Friday, 1 November 2019

Uses and Abuses

After a four day wait, Granit Xhaka, the Arsenal captain, has released a statement about his behaviour in the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. That he chose to do so via his personal Instagram account suggests that a statement acceptable to the club, which would have appeared through offical channels, could not be agreed. My interest here is not the rights and wrongs of the situation or Xhaka's role in Unai Emery's faltering team (I'll explore that at another time) but Xhaka's explanation of his behaviour: "My feeling of not being understood by fans, and repeated abusive comments at matches and in social media over the last weeks and months have hurt me deeply. People have said things like 'We will break your legs', 'Kill your wife' and 'Wish that your daughter gets cancer'. That has stirred me up and I reached boiling point when I felt the rejection in the stadium on Sunday".

A proper apology starts with a full acknowledgement of what is being apologised for. This is the same principle of honesty that constitutes the first of the famous twelve steps. Passive apologies - "I apologise if offence has been taken" - are an evasion. In Xhaka's case, his actions are obscured by the bland phrase "I let myself be carried away". I was in the stadium so can report on this first-hand. When Xhaka's number came up on the subs board, there was a mixture of both polite applause and some ironic cheering. The latter was initially humorous but quickly turned hostile when Xhaka decided to walk slowly to the touchline at a time when Arsenal were chasing a win, Palace having equalised 10 minutes earlier. In such a situation every player would sprint off. Dawdling is highly unusual. It was this petulance on his part that riled the fans. His further reaction, cupping his ear and swearing as he trudged off, then ripping off his shirt, merely exacerbated matters.

What I want to pick out here is Xhaka's claim that the abuse he has received from a small number of fans can be linked to "the rejection in the stadium". In other words, he is going beyond a justification of provocation to blaming the fanbase more generally, which was probably the sticking-point in the negotiations on wording with the club. This unfairly associates the great majority of his critics - i.e. fans who think he's the wrong player for the team or were simply disappointed in his performance on Sunday - with a minority whose behaviour they in no way endorse. It's also worth emphasising that the abuse Xhaka has experienced is par for the course for most footballers who face the double challenge of occasionally disgruntled fans of their own team as well as permanently hostile fans of rivals. Harry Kane gets far worse abuse from Arsenal fans than Xhaka does, while Raheem Sterling could point out that he has had to contend with abusive tabloid journalists as well.

This manoeuvre of deflection through guilt-by-association is well-known in politics. For example, the claim that Labour is "institutionally antisemitic" rests not on the policies and practices of the party as an institution but on holding the mass of the membership (deemed guilty by virtue of electing Corbyn as leader) responsible for the behaviour of a small number of online trolls, many of whom aren't even party members or supporters. The announcement that various MPs will be retiring this week provides another example, with the media focusing on the number of women and in particular the claim that they have been hounded out of public life by abuse: "Lib Dem Sarah Wollaston said those women leaving the Conservatives were much younger and had spent less time as MPs in the Commons - compared to the older men who were at the age of retirement. And that they were leaving sooner because of the abuse."

In fact, the number of women retiring is proportionate to the composition of the Commons, and there are clearly some for whom abuse was not a prime factor, such as Amber Rudd who was constructively dismissed by the Tory whips. The dimension that does stand out is age, but the suggestion that this is indicative of a problem with abuse is dubious. Many of the women MPs who are retiring entered Parliament in their 30s or 40s during the period between 1997 and 2015. They were beneficiaries of the pro-women policies of both the main parties: "Blair's babes" and the all women shortlists of Labour, and the more female-friendly open selections pioneered by the Cameroonian Tories (Wollaston was one such beneficiary). In other words, this concerns a generation of MPs who represented the movement of both parties towards the political centre. Their early departure reflects the reversal of that movement, not a spike in hate crimes.

That many of this cohort have chosen to join the Liberal Democrats rather than retire does not indicate a thicker skin on the part of some so much as a pragmatic career adjustment. Wollaston herself admitted as much: "Why would you put up with all that abuse, if at the same time you’re unhappy about the direction of travel?" (I don't think she meant to suggest that the abuse would be tolerable had the Conservative Party not changed direction). At this point it is important to bear in mind that most of what counts as "abuse" is simple raillery or insults, rather than threats of violence, but it has become commonplace to equate incivility with criminal incitement. This both marginalises legitimate dissent and treats anger as an illegitimate political expression. Just as Arsenal fans are entitled to be angry about their team's shortcomings, so the electorate are entitled to swear at MPs. Criticising the "mob" for a lack of virtue is anti-politics.

Predictably, old media has decided that the problem is the lack of regulation of new media. This has produced some startlingly poor reasoning, particularly from traditional defenders of press freedom. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian is happy to discriminate between old and new: "The British press has fought against state regulation, other than over monopoly and laws of libel. I think that is right, not out of principle but because statutory regulation is not justified by press misbehaviour or imbalance – or not yet. Self-regulation sort of works. At present it is not the mainstream media driving decent people out of politics". This appears on the same day as further reports about Keith Vaz, who is being driven out of politics not just by his own behaviour but by a classic tabloid sting. I use him as an example because Jenkins' appeal to virtue - "decent people" - is irrelevant. Vaz is a pompous arse and Parliament would be well rid of him, but he has as much right to a private life as anyone else.

Granit Xhaka's triggering of the home crowd last Sunday may not have been entirely spontaneous. He probably didn't expect to be hauled off, but I suspect he had already decided that he will move on from Arsenal in the next year or two. He has never given the impression that he intended to see out the rest of his career in North London (he's 27) and his technique and style would better suit a less frenetic league where his lack of pace and tendency towards clumsy fouls would be less exposed and his passing from deep would be more appreciated (he could well thrive as a regista in Serie A). Falling out with the fans in such a spectacular fashion will hasten his departure. Framing that rift as the fans' fault merely makes a climbdown less likely. In similar fashion, the emphasis on the abuse received by women MPs in the announcement of imminent retirements distracts from the political reconstitution underway and obscures a calculated career move with moralising guff.

You don't have to buy into the narrative of "polarisation" and movement towards the "extremes" to see that a generation of centrist politicians is being winnowed. That doesn't mean that they are an endangered species or must needs look to the Liberal Democrats as a life-raft. The damp squib of Labour's trigger ballots suggest that centrists can still prosper within its "broad church", while the Tories' partial reversal of their recent purge indicates that a simple loyalty oath may be enough to survive. That many of them are women simply reflects the recruitment and candidacy policies of the two major parties over the last two decades. That many of them have been on the end of vile abuse reflects an anti-politics culture that has been assiduously cultivated by the press since the 1970s. That Diane Abbott is the most abused female MP of the lot reflects less her own distinction as a prominent black woman than the fact that she has been targeted by right-leaning journalists, including many female ones, for decades.

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