According to Geoffrey Pullum at the Language Log, ‘there really isn't anything I despise and abhor more than racism.’ He also says, ‘Racism is the great evil of the past two centuries, the absolute worst social scourge of modern times, the very first thing I would get rid of if I could be made ruler of the universe for a quarter of an hour.’
These are extreme and definitive assertions, presumably sincerely meant. He is a man who expresses himself well. And it’s not an exaggeration intended to serve as a defence against what’s to come. So, without any intention to criticise, I shall take it at face value and respond.
Racism of any kind is a peculiarly unpleasant business because it exposes the baseness of the human mind. Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiastic armchair anthropologist. I love discovering the ways in which we are different and trying to understand them. Which doesn’t mean that many of those customs and mores aren’t abhorrent by any standards. Plenty of tribes, even today, would kill you as soon as look at you, for not being one of them, and think nothing of it. There is an instinct deep within us, a part of being human, which tells us not only to despise but to deny the very humanity of anyone who is not part of our social group. Can any reader tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi? No, neither can I, but they can, and it matters so much to them that they murdered each other by the million a few years ago.
We want to believe that civilization and the enlightenment of broadened experience have placed us far above these primitive instincts, and enabled us to replace them with other, better ways of interpreting our relations with others. But the casual dismissal of strangers who are in some way not like us can be constantly seen even in people who genuinely believe they are above it.
Whether it is the worst thing there is, the greatest scourge of our time, is a matter of perspective. Most Eastern Europeans would doubtless disagree, as would most of the Chinese and a lot of sub-Saharan Africans. The French of the late 18th and 19th C would probably disagree as well, as would the homosexuals of Uganda and Iran and the women of Saudi Arabia. There have been many societies in recent times in which the crudest hatreds were expressed in terms of political or socio-economic identities rather than racial ones. The greatest scourge is the hatred that is threatening your life or condemning you to misery.
The post is worth a read, if only to get you thinking about exactly where one man’s freedom ends and another starts. Certain things go unclarified, such as whether the tweets in question did in fact cause anyone to be attacked or otherwise harmed, and whether the people at whom the remarks were aimed were participating freely in a conversation with Stacey, or were unilaterally targeted by him. It seems to me that this makes a very big difference.