A time to speak out?

It was in fact the mid-seventies but looking back it seems more like Victorian times. Rows and rows of little kids in red and grey uniform and we chirruped in unison from a hymn we were far too little to understand about how to “master self and temper, how to make our conduct fair, when to speak and when be silent, when to do and when forbear”.

When as Liberals should we be silent and when should we speak out?

Three examples for your consideration:

On the school run I walk alongside a mum, like me, whose family go back many, many years in this town. She has assumed we are on the same wavelength. We make small talk about how the town has grown and changed. Out she comes with: “There weren’t any black people here when we were young were there Ruth?” I hesitated, I admit I hesitated, the school run is not a political occasion but her tone and inference were clear and I replied as gently as I could by asking her if she had a problem with that (ie that the town was now multi-racial). She scuttled back into her shell and waffled about how “it” just showed how the town has changed. She has hardly spoken to me since.

There are many Gurkha families in this area and also people from the Philippines who come to care for our ageing population as (often hugely over qualified) care assistants in residential homes. A young parent (what is it about the school run round here?) makes reference to a “bunch of Filipinos” she has seen. I remark quietly that the group in question are my extended family, the relatives of my in-laws and their friends. I enjoy her discomfort but leave it there.

The website of a beloved friend now informs me that the current fuss about anti-semitism in the Labour party is all got up by Blairites who are pretending that anti-Zionism is anti-semitism in order to destroy Corbyn. Do I gently point out that  incendiary lines like “the Jews are rallying” do not convey a valid, humanitarian concern about Gaza but something entirely different? Or do I opt for a quiet life and agree to disagree with my friend?

What would you do?

Comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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  • David Evershed 30th Apr '16 - 11:47am

    If you are against racism then surely you are against it regardless of whether the race is Filipino, Jew or English?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 30th Apr '16 - 12:36pm

    What would I do?

    Honestly I don’t know, but the fact such a mild responses from yourself makes people uncomfortable probably suggests that they feel that they’re being judged. I don’t think making people feel this way is a good thing.

    So probably make people feel like they are not being judged then hopefully they will tell you what they really think and why. It might just be that they’re prejudiced or it might be something else but if people feel judged and uncomfortable you’ll never find out. Trick is being able to do this without compromising your own principles, which you shouldn’t.

  • David Evershed 30th Apr '16 - 12:51pm

    Is it racist for a political party to oppose Islamic culture on the grounds that it is oppressive to women?

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Apr '16 - 2:06pm

    Good article. When I hear racist remarks I try to call them out without trying to burn the relationship with them, but obviously it depends how bad the remarks are.

    On Labour and anti-semitism: I’m convinced this is not simply anti-Zionism. There’s too many conspiracy theories and nowadays Zionism can mean simply recognising Israel’s right to exist as a home for Jewish people, but not solely Jewish people.

    I have to admit though that since the Brussels and Paris attacks I’ve become quite afraid of Islamist terrorism. I still believe in religious freedom and Mosques in Britain, but I can’t deny that these attacks affected me and I need to work on fighting Islamophobia as much as anti-semitism and other forms of prejudice.

    It would be a sad state of affairs if different religions couldn’t live alongside each other peacefully in the same country, so that is what we should work towards and we have made great progress in some areas.

  • Tony Greaves 30th Apr '16 - 5:47pm

    I wonder what you mean by this “Islamic culture” you wish to oppose, and what you mean by “oppose”?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Apr '16 - 6:14pm

    Good, informal and insightful article.You asked what any of us would do in response to your Labour friends web site and anti semitism , I have an a response myself .

    There is no way this is being cooked up !I was once in Labour , the right of the party , where I was , though we are not talking the more rabid wing of the later era , but the more liberal social democratic wing , hence my finding my true home here in the Liberal Democrats , that and the very rabid wing , have much too much loyalty to the party and their colleagues they do agree with to destroy to rebuild .It is nonsense .Also , Jewish members like Lord Levy , who I like and respect , have been saying this is a real problem. And the young man in the Labour club in Oxford .It is all but mere words of heresay cpmpared to the words we read ourselves online and off, blatant, racist, tweets!

