The Smeeth/Wadsworth dispute underlines why I still have a problem with ‘political correctness’

April 27, 2018

by Martin Odoni

Around fifteen years ago, I was sweepingly dismissive of political correctness. Despite my generally leftist views, I found the sometimes-elaborate care people were expected to take to avoid offensiveness to be an obstruction to free speech and even to free thought. (My fellow blogger and Salford-Labour activist, Mara Leverkuhn, still feels that way.)

As the years have passed, my attitude towards it has softened, especially as I have come to realise that the, mainly right-wing, objections to it usually boil down to attempts to offload the blame for hurtfulness onto the person being hurt. Sometimes talking tough is necessary, of course, but that does not make it all right ever to encourage stereotype or urban myths. And when tough talk is not needed, why be hurtful anyway?

One of my old doubts about ‘PC’ rules, however, continues to bug me, despite friends repeatedly telling me that my worries are no big deal. Alas, the very sad outcome of the unpleasant spat between Labour MP Ruth Smeeth and party activist Marc Wadsworth is a concrete example of why I am probably right.

The spat in question began back in June 2016 at an event marking the publication of the Chakrabarti Report into supposed racist, and especially anti-Semitic, behaviour in the Labour Party. During the event, Wadsworth, a lifelong anti-racism activist, made a statement in which he levelled a withering insinuation at Smeeth, who is Jewish. She took the remark to be anti-Semitic – or at least she claims to –  and eventually lodged a complaint against Wadsworth accordingly.

Today, the needlessly-protracted investigation into the incident finally came to a conclusion (the frequent delays in getting these sorts of matters over with are just one more reason why Iain McNicol’s departure as General Secretary was clearly correct). The decision of Labour’s National Constitutional Committee was that Wadsworth should be formally expelled from the Labour Party.

Now, to be clear, Wadsworth was not officially charged with anti-Semitism, no matter how much the right wing media and pro-Israel groups want us to believe he was. The actual charge was Bringing the party into disrepute. Why that should apply in this case and not in, say, the cases of Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson, given their endless attempts to smear and undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, could perhaps do with some explaining, but let us leave that on one side for now. It is perhaps telling that the charges levelled were more vaguely-defined ones than Smeeth’s original accusation.

Now the broad gist of Wadsworth’s statement was not about Smeeth particularly, it was more an appeal for the party to be more representative of a broader cross-section of the nation’s different ethnic communities. But the specific words spoken by Wadsworth, to which Smeeth took exception were as follows; –

“I saw that the Telegraph handed a copy of a press release to Ruth Smeeth MP, so you can see who is working hand-in-hand.”

Marc Wadworth

Marc Wadsworth making the statement that got him doubtfully expelled from the Labour Party.

This was interpreted by many, including, it seems, Smeeth herself, as Wadsworth accusing her of being part of a ‘Jewish-led media conspiracy’.

In the cold, objective light of day, this interpretation is completely ridiculous. Not only did Wadsworth not mention Jews or anything obviously relating to Jewish people or culture, he also did not mention a media conspiracy as such. He was simply pointing out reasons to suspect that one Labour MP, who happened to be Jewish (of which Wadsworth was probably unaware at the time anyway), appeared to be co-operating with a newspaper whose history is notoriously pro-Conservative and anti-Labour.

This description is quite remote from the silly old stereotype conspiracy-myth of an ‘evil cabal of Jews secretly running the world’s media’. But, and this where my above unease about political correctness comes in, there are a couple of points of resemblance. Only a couple, and not particularly strong ones, but they are there.

Working hand-in-hand with a person or organisation on the quiet can be labelled without too much of a stretch as ‘a conspiracy’. And as the organisation Smeeth was being accused of working with was a media organisation, there is an echo of the stereotype mentioned above.

It is quite ridiculous to say that these points of resemblance alone are enough to make the accusation conform to the stereotype of course. There are way too many other details that would have to be twisted far from reality in order to make it fit – not least that every person covering the Chakrabarti Report for the Telegraph would have to be made out to be both Jewish and answerable to this ‘hidden cabal’ that no anti-Semite can ever identify, but that every anti-Semite ‘just knows‘ is there. Wadsworth never implied either by any stretch.

