Did Jeremy Corbyn say ‘stupid woman’ or ‘stupid people’?
That is the headline that the BBC ran with when they brought the latest scandal out of the Commons to the public eye.
Does it matter?
Most will have heard about the latest talking point coming out of PMQs. If you haven’t then you are missing the latest news article to surface that has, in my household, prompted yet another conversation about how the modern Briton considers his or her, and the national, sense of morality.
Does it matter whether Corbyn said woman or people? Both seem rather rude, and a far cry from what the idealist would expect from our members of parliament. The man himself seems to think it does matter. After MPs called for the Labour leader to make a public apology in the Commons, Corbyn spoke up and denied the allegations levelled against him. Before offering his version of events we were assured that the leader of the opposition is “opposed to the use of sexist and misogynist language in any form”. According to his own account of the events he, in response to what he considered a Conservative attempt to turn a debate about the national crisis into a pantomime, called those involved ‘stupid people’.
His defence, and the way the conflict has been highlighted in the media, is enlightening. What is it that we, the British public, are supposed to be taking offence from? The term ‘stupid’ remains in both sides of the story, in the one that’s supposed to disgust us and the one we’re supposed to accept. Following a very simple process of elimination, I suppose we’re to take offence at Corbyn’s use of the word ‘woman’. Something doesn’t ring true. Theresa May is, in fact, a woman. A strong powerful woman who, by nature of her profession, is respected and denigrated in equal measure, loved as much as she is hated, ridiculed as often as she is placed on a pedestal. She is the leader of the party after all.
The allegations levelled at Corbyn have placed this talking point within the debate surrounding feminism. With the tempered weapons formed in the ongoing battle to secure equal treatment of women in Britain, Corbyn has been attacked by his fellow members of parliament. Andrea Leadsom and Rachel Maclean have both had their say on the debate in the Commons. Maclean took to the floor to tell us that she did not believe the Labour leader’s excuse, that the matter was far from closed and that a further apology, above and beyond the denial Corbyn earlier offered, was still necessary. So where does that leave Corbyn, and, more importantly, where does it leave us?
According to Maclean’s rebuttal of the rebuttal, we should not be satisfied with Corbyn’s response to the scandal. That seems fair, after all, he is yet to apologise for some very unsavoury remarks. However, according to Maclean’s reasoning, we should not be satisfied with Corbyn’s response because it is an untruthful account of events rather than because he has failed to apologise. What the hell is going on?
Corbyn absolutely needs to apologise. Not because his comment was sexist. He needs to apologise because it was offensive, an unprofessional lapse in a heated back and forth. Attempts by the media to prolong this scandal and place it within the national debate on feminism are problematic. Confusingly, for the modern liberal trying to temper his or her morality in accordance with the changing intellectual climate, this argument is not about feminism at all. It is a political conflict using feminism as the blunt weapon in a messy melee.
Maclean and Leadsom are both strong women who, by virtue of their success in their chosen field and all that they have done to infiltrate an old boys club – before one even considers the changes they have enacted as political representatives -, are heroes in the feminist cause, bastions and examples for the underrepresented. They are also, however, both members of the Conservative party. Let us not think for a minute that their comments can be divorced from this element of their politics.
For the ill-informed, headlines such as these are dangerously problematic. What should we infer from the debate that the BBC presented us with when we were asked ‘stupid woman’ or ‘stupid people’? Women are not ashamed of being called women, even if its implied as an insult when muttered venomously under the breath of a red-faced man. But if the press would have us believe that stupid woman is an insult and stupid people is not then those of us influenced by the media – all of us – may find ourselves in an obstructively confusing world where we can not say the word ‘woman’. Mark Corrigan might have something to say about that future. Corbyn’s comment was not sexist and suggesting otherwise arguably damages the feminist cause.
As previously mentioned, this latest episode in the soap opera that is British parliamentary politics furnished multiple talking points amongst my family. One of which helpfully ties in with the Christmas brief I was given by my editor. This debate over what constitutes decent conduct within parliament and what one can and cannot say about the opposition made my family consider the context of these comments. As I’ve suggested, Corbyn’s comment – even if he used the word ‘woman’ – is not a sexist one. Rather it has been couched within the debate on sexism in an attempt to tar a member of the opposition party. Take the comment within the context of a prickly political debate and one removes its disguise. The backlash is an organised attempt to undermine the opposition. There are those among us who, however, will disagree. Corbyn’s comment is the misogynistic symptom of a horrible, and now sexist, man some might say. I would argue, with no evidence nor research to back myself up, that those who see ill-intent in Corbyn’s comment are inclined to see ill-intent in most of what he says. If you liked Corbyn before this media shitstorm and now don’t, based on his conduct in this conflict, then leave a comment below. I would be interested to hear why. The point is we cannot divorce our preconceived attitudes from new stimuli we interact with.
As an example of how we have applied that element of human nature to an entirely different situation let us consider ‘A Fairytale in New York’ by the Pogues. Many of us consider this our favourite Christmas song, it is wheeled out year on year and, for many of us, we first encountered it as the children of a different era. We measured its virtues in our childhood, in our years of attitudinal as well as physical development. For many of us that was before we managed to adapt our attitudes to the parameters of modern liberal thought. In the now, modernity could – and if similar trends that we have witnessed suggest a framework to work by, perhaps should – have made the modern individual reconsider the Christmas classic for the appropriateness of its lyrics, one line of which reads ‘you cheap lousy faggot’. We are yet to, however. I will become the unwilling antagonist in this song’s story if my article prompts us to do so, however, I doubt we will. The reason: we like ‘A Fairytale in New York’. And despite its unsavoury lyric or lyrics, depending on the very interpretational consideration of that categorisation, the BBC radio plays it often around this time of year with no lyrics censored. Why is that? I would love to have the answer but I would sooner pose my considerations as another question. Is it because we love the song, unlike how many of us feel about Jeremy Corbyn, and do not want to consider the lyrics offensive?
Finally, I would like to consider one other talking point that arose in the wake of this story. If like me and mine, you and your family arrived at the same conclusion as I have about the morality and appropriateness of Corbyn’s comment then what does this say about our relationship with mainstream media. As I have highlighted the BBC has managed to polarise the argument into the appropriate ‘stupid people’ and the inappropriate ‘stupid woman’. If you have agreed with the sentiments of this article and do not find yourself on either side of the fence the BBC has built then what is the media’s role in our lives at present? It does not seem to reflect our attitudes back at us, not for me, not in this example. I cannot believe that one of those comments is more offensive than the other. Maybe the media does not have it in their agenda to reflect modern culture, despite that agenda belying witty names such as ‘The Mirror’. Mainstream media outlets are organs of a capitalist culture after all, and scandal sells.
Regardless of the press’ purpose, debates such as the one analysed, are likely to have a snowballing effect on public attitudes that we would benefit from being aware of. On the one hand, the BBC’s question that I started this article with is an expression of a nation that is becoming increasingly aware of the sensibilities of those around us. To our benefit we are learning more about each other and, on the surface at least, are trying to use these lessons for communal advantage. Asking questions about what is right and wrong is essential for our development. However, we are also being shaped by the questions we ask. In this example, where the BBC has asked a question of us that reflects our current and developing sense of morality, they have also suggested at a new direction. There are those among us who, having considered the nature and considerations of this debate, may arrive at the conclusion that the word woman is offensive to women. And maybe, as modern morality develops, that may become the case.
If that is our future then fair enough, it is going to be confusing though.
Written by Cameron Grant