    I do not believe it is a massive Labour problem going back a very long time .It started a few years ago .It is influenced by a drip drip drip effect of long standing criticism of the increasingly stubborn and statist conservatism of Likud , and the awful and continuing insecurity in Israel and for Palestinians.Once , liberal , Labour , Kibbutz Israel was evident to all , a win by a transexual in the Eurovision contest yeas ago nailed the lie that Israel was so different to any or the best in democracy .That is old news .

    I feel what has happened is a hard left thinking has gripped the left of Labour .We have a left .I am not in it or of it .But they are my friends at best , my colleagues at worst. There is now a stronger left in Labour I do not want to know .Hope is that it is not too strong .

    I fear its the Livingston factor , people whose biggest fault is the size of their ego and mouth, rather than the nature of their views or policies , and unfortunately with him it is both ,that may ruin Labour .

  • Mick Taylor 30th Apr '16 - 8:19pm

    Racism is a touchstone issue for me. Back when I was recruiting people as council candidates, I always included a question to ascertain their views on race and never pursued candidature with anyone who had racist views of any sort. I have always made it clear to people I know that racism, sexism, holocaust denial and homophobia are not views that I can tolerate. People who hold these views can be clear that I will have nothing to do with them. And yes, it can break budding friendships.
    To David Evershead I would say that expressed as you did, then it would be racist. We have seen over the past few days just how crucial it is to use words carefully. Opposing the oppression of women is both desirable and necessary, but to equate it with all Islamic culture is racist. I know many Muslims, who would oppose the oppression of women, so to generalise is both dangerous and offensive. We need to support and encourage all those – both within and without Islamic culture – to stand up for the rights of women. As so many know to their cost the belief that women have yet gained real equality with men is far from true.

  • Thank you all so much for your thoughtful responses.

  • Maria Pretzler 1st May '16 - 12:04pm

    I would call people out. Do it gently, if possible, but make sure you do it.

    The reason why I am so insistent upon that is my experience with Austria.
    For decades now, there has been a right-wing party pushing the boundaries on what is acceptable to say in public about one’s prejudices against foreigners/ethnic minorities.

    And as most of the other parties caved in and moved to the right to shut them out, public discourse has moved rightwards. This means that many things have become ‘sayable’ in public that were not before, and xenophobia is becoming normalised.

    It’s the same mechanism, but in reverse, which has made drink-driving less socially acceptable, so far fewer people do it now, and friends feel able to stop people. But this can work in the other direction as well.

    If this is the case you get to a problematic development.
    – undesirable practices or statements become more acceptable because they are not challenged.
    – People start to think that everybody agrees with them (the school run story is typical), and believing something is the norm re-enforces an idea or way of behaving.
    – It becomes harder to challenge such statements (and perhaps, consequently, actions, too).
    – it becomes a lot easier to believe that there isn’t a problem, even in the face of clear evidence.
    – it becomes harder for victims to be believed.

    Calling out people on something like this is really uncomfortable – but the long term consequences of not doing so are potentially a lot worse.

  • Unfortunately, the Lib Dems have also dipped into anti-Semitism more than once. To me anti-Zionism is at it’s core anti Semitic.

    David Evershed it isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race. IMO it is bigoted to single Islam out or to keep going on about it. But as an atheist, I’m not keen on religion.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st May '16 - 4:04pm


    It would be wrong if you or anyone seemed to be targeting a whole people or a complete religion , it would be acceptable if a tendency or wing of the culture were criticised , and undersandably .


    Very thoughtful contribution , we must be aware of your experiences alluded to in knowledge of Austria , and hopefully the right are to be defeated there .


    We should not say “the Liberal Democrats “, where what you or anybody criticising and correctly , mean individual members of , not the same at all.I was and am very staunch in my criticism of Baroness Tongue , David Ward and any other who has strayed into offensive extreme views !As I allude to above , our left is not hard , where the attitude is, we must stop it .

  • Lorenzo,
    Absolutely right. I should have been more specific.

