1. Be Civil.
At a panel event on Brexit recently, I said that anyone who voted Leave could go fuck themselves, because they were complicit in racism, adjacent to racism, and looked the other way while racism happened around them, in their vote’s name. Because over the past two years I had heard outrage over the assumption that all Leave voters might be racist much more than I heard Leave voters state their reasons for voting in this way and clarifying that the racism was not in their name. Not all Leave voters were racist. Sure. But all of them looked the other way when it came to racism in their vote’s name.
So they could go fuck themselves.
A white person in the audience put her hand up and said, ‘I voted to leave and now you’ve told me to go fuck myself; how do you expect us to have a civilised debate?’
I told her calmly that racism was no debate for me. It was an illegitimate position, not up for debate, and if she was annoyed at being told to go fuck herself, I had no interest in talking further. She could go engage a racist in civilised debate. She shook her head at me in disgust and I gave her my biggest shit-eating smile, but the truth was, I was angry. Angry at what Brexit had emboldened (racism), angry that I was repeatedly asked to engage in civilised debate about something I considered an illegitimate position (racism), angry that I was still having to have very basic conversations about what constituted hate speech in 2019 (racism), and angry that I was not allowed to be angry.
Because how could we be expected to have a civilised debate if I was angry.
To be uncivil is to be barbarous. By being coarse, by telling her to fuck off, I was being a savage… an angry ethnic
Working with University of Liverpool on the TIDE Project, a five-year European Research Council-funded project investigating how mobility in the great age of travel and discovery shaped English perceptions of human identity based on cultural identification and difference, I started to see through their research into language and migration that this woman was effectively replicating colonial tropes, and I was acting like a savage in her eyes. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent years is the language of how we talk about race and racism in public, especially given people don’t wish to listen. If we get angry, they get uncomfortable. If we intellectualise, it becomes an academic exercise free of the personal impact of racism. Talking to researchers on the TIDE project about what I wish to research, I suggest that we look into how we frame discourse these days. How language has helped us to understand migrants and migration. Whether civil discourse others people who do not understand the parameters or rules of what it is to be considered civilised in the eyes of the Romans, the Stuarts, the colonisers.
Because, while this idea of civility feels like a colonised position, it has a very long classical tradition, much of which was linked to the Roman Empire, and then adopted by Europe, and the English. To be uncivil is to be barbarous. By being coarse, by telling her to fuck off, I was being a savage… an angry ethnic. This performative moral and intellectual right, this superiority, has been a staple of English culture since the sixteenth century.
I’m given a stack of research by the TIDE Project researchers and we start to make links between what is happening right now and where it may have taken root.
The irony, then, is that this entire exchange took place at a literature festival in India.
In some of the TIDE research, I come across references to Keith Thomas’ In Pursuit Of Civility: Manners And Civilisation in Early Modern England, where he talks about how the ideal civil citizen conformed to authority. Those who resisted English governance, especially when it came to religion or politics, were often labelled savage, uncivil or barbarous. When I think about how that manifests now, it is often in the idea of anger being a negative position. It’s a silencing mechanism. It turns you into something less than a gentleman. When I joke about how colonial this all feels, one of the researchers is quick to assert that this feels like a simplification of something more insidious and dangerous. Language has been separating us into gentleman and savage long before it was used as a ruling structure. And they are right. To diminish, you must first turn someone into less than yourself, laying the groundwork, the codes of conduct for what it takes to be you.
Much of what we expect to be civil and gentlemanly when it comes to matters of intellectual discourse is rooted in a European idea of civility, which relies on antithesis and the suppression of impulse. Any discussion of civility, in the past, was often positioned in opposition to ideas of ‘rudeness’ or savagery. I’m shown excerpts of Thomas Paynell’s 1560 translation of Erasmus’ The Civilitie Of Childehode, which instructs individuals, from youth, to exhibit ‘all good civilitie and pure manners’. The widespread use of civility in early modern contexts was inextricably linked with ideas of polity, society and authority. Its opposite, incivility or savagery, constantly threatened to subvert notions of civil behaviour. When I say to the researchers that this all feels so casually and yet so causally evil, one of them talks about Montaigne’s essay, ‘Of Cannibals’, in which he meets Brazilians brought to France. In the essay he writes, ‘We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.’ I’m surprised by this. It shows that for all the import placed on civility, there is still an extent to which people have self-awareness. They know the limitations of civility when it comes to the core of our humanity. One of the TIDE Project researchers tells me, ‘The savage here, in his violence, his anger, understands something that civility would rather ignore – that human beings are connected intrinsically, that structures of power, of entitlement, use civility as a tool for a barbarity that we don’t even have the language to voice’.
