The Sun’s ‘attack’ on UKIP homophobia was today shared approvingly in some quarters (‘Nice one, Sun’). This is utterly absurd. The Sun should never, ever be applauded for ‘opposing’ homophobia – it has been one of our society’s main proponents of it for a long, long time. As recently as 2010 it ran the poll ‘should gay people be cabinet ministers?’ while in 2012 it called for a referendum on gay marriage while bemoaning the emphasis placed on it by David Cameron. This, of course, came after decades of utterly vile and aggressive homophobia, the most famous example probably being the 1988 editorial on Brighton labelling it a ‘nasty town of drugs, gays, AIDS and drunks’. It has freely and liberally used homophobic slurs (a fairly recent example being their coverage of Derren Brown’s coming out) and still pushes a firmly heterosexist agenda. Let’s not be in any doubt here – The Sun’s contribution to fuelling homophobia and a climate where queers ‘get beaten to death’ is practically second to none. The only response to it claiming the moral high ground here is to laugh hysterically, dump the rag in the nearest bin and waste no time holding your breath for the day it issues a grovelling apology for all of the misery it has caused.
Usually I would just ignore The Sun’s mendacity – it’s what you expect, after all. This, however, interested me because it ties in exactly with my previous thoughts on The Sun’s treatment of Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out. There, I suggested that The Sun was using an apparently liberal attitude towards homosexuality to mask and push its insidious racism, writing that:
It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic.
I think this is exactly what we see again here. The Sun’s racism is evident and it continues to write about immigration in the language of ‘floods’ and “tidal waves of immigrants threatning to swamp Britain”. It has been courting UKIP for a while now, with proprietor Rupert Murdoch openly courting Farage. This is hardly a surprise – UKIP’s extreme anti-labour, pro-1% stance tallies perfectly with Murdoch’s interests. You will not, then, find The Sun seriously taking UKIP to task and certainly not for its attempts to stir division via racism. Hence today’s editorial. Here The Sun can be seen to be ‘taking a stand’ in opposing the ‘extremist’ elements of UKIP, effectively positioning their racism (and extreme right-wing policies) as mainstream and ‘reasonable’. Its opposition to homophobia is entirely instrumental here – it can’t remain silent when the media has been dominated by UKIP extremism for much of the past week but it won’t oppose the racist ideology which is absolutely central to its purpose. Once again, its ‘liberal’ take on homosexuality is a diversion tactic. Nice one, Sun.
Helmer provides the convenient ‘extremism’ here, being used to obscure the fundamentally violent bigotry at UKIP’s core. The effect of such positioning, where UKIP’s racism is viewed as ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’, can be seen all around us. I wrote in that previous piece that:
We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them.
This denial is clearly seen in the increasingly frequent pleas that we don’t call UKIP ‘racist’ – here’s one from The Guardian today. These calls come from an understanding that calling someone ‘racist’ is a terrible, terrible thing – perhaps one of the worst of things. People don’t like it. They deny it. They shut you down and go on the attack. Best not, then, to use ‘racist’ as a pejorative. Better to quietly drop it and focus on something else. In its own way this line endorses UKIP’s racism (and racism more generally) just as damagingly as The Sun does, pushing the pervasive idea that few people are actually racist and the people saying so are the ones who should be taking a step back.
It’s interesting that Harris suggests a focus on UKIP’s ‘ridiculousness’ instead, because this betrays a lack of understanding of where many of the attacks come from. A lot of people are happy to call UKIP ‘racist’ precisely because they are seen to be ridiculous. This racism is viewed as glaring, funny and toothless and ostentatiously condemning it is as an easy way to assert your own credentials. I think this is fairly common in discussions of racism, where it is seen to exist as something obvious and external. Racism is the BNP, the killing of Stephen Lawrence (a cause even the Daily Mail could get behind) and now UKIP. It is not an inescapable system of oppression with produces and cements the superiority of white people. So, then, if UKIP voters react badly to being labelled ‘racist’, many of their accusers are ultimately equally as close-minded. This refers in obvious ways to the racism found in all of the main parties in some form (not least their immigration and asylum policies and discussions) but also (and far more importantly) to the racism found in our own everyday lives and within ourselves. If you’re like me, this racism is rarely explosive and rarely easily identified. Rather it’s an unconscious assumption you make about someone or joke you pretend to laugh at or a little voice inside saying ‘do we have to talk about race again?! Aren’t we done with this?!’ Personally, I think it’s simply impossible as a white person to be raised in this society and not have racism deeply-embedded within. Yet on both left and right we have become so enamoured with the idea that a ‘racist’ is a grotesque ogre that we instinctively rush to deny that we could ever be that. We do this to the extent that any person of colour speaking about racism and/or, God forbid, identifying it, is demonised and shut down. And we do it even when an obviously racist rag like The Sun pats our bellies and parades its liberalness in order to further push racism. The only way to even begin to break out of this is to acknowledge that racism isn’t pathologised in ‘bad people’ but rather something which we cannot hope to avoid. Racism does not continue in our society simply because the ogres keep being racist. We are all affected by it and speaking as a white person, I believe we are all warped by it. Only by accepting this uncomfortable reality can we ever begin to move forward.