  • Ruth Bright 1st May '16 - 8:10pm

    Lorenzo – very much agree about Maria’s very interesting contribution. There is only one thing more uncomfortable than saying something and that is the horrible feeling you are left with when you don’t say anything. The trouble is that there is a lack of consensus on some words. I consider the word “pikey” to be a racist insult but when I complained in 2011 about someone in the Lib Dems using that word no-one took any action.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd May '16 - 8:34am


    Very well put and I like your reflective self analysis.I have a couple of terrific friends , about twenty years older than me ,they are in their late sixties , and from the East Midlands ,where , as with all areas , different regions catch up on colloquial expressions in varying ways . They use the word “coloured “, never as an insult , but as a description, as in for example , “whats the name of that excellent actor , you know , the coloured chap , ” I never say in response , “coloured, as a description ,really went out with Charlie Williams when I was about five !” because it would sound patronising and ageist! What I do is always add , is something like “oh , do you mean the tall ,black guy , in his thirties , who was in , such and such..,” hoping the lingo of 2016 , or of forty years previously, might rub off on them !

    I must say though , Ruth , wherever I get a whiff of actual racist views , I would challenge it , or , if you are worried about your well being or safety in that scenario,walk away and never have anything to do with them !

    As a one time Labour member , it does not make me glad to see the “new politics “in Labour expose an influx of more extreme elements in that party , but that is what has happened .I believe racism , actual dislike or judgement of someone because of ethnicity , is a form of aberration,unfathomable , and , while valliant attempts by others, such as our own remarkable Liberal Democrat , Maajid Nawaz, to change that behaviour in others,even amongst the entrenched , is worth the challenge, on the whole it is seeing it as an enemy to be defeated,that must be the approach !

    We can defeat it by making it clear and unambiguous that ALL forms of it are abhorrant!


  • This represents to me one of the LibDems key challenges. Let’s walk it through, you were asked a question

    “There weren’t any black people here when we were young were there Ruth?”

    To which the answer is presumably yes or no. But instead you assumed a meaning, the least charitable (that she is racist) and responded with a questionable would be regarded as a shaming technique. Yet you are concerned that this person shut you out.

    There are a number of possibilities, she may have been someone who was looking for an opening to discuss how an area has changed (as she stated), may have been opening to express a racist view, or any number of other possibilities.

    If she holds racist views, do you think a shaming response will have changed those views? There are plenty on ways to keep a discussion going establish what someone is talking about and then persuade them if you think they are wrong.

    If she does not hold racist views but was opening up an alternative discussion then by giving a shaming response you have shown you will assume the worst of someone, and many people can’t be bothered with others who respond like that.

    I’m sadly not surprised (though disappointed) that I appear to be the first person to suggest that assuming the worst about someone’s meaning is not a great response.

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd May '16 - 9:12am

    @ Psi,
    Ruth assumed a meaning from rather more than the words spoken, tone etc., can communicate meaning in a rather more powerful way than mere words.

    Moreover, as someone who was often described as a ‘typical English Rose’ during my youth and now the mother of children who are dismissed as ‘blacks’ or some homogeneous group , black people’, P-akis etc., I think that Ruth probably has more finely attuned antennae when it comes to racism. If there is any assumption , it is that white people like her or myself would agree with what is about to be said.

    When referring to the changes that have taken place in an area, why would one mention the colour of the residents?

  • Lorenzo Cherin

    I obviously hadn’t refreshed the page to get yur last comment. It is a good example, many people say things that can have a variety of meanings. It is best to understand what someone is actually saying, then understand why, before choosing the right course of action.

    It can be people using old language (I know some in the older generations to me who use phrases that have a very different meaning now but they continue to use), or people holding a view because they have not given the matter much thought and if appropriately raised would lead them to think it through and probably change their mind and there are a tiny minority who hold views hard they won’t be changed. Lumping others in with the tiny minority at best will cause people to shut down or at worst double down when they feel under attack.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “When referring to the changes that have taken place in an area, why would one mention the colour of the residents?”

    Not having been there I don’t know but I would suggest asking the question in a way likely to get an answer you can engage with, rather than shut down the conversation assuming the person is racist. Then even if they are holding a racist view they may be holding it for a reason that you can get them to be open minded to changing their views.

