On George Monbiot: Racial stereotyping is still racial stereotyping, even when it’s done by a Guardian columnist

This post was written by Owen on January 2, 2013
Posted Under: Communities,Media

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.

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Reader Comments


“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.”
Unfortunately if you had evidence to suggest this was true, then it would make it OK and, indeed, irrational to do otherwise. It would be ‘judice’, as opposed to ‘prejudice’, since it would be based on good evidence. (It would be like presuming every Chinese person you saw didn’t speak English, until you heard them do so).
The tragedy here is that if he feels that way about travellers then those he meets during camp-out protests who aren’t thieves aren’t likely to undermine his one-data-point-based judgment about all travellers, since a) he won’t be aware they’re travellers unless it comes up in conversation and you don’t talk for very long to everyone you meet and b) he might regard them as more likely to be ‘good travellers’ since he has met them in a context where he regards particularly righteous people as congregating (imagine if he met a banker at such a protest, for example).

Written By Hugh on January 3rd, 2013 @ 12:17 am
David Moss

I agree with you Owen about how we should evaluate the article and that the question there is simply whether the article will increase prejudice.

But this isn’t the only question or even the question that has been most discussed. What most people have been asking is whether Monbiot was racist in publishing the article (or whether Monbiot is a racist)?

Unfortunately, lots of people have been conflating the answers to these different questions. It’s possible (indeed, most likely true) that the article had racist-effects without being an expression of racism or result of GM having racist dispositions.

Written By David Moss on January 3rd, 2013 @ 10:34 am

Hugh: You’re conflating relative and absolute probability. If a person from ethnic group X is (let’s say) twice as likely than average to possess trait Y, that could mean that 40% of them possess it compared to 20% of the general population, or it could mean that 0.4% of them possess it compared to 0.2% of the general population. But even if the trait is possessed by a significant number of people in that ethnic group, it doesn’t seem OK to assume that *everyone* in that group will possess it. In fact, assuming that is practically the definition of racism. Making the assumption that every Chinese person you meet won’t speak English is (I would hope) based on things other than their ethnic background – if you’re in a small village in a remote part of the Chinese countryside, say, it might be reasonable to assume that people there won’t have had any reason to learn English. If you assume that every Chinese person you meet in the UK doesn’t speak English just because they’re Chinese (just to be clear, I very much doubt that you do this) then yeah, that would be kind of racist. And I agree entirely with your final paragraph – I believe the term you’re looking for is “confirmation bias” :p
David: Yes, totally agree. I don’t think it’s legitimate to call Monbiot racist on the basis of his article, and deliberately avoided doing so. The issue is rather that the article is likely to encourage racist attitudes in some of those who read it.

Written By Owen on January 3rd, 2013 @ 10:11 pm
Roger Coupe

Every community has its bad apples, I think this is Monbiot’s point. To try to deny this for a particular group is naive and prejudiced. And prejudice is in those who want to leap to the conclusion that the bad apples are typical of a community. I see nothing in Monbiot’s article that leads in this direction. The fuss raised about Monbiot is by those that assert that any story about bad behaviour in gay, black, naturist, traveller, (now add your own minority or even majority here) badly reflects on all of that community – therein lies the prejudice. When bad behaviour can be acknowledged as bad behaviour whoever commits it, then we may have made progress.

Written By Roger Coupe on January 7th, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

just a sidenote. seriously? a wiki link to the free rider page? and that’s meant to be criticism of anarchism? wow. i was expecting ever so slightly more. seriously. WOW.

Written By natalia on January 10th, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

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