Thursday, 29 April 2010
My very own Bigotgate.
The ghastly - but entertaining - mess that is Bigotgate is, it strikes me, quintessentially British.
British manners dictate that only in the most acute of circumstances (a murder, for example) would you actually call someone a bigot to their face. That would, after all, be rude. In Britain you keep your thoughts to yourself, smile graciously and, after they’ve disappeared, turn to your friends. ‘Did you hear that? What that woman said? Unbelievable!’ This is particularly true when dealing with older people. Actually telling your granny that it’s not acceptable to talk about ‘darkies’ or ‘those people.’? It’s just not on.
Gordon Brown may have shown himself up to be two-faced, rude, grumpy and inept. But the other options available to him - to challenge Mrs Duffy’s supposed bigotry, to state loud and proud ‘I think you’re a racist’…well, that’s just not done. Imagine how the press would have crucified him. Imagine the headlines.
I know this because I used to live in the Netherlands. There, no one would have paused for a moment in telling Mrs Duffy what they thought of her supposed views. ‘I think you’re bigoted’, a Dutch politician would have said. ‘Oh no I’m not...I think you’re stupid and out of touch,’ she’d have replied. The whole culture is based on a reverence for free speech that constantly shocked me for its sheer offensiveness.
My colleagues in Amsterdam were completely baffled by my attempts to deliver feedback tactfully. ‘You’re so…so…diplomatic’ one of them said, eventually. ‘Why don’t you just say what you mean? And why do you talk about the weather all the time? There’s nothing we can do about it.’
And I also know this because I recently had my own Bigotgate moment. My son plays football every week at a training ground, which has its own café. My friend and I were buying coffee when a woman rushed in. She wanted to complain about her drink, and started shouting at the young woman behind the counter. ‘It’s not what I wanted…I demand that you change it…I’m not paying any extra.’
My friend and I looked away. I studied the sandwiches. She scuttled off to the loo.
Angry Woman got more furious as the girl behind the counter tried to defend herself. ‘This wasn’t what we asked for. It’s wrong. It’s always wrong. Why don’t you understand me?’
Angry Woman tried to catch my eye. I avoided it. The centre manager who’d been dozing behind his desk came to back up the café girl. My friend and I grimaced at eachother.
The centre manager asked Angry Woman to wait outside for her free replacement cup of coffee. ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ she shrieked from the threshold. ‘Go back to Poland…’
The centre manager took her cup of coffee. The girl behind the counter burst into tears. My friend and I sprang into action. We condemned Angry Woman, told the girl she’d done everything right. We loved her coffee. That woman - the bigot - had no right to speak to her like that.
We complained to the organisers of the football matches. We gave evidence against Angry Bigot Woman. It turned out she was the mother of a boy from another team in our football club. Eventually, I think, she was banned from one match.
Every time my friend and I have discussed it since we’ve asked ourselves why we didn’t intervene. Stepped in as soon as the woman started shouting. Told her she was over-stepping the mark.
Why didn’t we? We didn't like to get involved. We were worried about appearing rude. We're not proud of ourselves.