    Or we could use shaming as a technique to prevent views being aired in public so it becomes impossible to address them and move people on. It has worked so well because anti-immigrant no longer exists due to a couple of decades of shaming techniques. Because UKIP has not collected any votes recently, the pro-EU case is not suffering from a massive concern about immigration in the upcoming referendum either?

    The desire to “call out” and “confront” what are perceived to be racist views may feel good, but what are you trying to achieve? I would hope a reduction in the existence in racist views and any impact those views are able to have, the best way to do that is to persuade people not shouting them down. Shouting down may be an appropriate position when the views are being presented by a racist organisation shouting them at you (EDL, BNP etc) but if they are views not strongly held that may be based on all kinds of things and could be change if addressed.

    I expect politicians to be clear and precise about what they say and would be very concerned when they use inflammatory language (Ken Livingstone this weekend). I don’t extend that expectation of precision to every person I meet on a daily basis, which would only result in disappointment and/or paranoia.

  • Peter Watson 3rd May '16 - 10:48am

    @Lorenzo Cherin “They use the word “coloured “, never as an insult , but as a description …”
    This is something I struggle with when trying to refer to a person’s ethnicity without unintentionally using a word which might be considered offensive. When I’m working with or talking to somebody, their race is never an issue, so if I am discussing it, e.g. as a subject in its own right here or as in your example of trying to describe somebody whose name I can’t remember, I find it incredibly awkward.
    Even as I write this, I am worried about giving the wrong impression or using an inappropriate term.
    At the risk of appearing ridiculously naive, I would be very grateful for any advice. For me, “black” seems a harsh word with connotations of South Africa 30+ years ago. “Coloured” seems softer and more like the expression “person of colour” which seemed to be politically correct a few years ago, but I appreciate that it could be perceived as describing a deviation from a “non-coloured” state. Are “middle eastern” or “asian” acceptable adjectives or not? This always feels like a cultural minefield to me.

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd May '16 - 11:54am

    @ Psi,
    I would suggest that it has worked.

    It has worked because people no longer have to suffer the appalling racial abuse and open hostility of my youth. Most people do not air such views in public because they now know it is shameful to do so. Who on earth would anyone want to be associated with the ideas and behaviour of the BNP, NF and EDL?

    You seem to be conflating racist sentiment with anti immigration sentiment.

    @ Lorenzo, @Peter Watson.
    I shouldn’t worry too much. Trust me, people know when a term is used as a descriptive term and when it is used to label someone as ‘the other’.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “It has worked because people no longer have to suffer the appalling racial abuse and open hostility of my youth”

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but are you saying that the lack of racism we see today is not that people are less racist but that there are still loads of racists who simply don’t express their views? That would be a depressing view of the world.

    I see the reduction in racist attitudes being expressed as a result of the fact that most people don’t hold those views. Hence why I prefer to actually know what people mean when they say something and find out what their thinking is rather than simply claim to be an expert in what someone else means or thinks.

    “You seem to be conflating racist sentiment with anti immigration sentiment”

    Nope, I’m drawing the comparison to show how ineffective shaming is as a response to an issue. People have conflated having concerns about the impact of immigration with racism, then on the back of this used shaming techniques to shut down people discussing it. All this has resulted in is making it very difficult to have a discussion about the topic and address the concerns that exist feeding through in support following to those who are perceived as likely to “do something” (normally very simplistic and ineffective) about a very broad and complex issue.

  • Ruth Bright 3rd May '16 - 2:27pm

    Psi obviously you are trying to provoke – quite right to.

    I thought very carefully about posting this and in no way did I use a “shaming” technique. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to write about the times I have “let things go” and lived to regret it, for example, being called a “Yid” on a bus merely for being partnered by a Spurs supporter. I was completely flummoxed but apparently that word is used in football all the time.

    What is the sum total for our society if we never query these things?

  • Jayne Mansfield 3rd May '16 - 3:50pm

    @ Psi,
    No, I am saying that people have come to realise that it is not a respectable view to hold. Biologically, the idea that there are distinct groups or ‘races’ has become quite hard to sustain.

