was repeated loud and clear: she’s not an expert on gender, not a scientist nor a doctor. “This is not her fight.”
  • Rather than offering an apology Rowling attempted to reassert her position, writing at length about being a survivor of sexual assault and an abusive marriage. She said she needed the reassurance of women-only spaces. Along with many other women, I have been a victim of abuse and sexual assault from men and women. I have never felt threatened by any transgender women or transvestites I have met.
  • Rowling went on to retweet a post suggesting that hormones were the new antidepressants and that medication was the ‘lazy’ solution to healing minds. This was highly offensive on two counts. It supported the notion that those with gender issues could be ‘cured’, and that those who take antidepressants are looking for an easy fix. Many tweeted of their own experiences, again critical of her, and this did elicit a response.
  • Publisher Hachette UK supported her citing ‘freedom of speech’ as a fundamental principle; staff were told that they could not refuse to work on her books just because they disagreed with her personal views.
  • Rowling can say what she likes, no matter how public her platform, no matter how she offends. I, on the other hand … Who knows who is allowed to question, criticise, disassociate without a backlash? Not her fans, not the publisher’s employees, not people within the trans or mental health communities.

To return to my initial question. No, falling into the abyss is not a certainty. It could be determined more by your celebrity status, your influence, your level of expertise, and your attitude rather than what you say and where you say it.

David StarkeyJ K Rowling
used racist language; online interviewmade heterosexist comments; Twitter
controversial academicpopular novelist with huge fanbase
writes, lectures, and broadcasts on historylectures and broadcasts on her writing
made deeply offensive remarks in the context of his academic standingmade deeply offensive remarks with no personal experience of the matter
Unpopular bigot?Popular money-maker?
Where now?

Treat every act of offensive rhetoric the same.
As someone who has been bullied and abused, and generally taken advantage of due to serious mental health issues and autism I take exception to a societal norm that shields toxic speech.
When ‘freedom of speech’ hides hate speech, abusive speech, and offensive speech, then that speech leaves minorities and the marginalised vulnerable. It should not be tolerated.

I realise this may have been pretty heady reading for some, but I did not set out to offend. If you think my words are worthy please like and share. I would also appreciate your views, so please comment. Thank you for reading.

Stay well. Stay safe. Look after yourself and those you care for.

Marilyn X