Tommy Robinson launches himself forward, his right fist delivering one, two-three punches to the kid as he is bundled away… just for a second, as milkshake drips off his face, we see who he is
I watch a YouTube video, in slow motion, of an Asian kid in Warrington, the tiniest smirk on his face, as he smacks a Maccy D’s milkshake into the shoulder of Tommy Robinson.
Robinson isn’t taken aback. Instead he launches himself forward, his right fist delivering one, two-three punches to the kid as he is bundled away. A minder grabs Robinson’s shoulders, another calls his name. He remembers himself and walks off. For a second, just for a second, as milkshake drips off his face, we see who he is. Because in the moments leading up to it, as he wore the mask of a civilised wannabe-politician, he was calm, smiling, smirking, playing the part of a respected member of society running for office.
Robinson takes to his social media almost immediately to declare the young brown kid a Muslim supporter, to rile up his core support. He isn’t a boy, he isn’t a remoaner, he isn’t even a young person. He is Muslim. Just before he smacks his milkshake against Robinson, you can hear Tommy refer to him as aggressive.
The idea of civilised debate – on issues where one might have, for want of a better term, skin in the game, while the other has nothing other than intellectual curiosity – often positions both people at opposite ends of various binary scales. It is fact vs feeling. It casts the parameters of debate too wide and too opposite to carry any nuance or any chance of two sides coming together in uneasy agreement. It’s a construct set up to fail.
Because, as I said, I am angry.
Dawn Foster, writing for Huck, suggested that ‘Casually inviting the far-right onto television and radio only emboldens and sanitises their ideas, and puts us all at risk’. I’m often invited to take part in conversations or debates where I will be defending a core part of myself. Recently, I was asked to defend multiculturalism and the impact immigration has had on society. When I declined, the event organiser scolded me, saying that these conversations needed airing in the marketplace of ideas, so that attendees could make their own minds up. Of course, they supposed, it was up to the strength of my debate to show that these ideas (multiculturalism, immigration) were defence-worthy.
Racism has been laundered, normalised. It is now an established part of discourse. And if I call it an illegitimate position, I am silencing free speech. I am the problem… I have lost civility
Often, when the arguments are as binary as they are, because the parameters of conversation have been framed by a white person, they hold no space for nuanced conversation. They are bun fights for people from polar opposites. Arguing not towards the middle, but from opposite ends of the arena. Screaming that the other person is wrong.
No one watches the news with a legal pad in front of them, divided into two columns, PRO vs CON, as they see a far-right spokesman spouting his ideas, unchecked by his interviewer. No, instead, we watch from our binary positions. Those of us on the left will watch this person and demand to know why he is being given airtime to tell us his key talking points. We’re outraged. We’re angry. We become ‘the mob’, silencing free speech. Instead, all we want to know is why such positions are being given airtime. Those who agree, meanwhile, watch the things they think, and never say, because, you know, political correctness etc., you can’t say anything anymore etc., free speech etc., and they think: well, if this is on a prime-time BBC News show, it means I can say it publicly and proudly. The opinion has been laundered, normalised. It is now an established part of discourse. And if I call it an illegitimate position, I am silencing free speech. I am the problem. The mob. I am angry. I have lost civility.
The real silencing, a colonial trope, is that of my humanity, and my desire to resist. Because I refused to engage in a civilised manner.
Nigel Farage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
2. Be Not A Savage.
A milkshake flies through the air, this time in a genteel fashion. As though he is trying to hoopla a stuffed animal at a fairground, a smiling, balding, bearded white man hops forward, tosses his milkshake at Nigel Farage’s lap and steps back, thrusting his hands in the air, allowing himself to be calmly led away. There is something more gentlemanly about this guy. He is arrested, we hear later.
When this man is talked about, a lot of time is spent talking about the cost of the milkshake. Nothing is mentioned about his aggression. The way he is led away is calm. There are no sucker punches. He has a Five Guys milkshake, not a Maccy Ds one. It costs £5.20. This is repeated constantly. Even I think: that is way too much money for a milkshake. The insinuation is that he is one of the metropolitan elite, able to afford such an expensive drink.
The milkshake makes Farage a victim. People online talk about how we are losing our manners
Thinkpieces, essays, tweets defending the milkshake. Thinkpieces, essays, tweets saying that the milkshake is an act of violence. Those people who are milkshaking politicians are no worse than the man who murdered Jo Cox. ‘Where will it end?’ people ask. ‘We have lost our way. It is time to return to civility,’ people beg.
