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Gaffes and the politics of unequal consequences

5 May , 2017  

Dr Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the history of political thought. His recent biography of the black intellectual and activist Darcus Howe, co-written with Paul Field, is published by Bloomsbury.

Political gaffes are great. Election connoisseurs treasure them. Who could fail to be amused by Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich? Boris Johnson has made a career out of being “gaffe prone”. But the unequal consequences of political slip-ups tells us something important about the nature of our politics and its entrenched biases.

This week, a series of gaffes have lit up social media. On Sunday, Theresa May obfuscated after Andrew Marr asked her if it was wrong that nurses were forced to rely on food banks. Then, on Tuesday Diane Abbott was in trouble discussing police numbers on LBC, and again with Piers Morgan on ITV over Trident.

In each case footage was swiftly ripped to internet sites. At this point, obvious biases came into play. Top comments on YouTube’s most prominent version of Abbott’s interviews included claims that the Shadow Home Secretary is a “racist bint”, a “communist anti-white bitch”, an “imbecile”, a “stupid racist dumb bitch”, and a “retarded liberal woman”. For one contributor Abbott’s refusal to say she would use Trident, was exactly what “you expect would happen when you allowed a nig-nog of this grandiose calibre to have any say at all in your political system”.

If you compare such hatred to the reactions to May’s gaffe the first thing you notice is that language is much less aggressive. Comments, again on the most viewed version of May’s interview, state that “she can’t answer a single and simple question”, or “she obviously doesn’t care about poor people”, or “she is not strong and stable she is stubborn and arrogant.”

The top comments on Abbott’s gaffe are racialised and gendered in a way the top comments on May’s video are simply not. Indeed, currently, in the top-level comments on May’s interview, the degrading language of “bitch” and “bint”, which is so often used against women in the public sphere, does not appear at all – a marked contrast to the response to Abbott.

What is more, comments on Abbott’s interviews routinely stress her intellectual capacity – or lack of it, as the contributors sees it. So Abbott, a Cambridge University graduate, is perceived by many of her detractors as an “imbecile”, or a “retard”, but May’s intellect, the product of a similar education at Oxford, is rarely questioned.

Turning to the packaging of the gaffes, YouTube’s top video of May’s interview with Marr is 20 minute’s long. It contains the entire interview, in which May’s awkward evasion, is only a small part. The top videos dealing with Abbott’s gaffes are much shorter, and focus, almost exclusively, on Abbott’s moments of discomfort. The most viewed footage of Abbott’s LBC interview, is truncated so drastically that it starts mid-sentence. May’s gaffe, then, is viewed in the context of a broadly assured performance, whereas Abbott’s gaffe is front and centre.

In a recent discussion at Cambridge University, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams decried the sadism of much social media: the apparent will to humiliation at the heart of a good deal of internet debate. Significantly, the snide, vicious mockery that Williams describes is far more acute when directed at Abbott, and far less severe when directed at May.

Aaron James’ 2012 book Assholes: A Theory, also sheds light on the unequal response to  May and Abbott. According to James, who tries to give a rigorous definition to the term “asshole”, an “asshole” is someone who “allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

What James points to is the way in which privilege insulates individuals and groups from the negative consequences of their own actions. May’s privileged status means that she can make a political gaffe and still be taken seriously, not be subject to the worst excesses of social media bile. Yet, as a black woman, Abbott is routinely treated with derision, and her infrequent gaffes are seized upon as “proof” that she is out of place, that she has no right to be at the centre of British politics. Abbott, who has been in Parliament a decade longer than May, is clearly perceived as having much less right to participate in national politics than the less experienced May.

Boris Johnson is, perhaps the best example of a British politician insulated by privilege. As an exceptionally wealthy, white man he can get away with accusing the Turkish President of having sex with a goat; he can brush off criticism following his use of the word “piccaninnies” to describe black children – a word that might have ended a politician’s career in the 1960s; he was even able to accuse Barack Obama of “ancestral dislike” of Britain, and still be given the job of Foreign Secretary – one of the highest offices in the British state.

Finally, consider this, Abbott’s gaffes are used as a pretext for an outpouring of vitriol, May’s gaffes are met with muted disappointment, but Boris’s gaffes are the foundation of one of the most successful political careers of the age.

During the 2016 US election, Trump claimed infamously, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any voters. He was so insulated by his status that “His people”, would still support him, even if he was guilty of murder. Sadly, as these recent gaffes show, a similar relationship between privilege and bias is at work in British politics.

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