    My view of the world oscillates between hope and despair. Much as I would like to agree with you that fewer people hold racist views, (that holds true of the people I mix with), I think that one should be vigilant. For example, a British social attitudes survey found that those admitting to racial prejudice had increased over the past decade. Whether that is because people are prepared to be more honest in surveys, or whether it is because the concept of ‘race’ has been widened, I do not know.

    On the other hand, it is heartening that in the 1980’s , 50% of the public were opposed to inter -racial marriages whereas a couple of years ago the think tank, British Futures found that it was now 15%.

    What is clear from all available evidence is that it is a mixed picture and we are not yet a ‘post racial’ , ‘Rainbow Nation’.

    I must admit, don’t find the idea of challenging racist comment a complex matter at all. Most people of my generation have had to work hard to shake off the prejudices of the societies in which we grew up. We didn’t just wake up and discover we were no longer racist. We had our views challenged and in turn challenged those of others.

    I would be interested to know why challenging someone’s beliefs is perceived as ‘shaming’ , or ‘shutting someone up’.

  • David Allen 3rd May '16 - 4:00pm

    Yes, racists of all kinds (including antisemites) use various underhand techniques to test the boundaries, to make “jocular”, or else “political”, or else just plain ambiguous comments, which can be claimed to stop short of overt racism, and yet are designed as dog-whistle racism, as “respectable” ways to express racist views. That is odious.

    However, lobbyists for Israel have also sought to play dubious games, by seeking to have serious criticism of Israel dismissed as “antisemitic”. That is odious too.

    As an example of the extent to which the Israeli lobbyists have succeeded, consider the following remark which has got a Labour councillor suspended:

    “Nottingham city councillor Ilyas Aziz … posted a link to an article about Nazi Germany, alongside which he said: ‘A reminder of the treatment and suffering of Jews in Nazi Germany. Are there any similarities to how Israel is treating Palestinians?’ ”

    This can reasonably be described as fair, balanced, and moderate comment. Aziz mentioned and condemned the Holocaust. By asking “are there any similarities”, he took care not to make an overclaim that Israel might be as bad as Nazi Germany, and he took care to attack the Israeli state rather than Jewish people. And yet, in the current mood of hysteria, Labour have suspended him. That’s not so much odious as downright ludicrous.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th May '16 - 1:22am

    Many reflective comments.

    Peter Watson deserves attention in particular .

    I know from experience that “coloured “, as a description is used by older people a generation or two above mine , never by younger people , or rarely .Regions do vary , as a Londoner who has lived in Nottingham as well , for several years , I know an older person in Nottingham , or other areas outside the capital , is still more likely to use the word , with no hint of insult , merely as a description , just as , white , old , young , etc.

    The most important opinion and practice to know about is the very people being described. Anyone today of Afro Caribbean origin always states , without reservation , the word to use is black, if that is what the person is , or , if genuinely trying to be more specific in a given situation, mixed race, not half cast , which , like “coloured “, went out of fashion ages ago .I have heard older black and mixed race British people once in a while use the dated words , not just white people describing others .It is , as any detective oriented searcher for truth knows , all about motive .You should realise that any minority is going to be described in more detail than a majority.Any black or Asian friend of mine , if describing someone , is more likely themselves in certain circumstances to do so .So my black friend alluded to , describing his colleague , says , “you might of met him ,his name is Freddie , the middle aged black guy , always wears a suit ,” and the same friend , would say , “he was going out with the blonde lady in the perfume counter , Alice .” In other words he might not use the word white , because he thinks blonde says it anyway , and if it is a black woman who dyes her hair blonde , he would happily say so .The key is what people who are not being prejudiced in there description , what do any of us say , in that situation , and it is possible to see or rather hear what is appropriate.

    When in doubt you are in reasonable company if you make a hash of it .See Benedict Cumberbatch , the most forgiving and keen to defend him were his black friends and colleagues , who know he is no racist, after he used the word “coloured “, as a description .

  • Richard Underhill 8th May '16 - 11:00am

    Ephraim Mirvis, the current Chief Rabbi, recently wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph. They put him on the front page. He said that Judaism and Zionism are the same thing.

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