I remember once having a conversation with a particular faux-radical ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois lefty, who maintained that swearing throughout a conversation was perfectly legitimate since it constituted a rejection of that oppressive regime imposed upon us through a variety of taboos and social norms dictated to us by the bourgeoisie.
Which I found curious. My ‘working-class’ upbringing was and remains as impeccable as anyone else’s, and yet my mother would wash my mouth out with soap the moment I turned potty-mouthed in her presence. Needless to say, it’s not something I did very often. Was my mother a class-traitor? Or was she suffering from that legendary false-consciousness that a great many working-class folk seem, so inconveniently, to suffer from?
Well, I don’t know. But the values she instilled were certainly ones that have helped me get on in life, so neither do I care very much.
Still, it leads to me that phrase that one often hears banded about, in a whole host of contexts, that being the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’
It’s a funny term. One originally coined by Michael Gerson, who served as speechwriter to President George Bush for five years. For some on the left, this fact alone will be enough to deny that there is any wisdom in the words. For others, this pithy phrase gives voice to that frustration felt when anything approaching a debate on the lived realities of the now fabled ‘working-class’ come to the fore.
The issues on which one can detect this soft-bigotry are many and diverse, and the phenomenon is not, strictly speaking, applicable solely to the working-classes. Faux-radicals suffer from much the same deficiency when discussing the upper classes as the middle-class Guardianistas do when discussing the lower.
Still, it was the response in some quarters to the Tottenham riots that got me going on this topic, and so there seems as good a place as any to focus in.
So, what does the ‘soft-bigotry of low expectations’ look like in the context of recent events? Well, put plainly it is the drive toward rationalising behaviour that in all other stratas of society would be considered entirely beyond the pale, to the extent that the wholesale denunciation of such behaviour is often tempered by an appeal to a host of contextual factors. It usually comes dressed up in the guise of ‘understanding’, when in reality it is closer to ‘excusing’, whilst remaining careful to emphasise, of course, that excusing is precisely not what it is trying to do.
So for example, we read Diane Abbott today who, whilst at pains to reject the actions of the thugs who attacked Tottenham as in any sense justified, nonetheless goes on to list a whole host of mitigating factors that, whilst not offered as justification, nonetheless suggests the kind of rationalisation of their actions that at the very least implies it. We hear, for example, of the “canteen culture” of certain sections of the police and of how in some senses they haven’t learned from the riots in 1985 (in which, the implication is, they were solely and wholly to blame); we hear of the shooting of Mark Duggan, with no word whatsoever on the fact that the police were being shot at, by someone in a minicab, in which Mark Duggan was sitting, and whom they thought was firing the shots, something which might very well turn out to be an accurate assessment; we hear of the police disregard for the family of Mark Duggan, of their tardiness in enabling the Duggan family to ‘see the body and pay their last respects’, that some thought Mark Duggan had been killed in cold blood, and that it was (allegedly) the actions of a policeman beating an innocent young girl on a vigil for Mr Duggan that precipitated the rioting; finally, we hear that some parts of the community were a tinderbox waiting to explode because ‘Haringey Council has lost £41m from its budget and has cut youth services by 75 per cent. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance hit Haringey hard, and thousands of young people at college depended on it.’
For someone not seeking to ever justify the violence used by the thugs terrorising Tottenham, Abbott’s lengthy and one-sided attempt at understanding the factors that lead up to the riots could very well be taken, should people so choose, as an implicit justification of the rioters and the legitimacy of the cause over which they were rioting.
But even he, when recalling the not-so-very-distant past, fell into contrasting these riots with the riots of 1985, in which the fractious relationship between police and the public are presented as in some sense sufficient for explaining what happened on those fateful, murderous nights – a comparison that brings with it, as with Abbott, at the very least a suggestion that the police were responsible for how the people of Tottenham rose and reacted that night, that there was sufficient cause for them to turn their discontent into rioting and, eventually, into murder.
Well, I’m sorry, but no.
Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of coping with adversity whilst refraining from violence. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of tackling hardship through appeal to the channels afforded us by living in a representative democracy. Poor people are just as capable as anyone else of remaining steadfast and dignified in the face of even the most intense provocation.
Indeed, the majority do just this. And speak more harshly than most on the minority that do not. They know that they are not lesser people that ought to be held to lesser standards. They recognise that it is calumny to suggest that we should expect no better because these people are poor, as if poor people have sole recourse to loutish passions and little else. They know that even poor people, even poor people, are moral agents in possession of free will who can choose a particular course of action over any other.
Poverty does not necessarily lead to violence. Poor people are perfectly capable of being civil, too. Neither does poverty lead necessarily to vulgarity, or lack of sophistication*, or boorishness, or simple-mindedness, or thuggery, or gang worship, or crime, or anything else that gives sanctimonious middle-class types the opportunity to wallow in the fall of working-class respectability (a fall they have helped instigate and accelerate) as a means of looking all caring and understanding of the hardships their comrades face. No, poverty does not lead to any of this – it is merely class hatred with a condescending smile to suggest otherwise.
Or better, it is the soft bigotry of low expectations. And it is prominent on the very side that ought to be challenging it.
*Diane Abbott has similar form on this with regards immigration, preferring to suggest that the poorest take a hunter-gatherer approach to immigration (they simply want more resources) rather than a more sophisticated objection focussing on communality, shared norms, reciprocity, identity etc.