BY JAMIE FOSTER
“These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children.”
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Act III scene I
Nothing changes. This is the first principle we must accept if we are to recognise the nature of our public discourse. As humans we are locked in a constant cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over again in the hope that they will turn out to be real solutions to the ills that we perceive. Every age believes that they have moved on from the follies of the past. Every age is moved on from by its successors in a never ending Sisyphean continuum.
Science tells us that the ‘truth’ is always out of reach. Through a process of experiment and analysis we can move closer and closer to the truth but will ultimately never arrive at it. The law, on the other hand, concerns itself with the truth of the past. Again it is never completely unearthed. For the law the process is to closely analyse the available evidence in order to reach a point at which it is acceptable to prefer a particular version. One is either certain so that one is sure that one version of the past is preferable to another; or one finds that it is more likely than not that a particular truth should prevail. Both science and the law, at their best, acknowledge that truth itself is not at issue, merely our proximity to it.
Politics takes an entirely different approach, assuring us that everything posited is true and false at the same time. It is and always has been subsumed by tribalism. One tribe chants its truths while decrying the falsehoods of another tribe. The substance of the claims often matter less than the identity of the person making them. Claims made by one tribe described as ‘undeniable’ are shouted down in later years as ‘clearly false’ when repeated by the other tribe. There is nothing new in comparing modern political discourse to the behaviour of football fans. It is ironic that the declamation of a famous footballer threw this issue into such stark relief.
Before we talk about Gary we should talk briefly about the Forum. Ancient Rome had at its heart a huge open space that began as a truce, was used as a market and eventually a centre for public debate. The forum was built, so legend has it, as a neutral space between the warring factions of Romulus and Titus Tatius. It was the original ‘safe space’ although its function was the opposite of the modern concept. Both sides could meet in the Forum and discuss their differences. It is said that this led to an alliance being formed between them.
The Forum became a market for goods and ended up as a market for ideas. An elevated rostra was built so that the political opinion formers could address the elites with their backs to the public; consigned as they were to listening to the wisdom of their betters. Some ancient historians claim that Caius Licinius was the first to turn his back on the elite and address the public directly. Whether that is true or not matters little for my purposes. The symbolism of the act is all.
Many of you will be way ahead of me by now when I suggest that the Forum has been rebuilt in virtual space by social media. The effect of the different platforms has been profound. Rather than standing on the rostra that radio, television and the press provided; lecturing each other and through them the public; the elites must now turn and face the Forum directly; and deal with the full weight of the reaction that they receive from the still discordant wavering multitude. So let it be with Gary.
The tsunami Gary Lineker created was set off by his tossing a pebble into the lake of public opinion. I have no doubt that he only expected a small splash to draw the attention of those standing on the bank; and to be reflected well in the calm waters he anticipated would follow. Instead he opened up the Pandora’s box that is ‘racism’, ‘virtue signalling’ and the freedom of the elites to speak without unwanted responses emanating from the unwashed assembled crowd. This was the pebble our modern day Narcissus threw, unaware of the power of the echo that would follow:
In Gary’s defence he was by no means the first to infer that anyone who felt cheated by a promise that our political leaders had prioritised the needs of vulnerable children, only to find that those at the front of the queue didn’t appear at first glance to possess those qualities, was a heartless racist. The Lily Allens and the Stella Creasys had trod that well worn path before him. We might expect that from them, but not from a man whose brand has been defined by sportsmanship.
The mistake Leicester’s own Narcissus made was not ignoring fawning Echo but believing that his echo chamber was a place of safety. He established a paradigm for ‘virtue signalling’ by placing himself above his vile countrymen whom he asserts are incapable of his capacity for altruism. The altruism of saying the right thing. Of ‘clearly caring’. Gary told the Forum that his beliefs were sacred and those who dared to dissent from them should be pilloried. The Forum was divided in its opinion of his opinion.
At the heart of this row is the ancient tradition of marking out the heretics. Of labelling them and publicly castigating them for the moral bankruptcy of their world view. From the ‘Witches’ hunted by Matthew Hopkins to the ‘Reds under the Beds’ investigated by Joseph McCarthy, those who would destroy dissent first labelled dissenting voices as one or other type of heretic. The fashionable label de jour is ‘racist’.
As with ‘witch’ and ‘communist’ the truth of the accusation is subservient to its power. Unlike its predecessors ‘racist’ is unique in having a very flexible meaning that allows it to encompass a wide range of behaviours. It initially meant treating others unfairly and prejudicially due to a characteristic that did not allow any meaningful understanding of that person’s qualities and attributes. It was a version of unfairness much despised by the British who have always prided themselves on being champions of fairness. Its power rested on the mischief that it described. Everyone should have a fair shake and no one should be refused an opportunity to compete. We learnt to despise ‘racism’ in the same way that we despised the notion of the ‘untouchables’.
The benefit of labelling an unwanted behaviour such as ‘racism’ is the shortcut it provides when trying to avoid it. The risk is that the label becomes a weapon for those who wish to claim another tribe is morally wrong de ipso facto. The mischief behind racism became the mischief behind calling it out. Vast swathes of the population were tarred with a brush that prevents their view being heard, regardless of whether their view conforms with the offence with which they were being accused.
The Leftist trope that anyone who did not see socialism as the way to create social justice was likely to be a ‘racist’ was picked up and carried forward by the Remainers. The Remain campaign used a term used to describe the bigotry of judging sections of society that one doesn’t know individually in order to label half the voting public with. Anyone who wished to leave the EU was labelled a ‘racist’ in the same way that old fashioned racists would label anyone with a different pigmentation to them as ‘other’.
This was the backdrop to an ex footballer and talented broadcaster placing a straw on an overloaded camel’s back. There is no doubt that Gary Lineker is a nice man. I met him once in Barcelona. He was gracious and generous to a group of youngsters in awe of his talent and sportsmanship. I admired him as a player and a captain and I admire him as a television personality. He has always been good at his job and apparently good while doing his job. He has never had a yellow card before, which may explain why the yellow card that much of the Twitter going public held up to him hurt so deeply.
Let us discount the idea that a vociferous reaction from those displeased by Gary’s tweet in any way limits his right to free speech. Let us also recognise that his use of the rostra provided to him by his BBC employment may have crossed the line of independence set by the BBC’s own editorial guidelines, whether or not the BBC Trust finds that it did. When the final whistle blows on this affair, it was not Gary’s wish to stand up for people fleeing towards a better life that caused him a difficulty. It was his belief that he, as a member of the elite, could simply describe his countrymen as ‘hideously racist’ for questioning the validity of a political decision.
I personally do not believe that the BBC should sack him for this error. I do believe, however, that anyone in the public eye should be aware that the days of deference are over. If one takes to the rostra to address the people one must be aware that the rostra only exists at the people’s pleasure and as long as they choose to indulge the elevated position that it affords. This should never prevent anyone from expressing any view, however controversial, that is both considered and sincere. It should give pause, however, to anyone seeking public approval, who resorts to the shorthand of generalisation and rabble rousing.
In the end prejudice is prejudice whomsoever it is directed at. I appreciate the irony that by writing this piece I am placing myself, in a small way, in the same firing line that Gary inadvertently strayed into. We end where we began. In life, nothing changes.