racism

THE DISTINCTIVE ODOUR OF BULLSHIT

There are phrases that cause you to pause, and wonder exactly what was just said. A pivotal one for me was when an account director at an ad agency I worked at in the 90s showed me some leaflets promoting jobs at a department store. I asked why they'd chosen to do that rather than go the more conventional route of a newspaper ad. "We tried that," he said, "but the ethnic response was too high."

I knew something significant had happened, but it took me a while to untangle the knotty meaning from the apparently straightforward packaging in which it was presented. The speaker had been so comfortable in what he was saying that its full ugliness wasn't immediately apparent. What he meant was, too many black people had applied for the jobs. The idea of 'too many' is an interesting one, and seems to suggest that a threshold had been breached. In this case, it came down to a nice middle class department store not wanting to dismay its customers with non-white faces. Only, in the meeting where the decision to create the leaflet was cooked up, I'm confident neither account handler nor the store's HR person would have used words like race or discrimination - they just wanted the store's staffing to be on-brand. Hence, put flyers through doors in leafy suburbs where reassuringly pale people could be found, who would remind shoppers of their nephews, nieces, grandchildren.

If there'd been a smoking gun document about that meeting and the thinking involved, I'd have passed it on to The Guardian or Private Eye. But the nature of such discussions is they happen in person - more often than not, man to man. For me it guaranteed that, sooner or later, I'd be gone from that agency. Having grown up among my father's students, who came from Malaysia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Uganda and elsewhere, I knew where I stood - had since I was about 7, when one of dad's Nigerian students told us that a tailor he'd asked to make him a jacket asked if he should leave room for sir's tail.

Bigots have no joy, no humour about them. Anything like that in you shrivels up when you choose to look at the world through the bone-framed lenses of the fearful and greedy. You need them, to give you distance, and witness a world that's going to the dogs (and not the way dad did when he took his students to Hall Green greyhound track to show them a bit of British culture). Loneliness makes you paranoid say mental health researchers, and one of the easiest ways to be lonely in a world as big as ours is by deliberately making other people 'them' and contrasting that group with an ever-dwindling 'us'.

We all warp reality in our own special ways, and make language do awkward things to fit what we want to get across, but there's a particular variety of it done by people with power that's instructive to watch. It was the odious Tory Grant Shapps who introduced me to the curious expression 'misspoke', when he used that word to express some lies he'd been caught in. Using 'misspoke' has some tentative implication that actually, Shapps had every intention of being a straight-up guy, but just as he was about to drop some truth some bollocks came out instead.

And now Labour's Diane Abbott has used the phrase. She had all the right numbers lined up in her head to explain how the party will pay for 10,000 cops, but rubbish fell out of her mouth. Like when you're eating, and crumbs bail out. Hillary Clinton said she misspoke too, when describing how she dodged bullets in Bosnia - which didn't happen. 

Getting things wrong is fine. It's what human beings do. What 'misspoken' does is position the speaker as some kind of superhuman, whose heart is pure but whose mind became mush and let tumblewords fall from the hole in heir face, perhaps due to the Kryptonite of an astute question or awkward observation.

Politicians believing they're more than human is just as unhelpful as bigots believing some people are subhuman. It's the same crap, which draws a distinction between the speaker and the world at large. I'm pretty sure I'll fall for it myself again soon, maybe even later today. But at least I know what to watch out for.

 

 

 

ANGER IS AN ENERGY

When I was a kid growing up in 70s Birmingham, my dad had a friend called Bill. There'd be a card game Friday night when Bill and other cronies came round, to gamble, drink, and discuss plans to renovate houses in the hope of selling them on for a fat profit. Bill was a builder who knew dad through their love of chess, Sean a plasterer who could knock back five pints of Guinness over lunch before getting seriously stuck in at night, and the gang also included a side-burned electrician, and a one-eyed upholsterer.

Bill had no sense of taste or smell. Some accident of army dentistry had robbed him of the requisite wiring. Another man might have taken that accident and turned it to his advantage, becoming a circus freak able to eat or drink anything put in front of him. Not Bill. He ate only those things he was familiar with, meaning gammon and egg, steak and chips, pork pie, and the like. Solid British food basically, though he made an exception for a few dishes that reminded him of time he spent with the army in Cyprus. 

