Dylan Moore says to improve public discourse, we need to rediscover our moral compass
I had this review of The Welsh Way ready to go a couple of weeks ago. Two thousand words’ worth of being, generally, thoroughly impressed.
I had a couple of major issues with it – it would be remiss of any careful reviewer not to – but on the whole I thought, and still think, it is the most useful book-length intervention in Wales’ political sphere for a very long time. Robust arguments, well evidenced, a range of often new and distinctive voices; its publishers, and editors, are to be commended. It is, I write, a wake-up call, not only for Wales’ politicians – but for all of us – journalists, academics, commentators; anyone who contributes to the virtual public square.
But then came the tweet, and I knew immediately that we would not be able to blithely publish the review on the book’s publication day, September 1st, without some reference to the controversy it caused.
It is hard to know what to say. One of the contributors to The Welsh Way, Gareth Leaman, wrote an excellent article in the most recent edition of Planet, an excoriating critique of the ‘Twittering Machine’ that governs so much of our discourse. It goes like this: somebody writes something derogatory about Wales in the London press; there are outraged tweets about it; the tweets get threaded together into an ‘article’ and republished; Twitter users reshare the article; the outrage is magnified. Ad infinitum.
I agree with Leaman: some nonsense is best left ignored. Somehow we need to get beyond a public discourse in Wales that is simply a glorified regurgitation of deliberate clickbait provocations and cantankerous arguments on Twitter. So a huge part of me does not want to write this.
Equally, some things cannot be ignored, and on balance I think this is one of them. I hope that publishing my broadly positive review of The Welsh Way alongside some critique of a wider body of discourse that has clouded its launch will help rather than hinder the development of a more thoughtful, more respectful, more useful national conversation in Wales.
To be clear, the tweet I am writing about is the one in which Desolation Radio – associated with one of The Welsh Way’s editors, Daniel Evans – asked followers if they would rather be governed by Welsh Labour or the Taliban.
I was shocked when I saw it first and it feels surreal to type it now. Then I was heartened to see the outcry against it with many, many Twitter users expressing their horror and disbelief at the crass and insensitive nature of the tweet at a time when people were losing and at risk of losing their lives and livelihoods in Afghanistan. I expected the tweet would be taken down and an apology would follow.
‘In attempting to place Welsh Labour in a frame of reference alongside the Taliban, any valid criticism of our own Government simply evaporates.
What happened next was worse.
Not only did Desolation Radio ‘double down’ on the tweet, apparently citing an edgy brand of satire as a form of freedom of expression, but a number of very credible left-wing journalists and activists – including a leading ex-politician whom I greatly admire for her outspoken stance on a huge range of issues – all leapt to the defence of their ‘ally’, or at least refused to condemn the tweet, which many people argued was racist.
Having started my PGCE in the week of 9/11, I know firsthand from the early years of my teaching career how ‘Bin Laden’ and ‘Taliban’ became catchall phrases to make Islamophobic and racist jokes.
Being white, I have never been the target of these, but I have always done my best to explain patiently to (typically) unthinking Year 8 boys why careless use of such words out of context is unacceptable. My apologies for sounding schoolmasterly, but I should not have to be doing it again here.
Similarly, having also worked with refugees – some of whom fled the Taliban at various points over the last twenty years – I know how inappropriate it is to use this misogynistic group of violent thugs, whose ideology is antithetical to human freedom, as a prop for a lame ‘joke’.
The irony here is that in attempting to place Welsh Labour in a frame of reference alongside the Taliban, any valid criticism of our own Government simply evaporates. All any empathetic human can think about in the light of such comparison is how blessed we are to live in a country where vast numbers of people are not having to flee for their lives.
‘What the reaction to the initial tweet showed was that far too many people on the left in Wales were willing to put human empathy aside for the sake of defending something said by someone considered ‘one of our own’.
What’s also ironic, and – I think – very sad is that the Desolation Radio tweet is the exact opposite of The Welsh Way. Where the tweet was crass and glib and thoughtless, the book is rigorous, impassioned and carefully argued.
But what I want to do here in introducing the review, which I have not edited in the light of the controversy, is to draw attention to two particular points.
Firstly, that our political ideology should always be secondary to our values. There might be so much more that we could do to improve lives if we were to focus first on values we share rather than issues where we disagree.
Of course, I have no hesitation in using the word ‘smash’ in relation to fascism, but let’s not diminish others and ourselves by bandying inflammatory language cheaply.
Pointing to the far right because they are worse is no help at all. The far right are racist by definition; it’s the job of the left, and – let’s also be very clear about this – the centre-right to oppose racism – and this starts with not being racist, or flirting with discriminatory tropes in any form.
What the reaction to the initial tweet showed was that far too many people on the left in Wales were willing to put human empathy aside for the sake of defending something said by someone considered ‘one of our own’.
‘We cannot leave it only to people of colour to do the exhausting work of calling out those who overstep the mark.
When George Floyd was killed, many people including myself determined to redouble our efforts to be anti-racist activists as opposed to non-racist bystanders. This cannot be achieved by bending our intellect through tortuous semantic arguments to suggest that something with a clear racial dimension cannot possibly be racist.
On this we need to listen to the people who are daily victims of systemic racism: people of colour. And we cannot leave it only to people of colour to do the exhausting work of calling out those who overstep the mark. Too much of this in Wales is left to them, particularly a small number of young women prominent on social media. They are doing a mighty job but should not be abandoned by those with power and influence to do this heavy lifting alone.
I don’t make this intervention to stir up trouble or spark another round of bitter word wars on Twitter, nor to castigate or condemn or cancel anyone. But sometimes not to speak is to be on the wrong side, and on this issue it never was about left or right – it was about right and wrong.
Let’s do some serious self-examination, take stock, and move toward building our alliances based first on values rather than blind adherence to ideology. The twenty-odd essays in The Welsh Way point mostly in the right direction but should be accompanied by the rediscovery of our collective moral compass.
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