The problem is that political correctness does not just work against offensive phrases and ideas, but also works against connotations of offensive phrases and ideas. The resemblance between the terms ‘conspiracy’ and ‘quietly working hand-in-hand’ is just strong enough that they can be assumed to be the same thing, especially by anyone nervously on the look-out for anything inappropriate. Then add in the resemblance between ‘conspiracy’ and the ridiculous undying myths that Jews are all part of a secret organisation dominating the world (if that really is true, I must be the one Jew they forgot to include – why me, fellow Hebrews, what did I do wrong?!?!), and the three ideas sort of ‘slot into’ each other like a hand-held telescope closing up. Even when a statement does not mention something offensive, if it is close enough to remind people of something offensive, it is still held to be politically incorrect. This is why casual use of objectively harmless words like ‘Jew’ and ‘black’ often makes people nervous. They have obscene connotations e.g. ‘k*ke’ and ‘n*gger’, and the original words are enough to remind people of the derogatory terms.

What happened to Wadsworth today demonstrates precisely why I am still not at all fond of political correctness; because it stigmatises passing resemblance to offensive ideas, and not just the offensive ideas themselves. And as we have seen, when that stigma is officially acted upon, it can be very destructive to the reputations of people who do not deserve it.

The whole, wildly-exaggerated ‘anti-Semitism-in-the-Labour-Party’ furore is simply a larger manifestation of the same problem. It is absolutely right that behaving anti-Semitically is classed as politically incorrect, as anti-Semitism is genuinely harmful and offensive to Jewish people. Take that from a Jew who knows what it is like to be on the receiving end. But as ‘Zionism’ and ‘pro-Israeli’ are connotations (certainly not synonyms, please note!) of Judaism, so being ‘anti-Zionist’ and being ‘anti-Israel’ become connotations of ‘anti-Semitism’. There is enough overlap for the terms to telescope into each other, making opposition to Israel ‘politically incorrect’ as well, and aiding the cynical attempts of the Israeli lobby to accuse opponents of Israel of being ‘anti-Semites’ by connotation.

The same phenomenon that has brought down Wadsworth is being worked on the Labour Party on a far bigger scale.

As I said above, it is telling that Wadsworth was not charged with anti-Semitism, but only with bringing the party into disrepute. (Chris Williamson has summed it up rather well for me on social media.) I suspect the NCC realised that the allegation of anti-Semitic meaning could not be made to stick to what Wadsworth had said, but they also felt that they could not clear him of the charges in the current climate of manufactured hysteria against anti-Semitism. As ‘bringing the party into disrepute’ is a rather vague, very broad charge, it was the easiest fall-back option they could find. But it is undoubtedly a decision made for political reasons, not for reasons of justice.

However, looking again at the wording of Wadsworth’s comments, I fear the Labour Party may have opened up the fish-bait-tin rather by expelling him. If a mildly-insinuating comment like, “This Labour MP is co-operating with a Tory newspaper” (which is clearly all that Wadworth’s comment means, when all is said and done) is enough to ‘bring the party into disrepute’, then I suspect every single member of the party, including the Blairites on the extreme right, will be in trouble for something they have said or done in their past.

6 Responses to “The Smeeth/Wadsworth dispute underlines why I still have a problem with ‘political correctness’”

  1. I do not believe there is such a thing as antisemitism – prove me wrong

  2. “bringing the party into disrepute” seems an utterly ridiculous charge. It has the ring of some catch-all that Henry VIII might have come up with. “increasing the chances of Labour not winning the next election” seems a much more sensible offence, that could be laid at the door of a number of useful idiots.

  3. EDLIS Café Says:

    Would you agree that Ruth Smeeth is racist?

    Anyone I have shown the video to from abroad sees racism against a black man in the video. But they do not have the benefit of British media, Labour MP wars or inherent British prejudices.

    ““The response of Ruth Smeeth [you can hear it in the video] “How dare you. How absolutely dare you” brings to mind racist white southern US supremacists and their attitude towards Black people, similarly those that regard themselves as members of a superior ‘class’ talking down to working people. The video also shows that the media’s reporting of her leaving the meeting ‘in tears’ is a fabrication, it can be seen that she looks around to get the reaction of those around her, and only THEN stages her walk-out.” — Jan Brooker”

    “Marc Wadsworth’s point was about racism against black people, not a concern Ruth Smeeth believes has any merit, “I saw that the Telegraph handed a copy of a press release to Ruth Smeeth MP so you can see who is working hand in hand. If you look around this room, how many African, Caribbean and Asian people are there? We need to get our house in order, don’t we?” Antisemitism in those words? Not to anyone rational. Her walking out on his mention of African, Caribbean and Asian people was deeply racist.”

    • Martin Odoni Says:

      I’d have to say not for that reason. Being dismissive of racism, in an era when there is still way too much of it, is clearly wrong, but it’s not the same as actually being a racist. However, manipulating racism for political gain is also a racist form of behaviour – entire peoples become a tool, and are therefore treated as less than human. So on those grounds, Smeeth could be seen as racist against her own people, as she is using anti-Semitic accusations as a weapon.

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