I really don’t want to write this column. I am convinced and very aware that many other topics are much more important. But I’m angry. I don’t feel personally insulted but my wife and many thousands of good people like her have been insulted. One person’s joke is another person’s insult but context, intent and motivation is vital in rational assessment. Is the joke part of a comedian’s script in a comedy club where people have assembled to be entertained? Is the joke part of a friendly inter-change between friends? Robust banter? Or is it a distasteful and insulting comment described as comedy to shroud the bigotry and sectarian content of the remark?
A very senior, experienced and highly placed official within the Labour and trade union movement in the UK chaired the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool the other day and when selecting a delegate to speak from the floor decided to say to her; “Did you cross yourself, there. In that case I might not” (call her to speak) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-45625635.
Many gasped in the hall at the time given the entirely uncalled for and inappropriate remark but when challenged later about it this individual apologised but said it was meant to be a “light-hearted” comment. “Light-hearted”? A joke? During a serious party political conference and delivered by an individual who chairs the ruling body of that party and who has served as a senior trade union official for many years. Andy Kerr thought it was fair game to joke about someone blessing themselves and suggested they should be punished for doing so by not being called to speak. I love a good laugh. I thrive on robust banter but for f..k sake where is the joke here?
‘Hey you the delegate with the hijab I was going to let you speak but not now that I’ve noticed your hijab, sit down’.
‘Oi you with the kippah I didn’t see that on your head at first if I had done you wouldn’t have been selected by me’.
‘Bloody hell is that a sari your wearing, if I’d seen that I would have given you the eye patch and refused to call you’.
The truth is none of the above statements would have been made by Mr Kerr but if they had been and he had insulted Islam, Judaism or Hinduism his apology would have been part of a longer statement explaining his stepping down from his senior Labour Party and Trade Union posts as an act of sincere contrition and to allow him to attend religious tolerance awareness classes. But hey why the fuss, it was only aimed at those that bless themselves? And in the context of Mr Kerr being a Scottish Labour Party and Trade Union official it has been interpreted as an anti-Catholic jibe. A joke at the expense of Catholicism. Something that has been going on for years in Scotland but which a great deal of good people have been trying to expose and oppose in the name of religious tolerance.
I’m not religious at all. I was christened a Catholic and up until the age of 15/16 would have described myself as Catholic. Now I am quite hostile to all organised religion. While respecting individual beliefs and the solace those beliefs often give believers I find religion to be sophistry of the highest order. The opium of the masses that Karl Marx identified, encouraging alienation of man and woman from their human self. I don’t denigrate or ridicule someone’s religious beliefs but I politely and firmly ask they refrain from metaphorically shoving it down my throat or pronouncing their God as the only true God in preference to all the others. Through gentle persuasion and a hefty dose of science hopefully more people throughout the planet can be won to a humanist view of society which values each individual for who they are and what they have to offer not for what they believe and which God they swear allegiance to. I often find myself rhetorically wondering with all the religions in the world why there is often so little love and harmony.
The point about Mr Kerr’s distasteful and inappropriate “light-hearted” comment was it betrayed an underlying bigotry and sectarianism against one particular strand of the biggest religion in the world. The practice of ‘crossing yourself’ is not unique to Catholics but common amongst Christians. The Kerr ‘joke’ was actually anti-Christian not just anti-Catholic. Many people say ignore it, don’t make a fuss, it was only a joke. But that’s what the oppressed are always encouraged to do. Casual racism? Ignore it. Don’t make a fuss. Casual sexism? Oh don’t be such a kill-joy. It’s only a bit of fun. And now the same with this example of casual bigotry. Well if I don’t demand that someone with such seniority within the Labour and Trade Union movement stands down and honourably resigns for such an offensive comment I might as well join the ‘oh don’t make a fuss brigade’ who talk a good game but duck at the first whiff of gunfire.
I was not personally insulted by Mr Kerr’s remarks but people close to me were and human solidarity is about standing up for those minorities targeted by the more powerful for ridicule and/or exploitation. As I have suggested earlier if these remarks had been anti-Muslim, anti-Jew or anti-Hindu this column would not be necessary as the high placed official would have already resigned or been pushed.
The Scottish Labour Party leader, Richard Leonard, has been quoted as saying;
“There is absolutely no room in the Labour Party for that kind of remark, whether it’s meant as a form of humour or not” https://www.scotsman.com/news/andy-kerr-should-drop-nec-role-after-anti-catholic-remark-say-snp-1-4804701#comments-area .
Strong words and appropriate words. But if words are to mean anything more than empty rhetoric then what will Mr Leonard do about Mr Kerr if he refuses to do the right thing and stand down? “Absolutely no room in the Labour Party” for such remarks, humorous or otherwise. Mr Kerr represents post office and communication workers. Hopefully none of his members will require representation from him against an office boss who fancies a bit of casual bigotry against a Catholic member. Only a wee joke mind you. Nothing serious.
Mr Kerr if you were a wet behind the ears young activist chairing your first big conference then your inappropriate remarks could be roundly condemned and put to one side in the name of growing up and maturing into the tolerant and understanding individual you are supposed to be. Unfortunately you are neither wet behind the ears or young and that makes your ‘mistake’ all the more serious and deserving of an honourable resignation by you or a swift dismissal from your post by Mr Leonard. Own the sectarian remark for what it was and do the right thing as a socialist and trade unionist who should have known better. Resign your position from the Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee.