Recently, Charlie Sharpe wrote an article for this site entitled The R-Word. In it, he attempts to tackle a perceived problem of political correctness being employed as a catch-all device to shut down debate, particularly on subjects such as immigration.
I don’t personally think the author is racist. However, I do think he is badly misinformed, and expresses some borderline racist views as a result. I also think his article is badly thought out, badly researched, and badly written. It was hard to know where to begin when writing a response, so I’ll go through each of his points in turn.
He starts by seeming to argue that multiculturalism is part of a freedom of expression problem in this country – that living around people from all walks of life has caused people to ‘live in fear of being politically correct’. He claims that this fear is shutting down debate on, amongst other things, immigration. I firmly believe that multiculturalism has made us as a society more empathetic to people from different backgrounds, which is on the whole a Good Thing. Sharpe’s statement that being politically correct is ‘ruled with an iron fist’, shutting down ‘serious political views’ wrongly implies that: a) someone is in charge of The PC Brigade, and b) being politically incorrect is a serious political view. Political correctness as the norm indicates a more progressive, inclusive society. This, I’d argue, is also a Good Thing. Sharpe appears to disagree.
In being a more progressive society, the vast majority in this country no longer see telling foreigners to "go back to where they came from" as a serious political view. Unfortunately, due to the BNP, EDL, UKIP et al., anyone raising immigration as an "issue” for debate needs to first distance themselves from extreme views. Failure to avoid coming across as another supporter of burning down mosques is the sole responsibility of anyone raising the issue of immigration – one must merely find a better way to express one’s point of view. There obviously is a platform to freely debate immigration; it is one of the most hotly debated topics around. But, as a hugely complex and emotionally charged issue, it must be treated sensitively – something Sharpe seems incapable of doing.
The author continues by describing people living in fear of being branded politically incorrect ‘or even a racist’ choosing instead to ‘pretend to be liberals’ in public, whilst voting for more Right Wing parties in private. I don’t disagree with him that people vote differently in private, but stating that this is tied to immigration policy is a basic misunderstanding of the reasons behind virtually every democratic election globally. In their book The Economic Vote (full disclosure: I have only read excerpts, not the whole book), noted political scientists Duch and Stevenson explain that what influences voter behaviour above all else is economic policy. During times of economic uncertainty in particular, voters choose self-interest over common good, and therefore in 2015 voted for a party who had a clearer route to economic recovery – clearer being the operative word. It had virtually nothing to do with immigration – both main parties had broadly similar, woolly policies on how they would tackle the issue.
The author goes on to imply that liberals don’t think there’s a problem with immigration. This is simply false. Nobody is arguing that we have a perfect system; where those across the political spectrum tend to disagree is in the proposed solutions. Unfortunately, in his article Sharpe doesn’t offer any, so I’d be interested to hear them, particularly around the Calais crisis. He does however quote a Spectator article calling immigration an ‘invasion’ (...how sensitive), and goes on to express disappointment that as a result of new laws fewer migrants will be deported back to their country of origin to face human rights abuses. Sharpe is effectively arguing that we should be able to send people who are (in his words) looking for a safer and happier life back to countries where they face persecution. Can anyone see why this sort of attitude might prevent people engaging with him on this subject, particularly if they’re from an immigrant background? The mind boggles.
Sharpe claims that he should be able to say we need to stop taking immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa without being branded a racist. Correct me if I’m wrong but prejudicing people based on where they come from is just about the dictionary definition of racism, and it’s a downright appalling stance to take. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest regions on the planet, ravaged for decades by war, famine, and disease. People there are desperate to seek and work for a better life, to the extent that they are willing to travel thousands of miles and risk their lives in pursuit of it. We in Europe have the space, we proudly advertise having the opportunities, and given the several recent studies showing that immigration has a net benefit on our economy, migrant people who are willing to work can support its continued growth. This isn’t an ‘invasion’. The overwhelming majority of migrants currently living in appalling conditions in the Calais “Jungle” are, for example, refugees from poverty and violence, who see opportunity in Europe to raise themselves out of their current situation. To quote the BBC, ‘the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in France, Philippe Leclerc, said most of the migrants in Calais were fleeing violence in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan.’ To say that we should just send these people back without considering the human impact is, quite frankly, abhorrent.
