Symbol & Subtext
I see that Saul has already written on this. Consider this a companion piece.
The reaction to the following election-day tweet led its sender, a member of the Labour shadow cabinet, to resign this week:
— Emily Thornberry MP (@EmilyThornberry) November 20, 2014
That cost someone a shadow cabinet position? Huh?
OK, let’s see if I can figure this out. In the image I see three things: (1) what looks to be an apartment building (the British media calls it a “terraced house“), (2) three St. George’s Crosses, which will be familiar to any fans of international football as the flag of England, and (3) a white van. The text, “Image from #Rochester,” seems wholly inoffensive. How on Earth could this tweet possibly offend people so much that they would call for, and ultimately get, a politician’s resignation?
I first encountered the tweet in a BBC article titled “Labour’s Emily Thornberry quits over ‘snobby’ tweet, which contains reactions like these:
The resident of the house, Dan Ware, said Ms Thornberry – the MP for Islington South and Finsbury – was a “snob”.
“I’ve not got a clue who she is – but she’s a snob,” he told the Sun. “We put the flags up for the World Cup (in 2014) and will continue to fly them.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said Labour leader Ed Miliband had “not held back” in expressing his dismay with the MP’s actions.
“Anyone who wants to stand for election and be successful next May has to start with a fundamental and deep respect for voters,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“The anger Ed (Miliband) felt when he saw that tweet reflected his understanding that we need to earn the support of people around the country.”
These quotes gave me something to work with, but it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I started to have a real sense of what was going on, when I read this:
But [UK Independence Party leader] Mr Farage suggested the episode reflected broader attitudes within parts of the Labour Party.
“The Labour Party hate the concept of Englishness,” he told the BBC News Channel. “They have done for a very long time.
“New Labour can’t even stand the concept of patriotism. They think the flag somehow is unpleasant, backward-looking and nasty. People like Emily Thornberry would rather we had that blue flag with 12 stars on it that comes to us from Brussels.”
Another British media source, The Guardian, gave me still more of a clue:
John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said Thornberry had insulted voters. He told the Today programme: “It is the juxtaposing of the white van and the England flag … It is normal life for many of us. It is normal Labour values.”
At this point I was pretty sure I had it figured out, and a bit of poking around the online conversations about the tweet across the pond suggests that I was right. There are three subtextual strands at work here, and to an American with little exposure to British politics and political culture, they were compeltely invisible. The first strand, and the most obvious of the three, is the age-old class divide in England, and middle class snobbery that has become associated with the Labour Party. Thornberry is a Labour MP representing the Islington South and Finsbury constituency, a mostly wealthy part of Inner London, and is herself from Islington, a wealthy neighborhood that has been home to some of New Labour’s most prominent politicians. A quote from the Wikipedia article on the constituency suggests that it has a reputation for class snobbery with a New Labour political bent:
Its dinner tables are routinely maligned as the natural habitat of the hypocritical, well-off, ostensibly liberal “chattering classes”.
So the photo is of a working class home in a working class neighborhood, taken by a Labour politician from a wealthy neighborhood.
The second strand is the flag of St. George, which is actually the intersection of two strands. As I said, those of us who follow international football will recognize the St. George’s Cross as the flag of England, because it is associated with the English national team. During their matches, fans wave it in the stands, and it’s used in broadcasts, along with the abbreviation “ENG,” anytime the team’s scores are displayed. It used to be prominently displayed on the team’s kit (that’s their uniform, for you non-soccer folks), even, though now you have to really look for it. This association, as well as recent indepdendence movements in other parts of the UK, have led many in to see the St. George cross as a symbol of English pride and nationalism, particularly among the working class.
It is not a coincidence, then, that one of those speaking out against the tweet in the BBC article was Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP is a right-wing nationalist party that frequency uses the English flag as its symbol. The party is most popular in working class areas, and in fact its candidate won the election for MP in the constituency representing Rochester, where the photo was taken.
The other part of this second strand is that, because of its association with English nationalism, the St. George’s Cross has come to be seen by many, particularly in the middle class, as a symbol of working class racism (anti-Muslim racism, for example).
Finally, the third strand is the white van. I would have thought the van would be the least relevant aspect of the image, but it turns out it’s quite important, as the quotes above show. In the UK there’s a well-known “White Van Man” stereotype that has come to represent negative attitudes toward the working class in general.
Perhaps with these streams in mind we can at least begin understand why the reaction to the tweet was so swift and so severe. In that one seemingly innocuous image, three subtextual streams collide: the middle class snobbery that has become associated with the Labour Party meets working class nationalism and perhaps racism meets a common stereotype of the working class, and together they form a toxic mixture. All from a picture of an apartment building with a van and three English flags, with the hashtag “Rochester.”
Even now though, knowing the context, I have no emotional reaction to the image whatsoever. I understand the reaction, but I can’t experience it. The effect of the subtext is itself context-dependent: without those three subtextual strands being part of my lived experience, I can’t really comprehend the offensiveness of the tweet to many. I have to take their word for it, which is not particularly difficult to do becasue their experience is far enough removed from mine that I can easily fathom relevant differences. As a result, my initial failure to imagine any sense in which the tweet might be offensive, and my continued inability to fully grasp the offensiveness, provide a clear and, for me at least, edifying illustration of the importance of subtext and experience. The world for us, the tweet and the reaction to it remind me, is a complex of imagination and symbol that we frequently mistake for the Real.
I suppose it would be more difficult for me to recognize this lesson if I had lived in England my entire life but still didn’t recognize the subtext immediately. In that case I might very well think that the people who are offended haven’t lived a life that much different from mine: we all live in the same country, right? We speak the same language, watch the same BBC channels, understand the rules of cricket, and eat fish and chips (which is fish and fries; why can’t the people of England speak English?!). How could their experience be so different from mine, as we live alongside each other, that they would find something that immediately and unquestionably offensive and I wouldn’t at least get it, if not find it offensive as well? That seems impossible, right?
The Thornberry tweet should tell us it is not, in fact, impossible, and the next time someone tells us something that seems benign to us is offensive to them, perhaps we will remember Thornberry and her white van, St. George’s Cross tweet, and at the very least hesitate before dismissing their reaction.
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