The milkshake makes Farage a victim. His reaction, a dignified smile and a terse word with his security, shows him to be the statesman he feels he deserves to be. People online talk about how we are losing our manners, which they equate with a road to fascism. Manners, Twitter users tell me, are all the left have. To argue without manners is to be seen to be just as bad as those who debate whether people of colour are less than human.
Amongst the TIDE research, I come across Letters on a Regicide Peace by Edmund Burke, written in 1790. ‘Manners’, he writes, ‘are of more importance than laws… they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.’
As I wait for a train at Didcot Parkway, I am racially abused. The entire encounter leaves me feeling uneasy. A man, a stranger, approaches me on some stairs and, before I know it, he’s telling me that it’s England for the English and being born here doesn’t make me English and he can take my passport away if he so chooses to. As he walks away, my train arrives and I look at the station manager who rolls his eyes. ‘Did you see that?’ I say. ‘He just racially abused me.’
The station manager tuts and says, ‘What can you do?’
I get on the train and sit there, stewing, angry, upset. When the train manager comes round to check our tickets, I ask for a quiet word and tell him what has happened. Immediately, he is defensive.
‘Well,’ he tells me. ‘We can try and find the CCTV but it’s your word against his at the end of the day.’
I can tell that my story makes him uncomfortable. He isn’t invested in helping me, only in not having to phone the station at Didcot Parkway and ask them to flag some CCTV footage.
‘The footage gets deleted very quickly,’ he tells me.
I can feel my fists clenching, my spine lengthening, my mind wiped through with television static.
‘I just needed to tell you what’s happening at your stations,’ I say, aggressively. ‘You need to know people are being racially abused.’
‘I understand that,’ he says. ‘But it is your word against his.’
I start to walk away, because I am ready to flip the fuck out at him.
I stop and turn back to face him. ‘You know what,’ I say. ‘You never even asked if I was okay. You told me about the admin involved in filing a report. But you didn’t ask me if I’m okay.’
The raft of responses I get all ratify exactly what happens when you’re a person of colour talking about racism on the Internet
I walk away.
I tweet about the incident because it’s the only way I can process it. It’s late, and the people I would call are asleep. I’m by myself. I’m stuck on a train. Amongst the solidarity, the raft of responses I get all ratify exactly what happens when you’re a person of colour talking about racism on the Internet:
People will deny it happened.
People will minimise its impact by calling the perpetrator an idiot and the abuse an isolated incident. Nothing to get upset or angry about.
People will immediately go from zero to a hundred, crying with shame about what this country has become like this is the first time they have heard about such experiences.
People will say I must be fine because I’m tweeting about it, ignoring the fact that sometimes screaming into the void will give you the solidarity you need from the people who know you need it.
People will say I am censoring the person who abused me. That it is their free speech right to racially abuse me in the street. That they’re entitled to their opinion, and, implicitly, I am not allowed my critique of that opinion, not allowed to call it null and void… illegitimate.
What am I allowed to be in these situations? This is where language sometimes fails us. If I were to engage with this person in a debate, I would not be able to put my emotions to one side. I cannot be rational about such things. To do so is to undermine not only its impact but also its intent. I’m meant to be mad. I’m allowed to be mad. And the worst thing I can do is show it.
What shaped English perceptions of human identity, of cultural identification and difference, more than these divisions, on what counted as civilisation, and what moved in opposition to that? What did the English learn from those they colonised? What was then foisted upon subjects of the Empire?
Therein lies the perfection of being gaslit. They know how to make you mad, only to then say, ‘Why you so mad though?’
Someone tells me: ‘Britain values its attitudes to “free speech” along with calm, rational debate. Respect your opponent whilst disagreeing…’
These are the manners that Edmund Burke spoke of. Calm, rational debate.
Since ‘civil’ rooted virtuous human behaviour in town-dwelling and political organisation, ‘savage’ was the antithesis of ‘civil’, relating to remote or undomesticated places as well as people. There is a tension in our perception of humanity when it comes to such things: whether a person can be wholly human based on how amenable they are in society, whether they behave, obey and act accordingly. Or whether their anger gives them pause to throw a milkshake because nothing else has worked.
My frustration with how this works is:
I told you it was happening. You did not believe me.
I gave you examples. You did not believe them.
I tried debating you. You changed the parameters of the debate.
I appealed to your humanity by telling you how I felt. You said you had no interest in my feelings, only in fact.
So I gave you facts. You still did not believe me.