We were pretty adventurous eaters as a family. My parents had some involvement with a wholefood cooperative called Red Beans, and many of our visitors were dad's students. They came from places like Malaysia, Nigeria, and Hong Kong where a fried breakfast was not on the menu. And sometimes they'd cook for us. If Bill was around, he'd be offered some of the food. He'd dutifully pick some up with a fork, raise it to his mouth - and put it down, shaking his head. The man who could eat raw shark lungs if he chose to could not cope with rice or beansprouts, because they didn't look right. Something in Bill feared what the foreign food might taste like, if he could taste it.

Fear is only a goose step away from hate, which I'm seeing a lot of lately. Wind back a few weeks to Nigel Farage, whose amiable incredulity about foreigners seems like blokey banter down the pub but soon became a thick vein of pus in the bloodstream of British public life. The National Police Chiefs' Council says the increase in attacks on migrants after the Brexit vote is the worst spike in hate crime they've ever known. Imagine killing someone because they don't talk like you. The words they speak won't fit in your own mouth, any more than Bill's would accept aubergine - and for that they have to die.

Donald Trump is peddling the same slurry of hate in the American election, against a backdrop of racial tensions rising in a way that hasn't been seen since the sixties. It seems we're wired to hate. At any rate it's easily manipulated by those who would rather we focused on some group declared Other than consider what alternatives there may be to virulence and contempt as ways to go about the day.

If we must hate, couldn't we at least be more imaginative about it?

Instead of homophobia, how about attacking poverty with the glee that some attack Poles?

Why do the same old same old hatred based on skin colour when we could turn our hate on company boards who plunder the pensions of the workers who've created that wealth?

The love thing is all very well, but there's too often a disconnect between people talking about love and actually doing something concrete to realise that vision. We need people who will do something constructive to create change.

Given that more of us seem to excel at hate, and the passive aggressive woolliness of many of the love advocates, I want to see more hate in the world - just please be creative about it, and make your hatred pro-social. Rather than base beliefs on illusion, as Bill did when he turned down food he couldn't even taste, be the Spielberg of spite, the Miles Davis of malevolence, the Bjork of bigotry, and pick on something truly worthy of your anger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAME AS IT EVER WAS

I never set out to be a copywriter. It happened when I was looking for a job following graduation. And it happened because of something daft - I'd had a wisdom tooth removed, and was in pain for a few days afterwards, during which time I was knocking back whisky and painkillers. Which explains why I wrote a job application in the style of classic detective novelist Raymond Chandler. That in turn attracted the attention of an agency called Christian Davies in Hertford, and pretty soon I was a copywriter as a result.

Turns out Christian Davies was one of the names used by a woman who posed as a male soldier in the 18th century, so the name was a good clue to the fact that I was entering a world where deception was commonplace. And so it turned out to be. This was the late 1980s. There were tales of business won by agencies turning up to pitch with new cars that the client was told would be theirs if they were awarded the account. All of this was eye-opening for me, and what clinched my desire to move was shitty behaviour on the part of one of the agency's directors. His co-director Tim was off ill. And while he was away, his colleague took time to ask each member of the agency for their loyalty during the difficult time - oh, and Tim's a great guy etc, but have a look at these expenses he's running up. Tim died a few weeks later, leaving behind a wife and children. Now, I wonder if the guy who wanted to exit him knew that Tim was dying and wanted to avoid a payout to his family.

Though I tried to find other work, eg in publishing or with the BBC, I had no luck. So when I was headhunted to join a London agency, I figured I might as well go along with it to get away from what was happening in Hertford. It couldn't get any worse, surely...

It didn't get worse. Just - different. For the first couple of weeks, I learned about this new agency, its team and clients. And was shown work that had been done to get me used to how they did things. A lot of their work was recruitment based, ie job adverts. So when a thrusting young director showed me some work that took the form of leaflet to put through the doors on behalf of a high-end department store, I asked why they were doing that and not putting an ad in the local paper. He answered simply, "We tried that, but the ethnic response was too high."

I knew he'd said something unusual, but it took a minute to process what he'd said and translated it into what he meant, which is that too many black people had applied for the jobs. Like there was an OK number of non-white applicants which had been exceeded. Hence leafletting a posh suburb where house prices filtered out any inconveniently-coloured candidates.

That was pretty much the moment I realised that me and advertising were never going to get on. I knew there'd be no smoking gun document about the blatantly racist conduct of department store and ad agency, otherwise I'd have passed it on to people who could publicise what had happened. I can easily imagine the dynamic young director and the client having their conversation about what they needed to do, all about the brand of the store, which wasn't in tune with the job applications they were getting, neither of them even half-conscious that they were engaging in racial discrimination.

