Sunday, 12 February 2012

Ken Livingstone and the benefit of the doubt

One day I was walking down my local high street on a busy Saturday afternoon, and came face-to-face with a chap walking on a direct collision course. There wasn't room on the pavement for both of us and someone was going to have to step into the road. He blinked first.

Ten seconds later, I thought, "SHIT, that was a bit like in Apartheid South Africa when black people had to walk in the gutter if there were white people on the pavement, WAS MY PERAMBULATION SITUATION RACIALLY MOTIVATED?"

Ten seconds after that, I burst out laughing and decided I should write to the Daily Mail: "Now that is political correctness gone mad."

Which is to say that I think about this stuff a lot. I think it's a depression thing as much as a 'political correctness' thing: the constant inner-monologue of "did that joke sound racist, am I accidentally propping up regressive gender roles, was that an okay thing to say to a gay lady and am I working hard enough beating down my own transphobia?" is just one facet of everything else I worry about, all the time. Am I doing enough, well enough, trying hard enough, while looking effortless enough, and also hot enough, and most importantly does everyone else think I am enough enough? (Though obviously their opinions are worthless becausee they don't know how rubbish I really am. Welcome to CrazyBrain!)

But this doesn't mean a fucking thing. I know that I spend an awful lot of time and energy trying not to be 'ist, but the Indian guy I've been working with for a few months has no way of knowing this - and even if he did, that doesn't mean he automatically has to excuse the potentially-racist-sounding joke I made on Friday. And I could have let it go, hoped it hadn't annoyed or offended him and moved on, but I realised I had absolutely no right to assume that he had seen and accepted my Anti-Racist Credentials. No right to assume he would give me the benefit of the doubt. (I apologised; he laughed at me for apologising; we're good, I think.)

When someone does or says something that tingles your 'ism antenna, you're not assessing that action or comment in isolation. There's no way you can: the brain really doesn't like to compartmentalise.* So reading that "Ken Livingstone says the Tory party is 'riddled' with homosexuals" awakens all the information I've got stored on Ken, on Tories, on gays, on ringworm... and I can't analyse the incident without putting it into the context of that information. I can't unknow that Ken set up a register for gay couples who had no other way of officially declaring their commitment. I can't unknow that the Tories are dragging their feet on gay marriage and have historically done pretty much shit-all to enable GLBT equality, or that Boris Johnson compared a man marrying a man to a man marrying a dog. (I don't actually know anything about ringworm, which is handy, because it's irrelevant to the discussion; it just sounds a bit like 'riddle'.)

(For the record, he meant that the Tory party is riddled with closetedness. Which is very different.)

When somone I'm close to says anything that sounds a bit off, I tend to assume that they phrased it badly, or I misunderstood - not that they are A Sexist/Racist/etc. It works differently on a public stage - I don't have a relationship with Ken Livingstone, so I can't assess whether he's genuinely committed to fighting LGBT prejudice, but I can look at his actions.

This tendency doesn't always work so well: it's a kneejerk response to assume that people we like aren't prejudiced, and try to explain away anything which belies that assumption rather than dealing with it head on. If he's on Our Team, he must be okay really (literally, in the Suárez case). If the story had been "Boris Johnson says something homophobic", I probably wouldn't even have read the whole story, because his past actions make that entirely believable (and because I have a pathological aversion to the Conservative Party). But it sounds out of character for Ken, so I read around, found the full quote, and decided in his favour. (Which I'm sure was a great relief for him.)

No one 'deserves' the benefit of the doubt in these cases. It's something we can decide to bestow, or not, according to whatever criteria we choose. This episode has made me think a little harder about who I choose to give it to, and why.

* This might not be true of brains on the autism spectrum, but I don't know enough about that to go into it, so bear that ignorance in mind.


  1. "Am I doing enough, well enough, trying hard enough, while looking effortless enough, and also hot enough, and most importantly does everyone else think I am enough enough? (Though obviously their opinions are worthless becausee they don't know how rubbish I really am. Welcome to CrazyBrain!)"

    I LOVE this. And by love I mean that my brand of CrazyBrain is very much in agreement with your brand of CrazyBrain. Go team! Much love xx

  2. I think about this stuff all the time. I sort of came to the conclusion that I know my intentions are good, but if someone of the marginalised group that I accidentally offended calls me on it, then that's an opportunity to grow and learn. It would suck, because I would hate to offend anyone.

    I do think that in this context Ken Livingstone deserves the benefit of the doubt, he is ultimately a pro-LGBT politician which is hard to come by! And we definitely need to think about these incidents in context. But as an ally rather than an LGBT-identified person he needs to be able to take criticism of his language and move on. It's not relevant in this case, as the faux outrage came from the Right as an excuse to undermine him. But if it had been offensive to LGBT people? That's when the benefit of the doubt, and the awareness of past actions, is not enough.

    Great post, really thought provoking!