To Mensch and other witchfinders: self-righteous indignation is not a vehicle for a sensible conversation about political discourse and hate speech

Yesterday Newcastle Labour Councillor and Unison activist Linda Hobson was pursued as another scalp by Louise Mensch and a string of other Conservative defenders of compassion after tweeting:

“Just put news on to to see Thatcher – for a brief moment I celebrated her death – until reality struck – if only”

Mensch was quick to respond with a stream of outraged tweets:

“So @HobsonLinda has now deleted her account altogether. The Labour party whose elected cllr she is must respond, deletions or no.”

“And yes; I am utterly sick of the ultraleft (not the decent left) wishing death on a vulnerable lady in extreme old age.”

“Activists just disgrace themselves and their movement. That’s totally different to MPs and Councillors who are elected under Labour colours.”

“It would be good for @Ed_Miliband to show some leadership and simply say that wishing death on anyone does not conform to Labour values”

“…and it is not acceptable from elected Lab officials. One day that great woman will in fact die. What will Labour’s public face be then?”

This comes only a short period after fellow North-Eastern Labour Councillor, Sunderland’s Florence Anderson, was driven from office after a less well known figure, Mark Wallace, had dredged through records of her activity online to find she clicked “like” on a comment another person had made about hoping an IRA bomb hit the next tory party conference, as well as commenting that she hoped Thatcher burns in hell. Wallace, clearly a great defender of humanistic values, was quick to boast of his scalp, and a dangerous precedent has been set. It appears that these days, hate speech does not just mean statements leading to the actual harm of specific minorities, but also thought crime: the verbal or written expression of any hatred towards an untouchable figure or the expression of joy at the prospect of that person’s end. It matters not that the expression of these thoughts can not in any rational way be linked to inciting actual harm on Thatcher, or that they are a response to specific actions she took against the communities the women come from rather than being general comments targetting people on the basis of a group they belong to – they are, in the eyes of Mensch and her associates, hate speech.

I am not – as most people are probably aware – someone who longs for the death of Thatcher, nor have I ever. She is, at this point, a geriatric, powerless, increasingly incoherent old woman. I wouldn’t personally make or respond to those kind of comments. That said, anyone with a real interest in furthering the values of empathy and compassion would need to dig a little deeper into the North East to see where this kind of hatred comes from. Thatcher may be powerless in her old age, but in her prime she wreaked devastation of an unimaginable level across the region. These women, older and far less privileged than the like of the glossy chick-lit novelist and her associates, have lived through years which saw whole communities destroyed by the relentless destruction of coal and the manufacturing industry in pursuit of nuclear power and the service economy (which now, even the most neo-liberal of economic experts are starting to view as a mistake). Workers were brutally targetted by the state. Thatcher’s idea of bringing progress to the sector was to starve out the unions and send police lines to attack their pickets, leading to injury and death. She is never going to be seen as anything other than the woman who masterminded these tactics, and while as I said I don’t share the sentiments of these women regarding her death, can anyone with real rather than phony compassion really blame them for their passion, regardless of whether or not they agree?

I have a long standing interest in the way in which language is used to frame arguments. I do think there is a general case in staying vigilant for hate language, though I think it is far more effective to unpick the assumptions on which the hatred is based rather than responding with indignation. I also think that when hateful language is directed towards a specific individual on the basis of their previous actions (as in the case of Linda Hobson or Florence Anderson’s “burn in hell” comment) then unless it involves a direct and obvious threat or is likely to lead to that person being harmed, freedom of speech must take priority over hurt feelings. Hate speech is surely anything which culturally devalues or endangers individuals on the basis of the group they belong to, such as ethnicity or gender. I also believe that “liking” a comment is a ridiculous event to take action on. What does a like mean? Sad acknowlegement? Solidarity with the sentiment? Amusement? An indication that something has been read? There are too many variants. A world in which minor party officials have their e-histories forensically combed for this kind of incident is not a world in which open free debate is welcomed. If anything, it perhaps reflects a degree of uncertainty on the part of users as to the social rules of an emerging venue for speech. It is treated as an informal site for discussion by participants, but a public space by their pursuers. There is a mismatch, and until all can reasonably be expected to understand the “rules” this kind of targetted snooping is not in the spirit of freedom of speech.

The timing and execution of Mensch’s latest witch hunt stank. It coincided with an evening where her senior party leadership were embroiled in allegations of corruption, but Mensch chose this time to pursue a lowly local Councillor without the same privileged network of publicity to respond to the accusations or state her case. Mensch could have chosen to open a broader debate on the use of hate-speech, which occurs across the political spectrum, but she did not. Instead, she chose to make it a personal attack on a woman who has worked for many years in trying to advance her community without the access to vast resources or cultural capital Mensch takes for granted, someone from a completely different background who thinks and lives in a different world from she. It was cynical, it was utterly lacking in compassion, awash with self-righteous indignation, and it will almost certainly lead to an increase in the hatred she condemns without any attempt to understand.

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