Ugly as those experiences were, I'm glad they happened. My eyes were opened to what goes on in a very direct way. And that experience has shaped and continues to shape choices I've made since.

What's interesting to me is what people will do on behalf of a business in the name of making money. And one conclusion is we don't need to be given orders to behave in despicable ways. Our ability to act on behalf of an organisation is something we internalise. A company itself cannot act, but the values it enshrines can become behaviours when they're embraced by employees.

Fortunately, there are lots of decent people out there acting in the name of companies with an ethical outlook. But I remember too the experiments Stanley Milgram did, which showed that an alarming number of people will go along with what someone wearing a lab coat asks them to do, up to giving a stranger a potentially lethal electric shock. OK, so it wasn't a real shock in that experiment, and the stranger was an actor in cahoots with the scientist. Similarly, it doesn't need to be a real lab coat - someone in a suit who has an imposing job title can have the same kind of influence.

I'm lucky in that I have nobody else to provide for. If I choose not to work for a particular client, that's a choice I can live with. For people with families it's trickier. For single parents, even more problematic. There's no one size fits all answer. It does help to acknowledge the questions that come up though, and if none of those questions are coming up in the course of your work, you're either lucky, or need to look closer.

 

BACON AND BIGOTRY

So, I went to an event recently. A comics convention, to promote the online story Dadtown that I script. People came from all over the country to attend, including a couple of guys at the table next to ours who were up from London. One of them, having got up early to get to Nottingham, hadn't eaten breakfast and was experiencing a serious need for bacon. 

We weren't in an area strong on greasy-spoon cafes, but there was a franchise coffee place in a nearby hotel. They had a variety of breakfast offerings in which bacon didn't feature, except once when ingredients like rocket were also implicated. I noticed that beyond the coffee area and in the hotel space was a kitchen serving a buffet breakfast. That wasn't the solution my new London friend needed - he was looking for bacon sandwiches for himself and his colleague, a different proposition. Or was it?

What I could see - and smell - was that the buffet had bacon. What stopped the London guy was the concept of a buffet, and its price, something like £9. Which meant he'd let an idea get in the way of the reality of the situation. I've done the same in other contexts - we all have. I just happened to see it in action with someone else on this occasion. 

I pointed out the possibility, and within a couple of minutes he'd got one plate layered with rashers, and another piled high with slices of bread. He spent the next few minutes constructing bacon sandwiches, and the staff - amused - were happy to help by providing a bag to take them away. He constructed enough tasty looking bacon butties that the price per sandwich compared well with what he'd have paid in a cafe, which wasn't going to happen anywhere in the vicinity of hotel and convention.

What's interesting here is how language got in the way of intention. Desire - for bacon sandwiches - was thwarted temporarily by the word 'buffet'. Even though the buffet included bacon, there was implicit within 'buffet' the notion of sitting down to eat a variety of tastiness, which wasn't on the agenda given the desire to head back to the convention.

I like this example precisely because of its triviality. The subtle nuances of language are part of its power. A sign that says Whites Only is pretty blatant in what it expresses. The realities of prejudice are often more subtle. When I worked at an ad agency one of the directors told me, when I asked why targeted leaflet drops had been used to attract staff for one client rather than a newspaper ad, replied "We tried that, but the ethnic response was too high".

It took a minute to untangle the racism implicit in what he'd said, which was effectively that 'too many' non-white people had applied for the client's jobs. And I'm pretty sure that neither the ad agency guy or the client representative would have mentioned in their meeting that what they were doing could be considered racist. It's even possible that they had no awareness of the matter at all, their heads full of language about brand identity that tangentially supported the idea that a given company's employees should be white - which is why they'd targeted a leafy suburb with their leaflets.

Robert Anton Wilson, whose work has shaped me considerably, wrote "the words we use influence the thoughts we think more than the thoughts we think influence the language we use". I read that over 20 years ago, and the observation remains potent. Wilson himself was influenced by reading Alfred Korzybski, and if you want to really dig deep into how words and thinking and perception go together, contemplate this quote from his Science & Sanity. "We read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use."

Our ability to see through the constraints of language is instrumental to the ideas we conceive. Join us in exploring this and other themes in a Creativity & Innovation workshop on Tuesday November 10.