“Taliban” is a racist epithet: Thornberry’s words were potentially harmful not just hyperbolic

On September 19th, the Shadow Foreign Secretary claimed, “The Lib Dems have gotten kind of like the Taliban, haven’t they?”. She was referring to a motion Autumn conference passed – and which Jo Swinson emphasised in her speech – stating that the Liberal Democrats would revoke article 50 if they won a majority at the next general election.

As I tweeted at the time, the only people to refer to me (a person of colour) as “Taliban” are racists and now, Emily Thornberry. It is likely that Thornberry’s comments will get lost in the everyday to-ing and fro-ing of political discourse such as it is in the UK.

However, what it normalises is that it is OK to shout “Taliban” at a Liberal Democrat. Indeed, it will probably normalise it being shouted at any and all Remainers because if you are the sort of person to shout a racist epithet in the street, that justification will more than suffice. And I would be interested to know how she intends that I differentiate between racist hate crime and people simply shouting at me for my political beliefs if I do suffer that sort of abuse.

It is also why I am concerned by the #DangerousExtremist Lib Dem activists are currently using, satirising the BBC Question Time audience question on whether we were a “dangerous and extreme party”. I am unsure how comfortable people of colour in the Lib Dems will feel about jokingly calling themselves extremists when it is a stereotype many genuinely have to live with. 

Do I think Emily Thornberry is racist for de facto encouraging the use of a racist epithet at Liberal Democrats without considering the effect on people of colour? No. But one of the wider failures of the progressive movement is to recognise that it is not about individuals but systems. 

I am not particularly interested in specifically attacking Emily Thornberry for her comments but apart from anti-Semitism, Labour has generally been a champion of progressive causes. For one of its most senior figures – and even more galling the Shadow Foreign Secretary, a great office of state – to casually drop in a racist epithet without considering the harm it might do shows just how far we need to go with race relations. 

I am admin for the Facebook group Worrying Signs which began collating examples of discrimination and harassment following the referendum. I hope we do not see a rise in the use of this particular racist term in the near future. 

Language matters. Use it with care.

* Rajin Chowdhury is a junior doctor specialising in anaesthetics and critical care. He has been selected as Sheffield South East parliamentary candidate

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  • As a white woman, I too smarted at the choice of totalitarian regime. For me, whilst I considered the racism and think you are absolutely right to call on that, it was the casual comparison with a regime so well known for their terrible treatment of women that first concerned me. For me, it was and still is abhorrent that a women in her position can be so glib about the actions of the Taliban.

    Thank you for reminding us of the need to consider that certain sorts of casual insults are popular with racists and therefore additional meaning that we need to consider. I also take your point about the extremist hashtag. Clearly intended to mock the ridiculousness of the BBC Question Time question, but I think calls into question what we consider to be extremism, how we might identify it, and how much effort those from particular groups may have to put into demonstrating they are ‘normal’ just to reach the same level of acceptance as a middle-class white person.

    I think Labour, like many others who get involved in politics, can be guilty of believing that they are the good guys, and therefore everyone else are the bad guys, and the hyperbole gets the better of them. In Thornberry’s case, I believe some recent polling shows she would lose her seat to us, so I think it’s safe to say this is a symptom of her recognition that we are doing a better job of giving her voters what they want than the current Labour leadership.

  • Language does matter. A defence mechanism when it used against you is to laugh it off, but as time goes by that defence fails as it becomes clear the effect the language has. So Emily’s “Taliban” is a throwaway line with no thoughts for the consequences ( ironically it will be in all probability used against her in the future, where Lib Dems tred Labour tend to Tagalog, much later). Yes she should be called up about it, but driven by fear and puzzlement of why Labour are not doing well and the Lib Dems are, I don’t expect an apology.

    I’m afraid the incivility is yet another bonus of opening the Brexit Pandora’s box. It released a legion of ills, of which incivility, empowering predice and racism are just a few. I’m glad I don’t have to face the clown in the mirror to justify those Brexi ( or is it Lexi) bonus to myself.

  • Tony Greaves 22nd Sep '19 - 3:38pm

    Do not expect sensitive or sensible use of words by Ms Thornberry when she is talking about Liberal Democrats. There are too many people in the Labour Party who regard “Liberal Democrat” as at least as bad a form of abuse as “Taliban”. My only consoling thoughts when this happens are that too many of them too often treat their own “comrades” in just the same way.

  • Noel Hadjimichael 30th Sep '19 - 4:50pm

    Labour has found itself subject to years of scrutiny and concern over the use of language. The ongoing spectacle of its systemic failures regarding Britons from one of our most established minority faith communities is sufficient to put it on notice. The reality is that the liberal, progressive and reformist choice is us. The LibDems stand to be the natural and responsible opponents of the Conservatives. Labour and its privileged inner circle have had 90 odd years of major party status. Their barbs betray their fears. We are more than just the choice of Remain, we are the liberal choice.

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