On George Monbiot: Racial stereotyping is still racial stereotyping, even when it’s done by a Guardian columnist
As readers may or may not be aware, on Boxing Day the Guardian published a column by George Monbiot, lefty commentator and erstwhile Third Estate interviewee. Titled “The day my inner anarchist lost out to the bourgeois me”, the article recounts Monbiot’s encounter in an A&E department with a Traveller man seeking treatment for his finger after it was (deliberately) slammed in a car door by a police officer. Halfway through their conversation Monbiot realises he first met the man five years previously, at an anarchist occupation, and that the man, along with his brother, stole from a number of other people at the occupation before being arrested. The piece concludes by way of a sort-of-punchline, with Monbiot realising that the jacket which the man is wearing is in fact Monbiot’s – and was, we’re led to assume, stolen at their last meeting five years before.
Perhaps predictably, the article proved a wee bit controversial. Monbiot has been roundly denounced on Twitter as a racist, and the Traveller Solidarity Network (TSN) has published a strongly condemnatory response. Equally predictably, Monbiot has responded in his turn, variously describing said response as ‘utterly ridiculous’, ‘idiotic’ and ‘nutty’. What he hasn’t done, though (at time of writing) is actually engage substantively with any of the criticisms which have been levelled at his original column. To accusations of racism, he makes no response other than to state repeatedly that the events he describes are an accurate account of his experience.
He’s probably telling the truth. And what’s more, he almost certainly didn’t intend the piece to encourage anti-Traveller prejudice when he wrote the piece. But neither of those things is relevant to the fundamental question: All other considerations aside, does Monbiot’s article actually have the effect of encouraging anti-Traveller prejudice? On that, the only possible answer is unfortunately an emphatic yes.
What Monbiot seems to have been aiming to write was a relatively light-hearted anecdote with an illustration of the tensions between his and his fellow middle-class lefties’ anti-authoritarian instincts and their desire not to have their stuff nicked. And if that’s all he’d actually done, that would be fine – it’s by no means a conclusive argument, but the free-rider problem is probably the main reason I’m not an anarchist, and pointing to a real-life example of it is as good a way of making that case as any. But what Monbiot actually did was tell a story about meeting a Traveller – described as ‘filthy’, with neck and knuckle tattoos – whom he recognised to be a thief. Given that Travellers are routinely stereotyped as dirty, brutish and prone to stealing, it really shouldn’t be too hard to see why this is problematic: if Monbiot had written a column describing how he met a Jewish man with a huge hooked nose, and remembered that a few years previously the man had lent him a fiver then demanded it back with 20% interest, would that be OK?
The important point isn’t whether Monbiot’s anecdote about the Traveller man is true or not; the point is that in choosing to write about his experience in the terms that he did, he’s reinforcing negative and seriously harmful stereotypes about Travellers. It’s undoubtedly true (as any scientist will tell you) that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but human beings don’t generally make judgements in strict accordance with the scientific method. What we tend to do is try to spot patterns in our own experience and in what we hear from others. And that can, on occasion, lead us to make assumptions about someone because of their ethnic background. Which is pretty much the dictionary definition of racism. When we encounter members of an ethnic group who are already the victims of severe discrimination, it can also lead us to assume that they’re going to be dirty, thieving and brutish, and treat them negatively as a result. It might in fact be the case that Travellers are more likely to commit theft than members of other ethnic groups – I have no idea whether it is or not. But even if it is, that categorically doesn’t make it OK to treat every Traveller you meet as a potential thief. Monbiot’s column will encourage people to do precisely that, regardless of the fact that he may not have intended it to do so. An apology from him and the editors at the Guardian who published it would be the very least that the Traveller community could expect.