The tragedy of the ‘gammons’
Credit: Carsten Koall / Getty   

This week, UK politics Twitter has mostly been about gammon.

This how Tanya Gold explains the controversy in a piece for GQ:

“There is a new term of abuse in politics: a ‘gammon’. It refers to a middle-aged white man of a certain political persuasion. He is a Brexiteer. He is ugly. He is a conservative. He may wear hideous trousers. And, because he is a Brexiteer and so very ugly and a conservative who may wear hideous trousers, why not call him a gammon? Particularly if you are in politics to have fun, rather than to change minds.”

The insult has been in use for a few months now, but this week a full-scale backlash kicked in. Debate has been especially intense as to whether the term is racist or not.

It is certainly lookist – refering to the persistent redness of face that comes with age and/or medical conditions like rosacea. Moreover, the whiter someone’s skin, the more obvious any excess blood flow to the skin. If mocking people on the basis of perceived physical imperfections associated with a particular ethnic group isn’t racist, then what word should we use?

Similarly if seizing upon the cruelties of the aging process to humiliate your opponents isn’t ageist, then how else can it be described?

Gold is in no doubt as to the nature of the insult:

“But calling someone a gammon is not only a stupid waste of a two-syllable word, and meal. It is also, to steal leftist language, hate speech…

“…it is the discourse of the sewer. It’s like calling a Jew a k**e or mocking African Americans for eating fried chicken. It’s like calling poor white Americans trailer trash. So much of this sounds like American culture wars transported, horribly and no doubt eternally, to England.”

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But what if there’s nothing wrong with a bit of hate – as long it’s directed to ‘progressive’ ends? What if, like the new left, you believe that the hierarchy of privilege needs to be brought tumbling down; with those at the top humbled so those at the bottom can have their voices heard? If that is your worldview then a term of abuse that targets older, well-fed, white males could be seen a serving a progressive purpose.

Obviously you’d need to be possessed by some pretty twisted ideas to think that way. But even within the confines of such a worldview there’s still a problem with ‘gammon’, which is that, as Gold says, it “reeks of class snobbery”. Those who use the insult – “the socialist bourgeoisie” – are clearly of a higher cultural status than those they use it against. It hardly fits with all that talk of privilege.

What it does fit with, however, is the long history of elite contempt for those who attempt to better themselves without the free pass of a university education, the correct opinions or the right cultural preferences. What better symbol for the skilled working class or the ‘lower’ middle class, than gammon – a dish that hasn’t been seen at smart dinner parties since the 1970s.

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But does any of this really matter? As Adam Bienkov tweeted this week its not as if the ‘gammons’ are facing any real discrimination:

“No ‘gammon’ is not a racial slur. Nobody has ever been abused in the street, denied service or threatened with deportation because they’re an angry old white man with cheeks like two slices of Wiltshire.”

I wonder, though, whether we have to wait for hate speech to be acted upon before considering it hateful.

And let’s not forget that in other times and places, ‘gammons’ or people like them have been the target of the most horrific persecution. Look at the history of the Soviet Union, Maoist China and Cambodia under Khmer Rouge, and you see how the verbal abuse of ‘class enemies’ went hand-in-hand with mass murder. For instance, the liquidation of the ‘kulaks‘ in the USSR or of the ‘funong‘ in China – and indeed of anyone resisting the march of socialism. Up against some stiff competition, left-wing class hatred was the most murderous force of the 20th century.

Am I making a direct comparison between Corbynite trash talk on Twitter and the horrors of a darker age? No, because I’m not – I would contend – a complete idiot. However, as with hateful, contemptuous language anywhere else on the political spectrum, all of us should be mindful of the precedents.