A few years ago, a good friend of mine came to visit, and stayed for a meal. He was politically aware, intellectually curious, and well-read, so I was dismayed when he referred disgustedly to Jewish control of the media. He saw my reaction; he back-pedalled, made light of it, changed the subject, and I let it go: he was my guest, and I did not want to make him uncomfortable. Now I wish I had not let it go, because since then I have seen everything he’s said through a filter of mistrust.
This was by no means the first such experience, and won’t be the last, and it was a private exchange, not a public one, but the same sense of betrayal of trust colours both kinds of encounters. The veneer of civility splits, and the substructure of prejudice and hostility shows through.
Prejudice is in all of us, because it’s in our language and culture, so it should not be surprising when we encounter it – after all, each of us is as capable as the next person of bigotry and ignorance, no matter how enlightened we might like to believe ourselves to be. It’s as much in those who acknowledge their prejudices as in those who blithely state that they haven’t a prejudiced bone in their bodies. No one is so extraordinary that by simply adopting an ‘enlightened’ attitude they can somehow be free of the structures of their society and language.
What matters is not how free of prejudice we believe ourselves to be, but what we choose to do about it when we find it in ourselves – and how we choose to deal with it when we encounter it in others.
Every day, it seems, new examples of ignorance and prejudice about Jews emerge among those with some kind of public profile, associated with one political party or another (I am focusing here on hostile discourse about Jews because it is what I know about, both through personal experience and through my research on the subject). Often these examples are not so much ‘discovered’ as sought out. Some people appear to delight in such new evidence, and seem to want the identified perpetrators to squirm for all eternity on the pin with which they have impaled them.
Perhaps it’s the case that such people feel powerless, feel something is being stripped away from them, and their viciousness about others’ mistakes is a return of hurt for hurt. But I think that most people do not delight in that viciousness. I believe most of us, including those who are in pain, don’t wish that pain on others, and are uncomfortable seeing it meted out in this way. So how should we respond to the discovery that yet again someone in a public role has used antisemitic tropes, for whatever reason, in whatever context? What is it that we want the alleged perpetrator to do about it? Do we want them to squirm for all eternity, or is there the possibility of making something better out of something bad?
Sorry if – sorry that
I don’t know what other people want as a response, but I know what I want. It’s what I wanted when my friend, sitting across the table from me, made me feel unsafe in my own home. I want to hear an unequivocal acknowledgement of causing hurt; an unequivocal apology for it, and a commitment to reflect and change.
Surely that is what anyone wants to hear in a situation when someone has inadvertently hurt you: “I see that I have hurt you; I am sorry for hurting you; I will try to understand what happened so that I will not hurt you again.” It’s what I would aspire to do if I inadvertently hurt someone else. It’s the basic courtesy and consideration of the other that makes individual and collective relationships function.
The language of acknowledgement and apology matters. ‘Sorry if…’ suggests the possibility that you did not cause hurt. ‘Sorry that…’ recognises unequivocally that you did, indeed, cause hurt. When you recognise that what you’ve done has hurt someone, you are most of the way towards understanding, and therefore also most of the way towards change, which may safeguard against it happening again. Anything else – including explanation or justification; comparison with other forms of prejudice; downplaying the intention, or questioning its impact – is simply equivocation, and a refusal to take full responsibility for your actions and their consequences.
Antisemitic tropes might often seem impersonal, and to do with some notional group of faceless Jews, but they affect real, living Jews, every time: the instances accumulate, and compound, and resonate with all the other instances, including all the instances that aren’t impersonal at all. Knowingly or unknowingly, someone might use a hostile trope for many different reasons, but whatever the intention or inattentiveness behind it, it is both hurtful and harmful, because it makes individual Jews feel unsafe, and it contributes to many Jews being physically unsafe. The rising level of violence and abuse against Jews in the UK and worldwide illustrates that clearly, and it’s an indication of the scale of the problem that it even needs to be said.
If you have used hostile tropes about Jews, whether deliberately or lazily or in ignorance, you should be prepared to be asked about it, and challenged for it. But you should also be given an opportunity to acknowledge, apologise and reflect. That is true no matter the intention or context.
All of us who seek to shape or change opinion through publishing commentary in social or other media can be held to account for what we say, and have said, and it’s appropriate that we are. Where there is a formal role or membership associated with a political party or a public body, the accountability is twofold: that of the individual, and that of the organisation. How organisations or parties deal with the revelation of prejudice by members or associates reflects on the organisation. But how individuals deal with such revelations reflects on the individuals themselves.
If what we want – and it’s what I want – is change, rather than stasis or repetition, then we need to give people the genuine opportunity to reflect, and learn, and move on from mistakes. That means we have to stop repeatedly pressing on the pin they’re impaled on to make them squirm again. Instead, when someone has been found wanting, and has been challenged, and has acknowledged the harm, apologised, and shown new understanding, might we ask of one another that we accept it, rather than returning to it over and over? That way perhaps we can begin to repair the breach, and rebuild trust in each other.
People don’t tend to change when they’re in a corner, when they’re accused and feel under attack. They might say the things expected of them, but they do so under duress. Instead, people change when they feel safe to come out of the corner – and when they change, there’s the opportunity to do more than acknowledge the hurt they’ve caused: there’s the opportunity to contribute a little bit to preventing further harm. It’s time we made room for that to happen.
(It’s also time I wrote an email to that friend…)