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Thanks a lot, Spitting Image!

(This is a guest post by ami)

Thanks a lot, Spitting Image!

Scene 1: Oxford Street, 1960s, my first visit to England, as a child. A man thrusts a monkey into my arms and prepares to photograph me and my little sister. Where are you from? he asks, as he focuses. My answer results in the monkey being snatched away, photo aborted, a look of loathing on the man’s face.

Scene 2: A street in Edgware, late 80s, shortly after I come here to live. A car is double parked next to mine, next to a post box. An AfroCarribean woman sits in the car, addressing Christmas cards. I call out of my window “Could you move, please, I need to pick up my kid”. She ignores me, finishes her cards, gets out and posts them, then strolls over to my window and drawls “You’re not in South Africa now, dear.” I sit stunned as her car pulls away. Suddenly I leap out into the path of her car, bang on her bonnet and yell “You don’t know me! You know nothing about me!” Then; “I’d like to tell you why I am not in South Africa now.” When I finish, she looks stricken and says “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” We part with subdued mutual recognition.

Scene 3: The M&S car park in NW London, late 90s. I am turning left into the car park from the road. Turning right, across the traffic into the car park, is barred with a large no entry sign. A car ignores this and suddenly cuts in front of me from the right. I approach the driver as he gets out of his car. Man in his 20s, clean cut, spivvy suit, close cropped hair. “You’re not supposed to do that, you nearly hit me”, I say. His eyes blaze. “Who the f– are you to speak to me” he yells with shocking ferocity. “you c- , you would be too scared to speak to a ( racially pejorative expletive ) in your own country like that cos he’d kill you, you c- !” I clap ironically. “Big brave man, speaking to me like that, do you call your wife or girlfriend a c- too?” . “Only when I – her up the —” he yells before rushing off into the store. Another man has witnessed this, his little daughter is sobbing, shocked. He tells me he knows this man and tells me something about him before driving off. In the storee the man is waiting at the till and I approach him glaring. “Get away from me,” he yells, “you are too scared to go back to SA cos you’re scared of the (racial pejorative)”. I have the urge to stop his racial tirade at all costs, in front of the wide eyed Asian cashier. I lean and whisper close into his ear. “I know who you are and I am sure your family will be thrilled to hear how you behave.” I add something which I will never disclose. This bit I am not proud of. He turns pale. “Not nice to be victimised, is it,” I hiss. He stutters “You don’t know me” and rushes out.

Scene 5. A holiday charter plane about to leave Barbados, late 90s. We are about to put our stuff into the overhead locker when the couple in the seats in front of us chorus forcefully, “You can’t put your stuff in that one, that’s our locker”. Even though there is enough room, we shrug and use another locker. Then we hear the husband, doing a parody of a South African accent:”Those cheeky blecks, telling us what to do.”. He is a large dreadlocked AfroCarribean man. We say nothing, but late at night, with my husband asleep, I cannot rest. I find some paper and write: “Dear neighbour, you said something earlier that was very hurtful. I know many white South Africans these days have rewritten their histories, to show why they shouldn’t be condemned, but I hope if I tell you a little about us, you will think next time before you judge people just for the colour of their skin…. Please don’t try and say anything to my husband, as he will be embarrassed I have written this.” I pass the note to him. After a short while, a large hand reaches back from the row in front, takes my hand and holds it tight for a moment. Nothing is said, but tears start in my eyes at this unexpected response.

Scene 5 A London pub, early noughties, waiting to hear Paul Berman. Get talking to another HP commenter. At one point he jokes about my origins. I smile weakly and let it pass. But the next day, I think, f- it, and email him this:

I feel the need to let you know something you said on Sunday that is bugging me. It was very pleasant meeting you and talking with you, which is why I didn’t want to mar the evening by reacting at the time: you made a crack about why did you leave South Africa, was that when your slaves left you.
I am heartily weary of the anti South African stereotyping I have encountered from time to time in this country, and I shouldn’t be called on to have to come out and prove myself in public every time to people whom I have just met. The answer is no, the reason we left is …….
But I shouldn’t have to tell you all that to earn my place in decent company.It would be nice if I can add you to the list of people who after I am done,will think twice before doing the knee jerk thing and the easy cracks about South Africans.”

He apologised generously. I agreed with him that it would have been fine if he had kidded me like that if he knew me well, but not on first meeting. We now bump into each other at the occasional talk, and have warm and cordial exchanges.

That first time real world meeting is a strange hiatus between the banter and free for all between online personae, and getting to know the other as a real person enough to be comfortable to banter again in person.

Would I react differently to those real life encounters if someone stereotyped me as racist on a blog? I would challenge the stereotype in much the same as I did in those scenes, maybe with more robust language, depending on who was doing the accusing. I would also have the space to tease out the complexities; that while I would hope I am not intentionally racist, racism is so deeply imbedded I would reexamine any impugned statement of mine for latent racism. Would I threaten them with a defamation suit, even hypothetically? Not ever, I think. Assail me verbally, and for me, free speech trumps pretty much everything, except incitement to violence against me.

Inveigh by all means at the abuse of accusations of racism both online and in society at large, as a trivialisation of a pernicious phenomenon. It is not chilling of free speech however; like every other accusation on a blog, you have the opportunity to counter it robustly. Are you being defamed? If it is just some general statement you made about someone, it is quite possible that someone will construe it as racist, Issues of identification, aside, (if you use a nickname) I wouldn’t rate your case against this accusation in the light of the largely subjective tests; the racism of effect rather than the racism of intent. The law says in many cases that racism is in the eye of the beholder.. As it does with harrassment generally, which, after defamation, seems fast becoming the second favourite threat of the online would -be silencer. .(see Kamm’s threatened harrassment case) The threat of litigation: now that is chilling. Kamm’s robust stand is an inspiration.

I have an interest in this; one of my sons is an ISP and I see how the medium in the UK is bedevilled by capricious and spurious threats and intimidation, using the laws of defamation and harrassment to try and gag these freedoms by targeting the ISP. He will not on principle capitulate on the say so of these bullies, and I am very proud of him. When Quackometer was threatened with defamation by the society of homeopaths, he offered the site free hosting when its previous host got nervous. They accepted gratefully when that host caved in after another threat from a cranky individual. There have been other suits of no merit, but a nuisance to deal with if you are not prepared to shut down your clients just for a quiet life.

The law has always taken the nature of the publication into account. There is a Canadian case which says “the Internet is not a traditional medium of communication. Its nature and manner of presentation is evolving.” I believe it is in everyone’s interest to support a nascent strand of jurisprudence which is developing that discussion forums and blogs are areas where robust exchanges are accepted, and voluntary participants should accept you get as good as you give, as far as the law is concerned. If the particular blog wishes to maintain a particular ethos, it should be up to the administrators, but without recourse to law. Any name calling in this context, be it racist, fascist or nazi should be classified as “unmeaning abuse” or “mere vituperation”,( defences recognised in sensible Scottish law) and therefore not libellous. There are faint signs that English law is inclining to adopt this view, and I am disappointed when respected bloggers undermine this trend by using this threat.

If some commenter on a blog called me a racist, I don’t believe it would diminish me one jot in the eyes of society. If on the other hand I threatened to sue someone for defamation for doing so, I would like to think this would seriously demean me in the eyes of those whose opinion mattered to me.