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Angela Smith’s Funny Tinge.

Written by Neil Levy

The irony was palpable: mere hours after a group of MPs resigned from the Labour Party in part over allegations of anti-Semitism in the party, one of the breakaway MPs found herself accused of racism. On a BBC politics program, she described people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as having a “funny tinge”. Angela Smith’s remark was widely condemned. Of course, such talk is unacceptable. However, it’s a mistake to condemn her on its basis.

When someone uses words like that, they may do so deliberately, and endorse the language. In such a case, we are entitled to make inferences about the person’s attitudes from her language. But that’s not what happened in this case. As soon as Smith heard the words leave her mouth, she changed tack. She knew immediately that she had made a gaffe and attempted to move on, apparently hoping it went unnoticed (that might have been a mistake).

Our gaffes need not reveal anything deep about ourselves. They don’t always reveal who we really are. Speech production doesn’t work like that. As we attempt to express (and at the same time, form) our thoughts, we draw on our stock of words, phrases and associations. The utterances prime others, through associations and inferences. The words we speak are those who win a kind of competition for availability. The winners will be the most highly weighted words, and the weights are conferred by their matching a variety of criteria. Some of those criteria are indeed to do with our values and attitudes. But others have more to do with facts about our linguistic history. Words and phrases come to mind just because we’ve been exposed to them.

Shouting insults and invectives (coprolalia) is sometimes seen in Tourette’s syndrome. What seems to happen is that the thoughts that pass through all our minds as we navigate the world are expressed in patients, whereas they are inhibited in us. Sometimes, the thought is there so briefly we don’t even notice it. We shouldn’t conclude that the patient who shouts ‘fatso!’ or something else hurtful should be blamed, or even that they have attitudes that are condemnable. Rather, they failed to inhibit a thought we all could easily have had. The thought need not be one we would endorse, even privately. It may be nothing more than an association.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?,” E.M. Forster is alleged to have said. We discover what we think when we talk. But what we think is not always what we endorse. We may discover deep truths about ourselves, but we may discover more shallow things, too. I don’t know anything about Angela Smith or her background. Perhaps such knowledge would change my perception of her. On the basis of this kind of remark, however, I do not draw any conclusions about her real attitudes.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. Like you, I interpreted Smith’s obvious immediate embarrassed recognition of her verbal clumsiness as evidence of ignorance rather than racism.

    As the representative of Penistone and Stocksbridge she perhaps has had rather limited opportunities in her life to interact with ethnic minorities. Nor will her current employment have tended to broaden her outlook, as ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in the chamber of the House of Commons. So it is understandable that this lack of practice leads to a lack of terminological felicity when the topic came up.

    That her error represents a summum of her past linguistic experience is perhaps rather a good argument for representative democracy, if it can create a teachable moment for both her and the people of Barnsley. Racism can only flourish where social conditions create ignorance of the other, such as ghettos, impermeable borders, or race bars such as the Jim Crow rules; conversely, constructive inter-personal interaction between members of different ethic groups, with equality as its basic value (at work, in education & community activities) is the best path to its obviation.

    Those lacking such opportunities could start with politeness, which in English culture would usually include not making remarks about other people’s personal appearance.

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