The next claim, that political correctness and playing the race card ‘detracts from the gravitas’ of what I assume Sharpe would call “Real Racism” is startling, and deeply problematic. Firstly, if there’s one thing we can take from the issue of racism it is that repetition of words doesn’t necessarily lessen their impact. Secondly, who is the author to define what racism is or isn’t, when he, a white British person, has almost certainly never experienced any form of it in his life? I am confused as to why he doesn’t appear to believe those saying they’re offended, and concerned at his preference to dismiss their claims as playing the race card, rather than explore why they may be offended. This appears to be nothing more than wilful ignorance on his part, an attempt to absolve himself of any blame by refusing to engage. Again, it’s small wonder why this defensive, obstinate attitude might stop people wanting to debate with the author about immigration. Perhaps he is too proud to apologise, ask what caused offense, and try to explain himself better, as any reasoned person would do.
Next, Sharpe triumphantly refers to the Rotherham Scandal as being allowed to happen due to fear of councilors being called racist. This is a massive, unforgiveable overstatement, taken directly from a brazenly sensationalist Telegraph article. In reading Louise Casey’s report on the scandal, on pages 9 and 10 she states that 'discomfort around race' was part of one of seven factors that contributed to what happened in Rotherham. Others include ineffective leadership and management, institutional sexism, a wider predilection for silencing debate, and basic organisation-wide denial of failures. Sharpe states that ‘it was this fear of accusation [of being racist] that kept the authorities silent’. In fact, the report makes clear that the impact of political correctness was not even close to being the sole root cause.
The author then turns his attention to the very phrase ‘politically correct’, describing it as a problem in itself, and ‘possibly one of the most offensive terms I can think of’. This instantly betrays Sharpe’s privilege, blindness to which I imagine does not promote healthy debate with those who have practical experience of ‘the R-Word’. To his assertion that the phrase instils fear into those who want to engage in political debate, I would argue that it merely seeks sensitivity when talking about issues that may affect others more profoundly than they do him. Freedom of expression demands responsibility. There is also a deeply uncomfortable irony in complaining of a climate of fear caused in part by those from ethnic minorities – themselves no strangers to living in fear over the past few decades of living in the UK. A poor choice of words, and perhaps a reflection of Sharpe’s ignorance to real social suffering.
Next, Sharpe positions himself as a strong believer in reforming the welfare state, but complains that people disagree with him and label him politically incorrect when he tries to state his argument. From the maturity of the argument laid out in his article, I’m guessing that the real reason people disengage from discussion with him is because what he says next – that £1.2bn of welfare spending in 2013/14 was given to fraudulent claimants – makes him instantly sound like he doesn’t have the faintest clue what he’s talking about. Anyone who has done even the most basic research into government spending knows that the cost of welfare fraud, although undoubtedly a problem, pales into insignificance when compared to the cost of tax avoidance (£3.1bn) and tax evasion (£4.1bn). The very document he cites trips him up as being blinkered in his opinions, showing that overpayment due to clerical error was almost double that due to fraud (£2.2bn). His is a non-argument, what I can only assume is the beginning of another misguided polemic, this time against “those lazy benefits scroungers”, whilst conveniently ignoring the higher cost of both human error and the moral crimes of those privileged enough to evade paying their way.
Mr Sharpe then states that as a result of liberal suppression of British politics we rarely see anything beyond centre-left or centre-right, conveniently and entirely ignoring the media phenomena of the BNP, more recently UKIP and, more recently still, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership, as well as this government’s distinct move to the Right since winning this year’s election. I don’t think it’s too far to suggest that with claims such as this, Sharpe may have had his finger somewhat off the pulse of British politics for the past few years.
Finally, the author gives up a rallying cry: that to break away from the conventions of a progressive, civilised society and get ‘pissed off at what is going on in our country!’ (whatever that means) is the only way to ‘get things moving’ (whatever that means). Now, whilst people getting ‘pissed off’ helped give us universal suffrage, statutory employment rights, and is helping us achieve greater racial and sexual equality, it has also caused just about every single war in history. Yes, there are other, often more effective ways to enact societal change. Open, sensitive, reasoned dialogue, for example.
Evidently, I fundamentally disagree with the author on virtually every point in his article. But that’s not even my main problem with it, which is that his failure to research beyond openly biased Spectator and Telegraph articles, coupled with a style of writing that reads like a stream of consciousness (complete with exasperated! exclamation! marks!) makes him appear not to have given this tinderbox subject anything approaching sufficient thought before wading in with his forthright views.
Of course there is a way to debate immigration without being branded a racist, but Sharpe’s article is decidedly not it. Doing so requires reason, responsibility, and research, as well as a great deal of tact and sensitivity. In writing The R-Word, Sharpe impressively fails on all counts, and if it is any indication of his style of debate he has no right to complain at being ‘shut down’. I humbly suggest that he calls the PC Brigade and listens rather than talks – I venture he might well learn something.