...free to think freely


30th August 2018

Bullying is not about sides

As I write this the news is occupied by a number of highly relevant events. There is the resignation of Frank Field over the ongoing row over allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, with new accusations of bullying. Then there is the worrying rise of far-right violence and intolerance, at the moment focussed on Germany, but evident in other countries including our own at times. Then again, the collapse of Wonga is also of interest.

What, you might ask, connects these three unrelated episodes? One theme running through all three is bullying. Mr Field accuses Labour activists of it. Far-right violence is obviously a form of it, and Wonga appears to have been brought down by a commercial form of it, though I’m not sure everyone will feel sorry about that.

Now, I know a little about bullying. I suffered from it in my early years at school, and I regret to say I perpetrated it in my last year or two at school. It is nasty and destructive. It ruins lives, it ruins businesses, and it ruins democracy and public life in general.

Bullying is complex. Besides the bullying Frank Field alleges from what he describes as the hard left, it could also be argued that the relentless accusations of anti-semitism against Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in the Party could be a form of bullying if unsubstantiated and, of course, anti-semitism is another form of bullying. I have listened to the claims of Labour anti-semitism over the Summer with increasing incredulity. Could the leaders of a majpor political party in Britain really be involved in something which seems to belong to a distant past age? Why would anyone today care about whether another person is Jewish or not? Yet, of course there are some who do, but surely not in mainstream politics?

Still, the claims will not go away, even after the Labour Party adopted a new definition of anti-semitism, based on, but apparently not identical to one billed as “internationally accepted”.

There are many problems here; first of all, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, whose working definition is the subject of the controversy is international in nature. (The clue, as people say, is in the name.) Therefore, anything it adopts is “internationally accepted” by definition. That applies even if no one else accepts it! However, it is not an authority. It is not the United Nations. It is not a government. It is just a pressure group; one with a purpose many would consider worthy, of ensuring the world remembers some very horrible events, but nonetheless, just a worthy pressure group. It has no more authority to define anti-semitism than anyone else. Moreover, the concept of anti-semitism has been understood long before the Alliance adopted its working definition in 2016.

Secondly, the Alliance’s examples are not without problems, some of which some would consider serious. Basically, they include claims that being anti-Israeli is being anti-semitic. They fail to recognise that one does not necessarily imply the other. This confusion of ideas, so that holders of one are convicted of holding the other, is a pseudo-liberal trick the Diverse Diversity Campaign specifically opposes. Similarly, the illustrations are not part of the definition, and to confuse the two is to apply the same trick again. The definition reads, in full:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

There is no problem with that. It is fair and measured, and does not try to smuggle anything irrelevant under the radar. It is then followed by:

To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations:

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic...

Again, nothing problematic there. The problem comes with some of the bullet points used to illustrate examples. To be fair, it is important to note that these point are introduced with Contemporary examples of antisemitism... could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to: [emphasis mine]. Therefore, they have to be understood in context, and whether they are examples of anti-semitism would depend on the context. This is a subtle point and one that does not lend itself to the adoption of the examples as a definition. The examples, it appears, are not intended to be adopted as part of a definition, but to guide the Alliance in its own analysis of individual phenomena and progress in its understanding. As such, they are not a list of examples of anti-semitism, but of things which could, in some circumstances, be motivated by anti-semitism.

However, there are still some problems with some of these points; for example, the seventh point refers to the right to self-determination of the Jewish people. That is problematic because it seems to confuse the geographical and ethnic concepts of what it is to be a people and to be entitled to self-determination. If we are to credit regions with self-determination that is fair enough, but to accord it to ethnic identities seems sinister. Isn’t that exactly what led to the Nazi horrors in the first place; the idea that Germans were defined by race and entitled to self-determination as a single people, to the exclusion of all others? From a Diverse Diversity perspective the evil is not about whom is treated differently because of some collective identity. It is treating people differently on such a basis at all.

If the Labour Party, specifically its leader, are accused of anti-semitism because they refuse to adopt all the examples, it could equally be argued they are being targetted with anti-Labour smears. It seems Jeremy Corbyn is aware of the suffering of Palestinian people and believes they are suffering a collective injustice. He is opposed to Zionism or, at least, those expressions of Zionism he sees as persecuting Palestinians. In turn, it is possible that those expressions of Zionism are seeking to oppose his position and accuse him precisely because he opposes them. If it is convenient for anti-semites to dress themselves as anti-Zionists it is also convenient for Zionists to dress their opponents as anti-semites. The reality is that they are two different things and should not be confused. What is really ugly here is the use of identities or alleged identities as weapons, because that is really about whipping up hatred against individuals or groups instead of discussing issues. That is not good for society or social harmony. It is divisive and ultimately dangerous, because hatred leads to appalling injustice.

That is precisely what we can see unfolding in the German city of Chemnitz, where a group is being targeted for a crime allegedly committed by one of its members. Of course, the crime is just an excuse, and hatred is being whipped up because the far right hate the group, in this case Syrian refugees. At least one revenge attack has already taken place against a Syrian man. It’s worrying to see this trend of hatred rising throughout Europe at present. Hatred solves nothing and just makes a rational solution more difficult to find.

Against such world events, where does the collapse of a pay-day loan company fit in? Well, many people probably had cause to hate Wonga, as many loans to vulnerable people could easily spiral out of control, trapping people in an endless cycle of debt from which they had no hope of escape until they lost everything. The problem was that these loans were very expensive if not repaid quickly, because the interest rates were phenomenal. Used for their intended purpose (again the clue is in the name) a pay-day loan could prevent a person incurring high charges for temporary insolvency while waiting for pay day. However, used regularly, or to borrow for a longer period, it would quickly grow to an unmanageable size. The Archbishop of Canterbury had Wonga in his sights and had expressed determination to put them out of business, but it wasn’t Church-of-England parishes offering cheaper or fairer competition that finished them. That might have been the fair end the Archbishop had in mind. Instead, it was claims management companies, who targeted firms like Wonga with a volume of claims they could neither afford nor process in the time available. Many (presumably, the Archbishop among them) will not be sorry to see them go, but that businesses can be destroyed by companies themselves acting in a predatory manner overwhelming them with a volume of work they simply cannot handle with a time limit not enabling cases to be considered, is a cause for concern. Wonga might have been a bully, but the manner in which it was bullied out of business robs us of the satisfaction, because we wonder which, possibly more legitimate business, could be attacked next.

The lesson in all these cases is that just because a thing is bad doesn’t make its opposite right. Life is more subtil than that. The answer to a bad thing is not its opposite, just a fairer approach in which the right thing can be discerned and brought into operation. That is what Diverse Diversity is all about: building a fairer society.