I gave you examples and on and on and on until the only recourse was to ridicule you by throwing a milkshake in your stupid obtuse fucking face to make you look stupid, and for a moment, a singular moment, I felt vindicated, I felt like I showed you what it’s like to try and talk about these things. You played the victim and told me what I did was violent.
I am the savage. I am also always angry.
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash
3. Engage In Discourse.
The TIDE Project researchers send me excerpts from Lodovick Bryskett’s book A Discourse Of Civill Life, which talks about his experience of meeting the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, who articulated the necessity of being ‘a gentleman for civil conversation’ to avoid ‘degeneration abroad’, which mirrored Paynell’s translation of Erasmus. There was a pressure to suppress impulse. Codes of civility, civil conversation and the ‘art’ of civility were often translated from Italian texts and used widely in Elizabethan and Stuart England. These included George Pettie’s translation of Stefano Guazzo’s The Civile Conversation (1581), Ludovick Bryskett’s A Discourse Of Civill Life (1606) and Francis Bacon’s Short Notes For Civil Conversation (1648). They tended to prescribe when one should or shouldn’t laugh, what to do at the dinner table, moderating consumption and not swearing or making loud noises.
Civility online is often designed to anger and obfuscate, its function is to get the person stating a political opinion, often from a marginalised position, to resort to anger, frustration, giving up or backing down. Either you debate, or your statement is meaningless. You said this thing, what about this other thing. Instead of debating me, you resorted to ad hominem attacks. Here is a grossly misrepresented reflection or comparison of your tweet, out of context, to ensure it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Here is a milkshake… in your fucking face. Fuck off.
Toni Morrison writes that ‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction’
‘Today,’ writes Ece Temelkuran, in her book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship, ‘the voice of populist infantile politics is amplified by social media allowing the ignorant to claim equality with the informed.’
Toni Morrison writes that ‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’
These are the modes of online discourse: they are distractions designed to keep you from doing your work, and make you angry. Because once anger takes over, your civility has been lost.
And so have you.
Toni Morrison in Hay-on-Wye. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
I cannot think after that lady asks me how we can engage in debate. I want to scream, ‘haven’t we talked enough?’ But I keep quiet. I say nothing for the rest of the panel and when we finish, I rush off the stage.
I am called back to have my photo taken with my fellow panellists. One of them, a white English lady related to a British politician, has echoed every single opinion of mine over the last hour but she has the right sort of delivery. She is calm and articulate and forthright and civil and intellectual and sometimes cheeky. She forgets my name three or four times during the event. I correct her each time. She begins to refer to me as ‘the person to my left’ because at some point she has felt that either I do not deserve a name or it’s beneath her to learn it.
I run back to the green room, my chest in flames. I want to scream. I want to bellow at clouds. I want to kick something.
I trust feelings. I trust emotion. I trust strength and weakness. I trust vulnerability and anger. I trust myself
In an infamous interview with Channel 4 news, Milo Yiannopoulous, a former Internet troll, told Cathy Newman he wasn’t interested in feelings, only facts. I think about that a lot.
Facts can be subjective. They can be manipulated. Facts carry different weight with whoever is using them or suppressing them. Facts are not always certain. And facts are never up for debate.
However, their import is always in the eye of the beholder.
I trust feelings. I trust emotion. I trust strength and weakness. I trust vulnerability and anger. I trust myself.
Because I am strong, and vulnerable, and weak, and angry. I’m really fucking angry. And however I choose to channel my anger, it cannot change one important thing: whether my weapon is a milkshake or a fist or a pen or a well-chosen swearword, this thing inside me, at my core, it defines me. It tells me exactly who I am. And what I’m fighting for. And who I am fighting to protect.
In the first Avengers film, Captain America suggests to Bruce Banner that he needs to get angry immediately to take a monster down. Banner looks at Cap and says, ‘That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry,’ before transforming into the Incredible Hulk.
Me too, Dr Banner. Me too. I’m always angry. It may be uncivil but it makes me free.
This essay was made possible with research conducted by TIDE Project. TIDE is a five-year, European Research Council-funded project (2016–2021) that aims to investigate how mobility in the great age of travel and discovery shaped English perceptions of human identity based on cultural identification and difference. The role of those marked by transcultural mobility was central to this period. Trade, diplomacy and politics, religious schisms, shifts in legal systems, all attempted to control and formalise the identity of such figures. Our current world is all too familiar with the concepts that surfaced or evolved as a result: foreigners, strangers, aliens, converts, exiles, or even translators, ambassadors and go-betweens. By examining how different discourses tackled the fraught question of human identity in this era, TIDE will open a new perspective on cross-cultural encounters.
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