Lemn Sissay and the Gollies



Lemn Sissey has upset a 70 year old shopkeeper in the Shetland Islands by saying nasty things about her on his blog. Maybe she deserved it, since she was selling black-faced “golly” dolls in her shop (the full name is a lot more offensive). He was there for a literary festival and generally found the Shetlands and their inhabitants pretty awesome. He went into the shop and, perfectly pleasantly by his own account, paid £15.00 for one of the dolls, had his picture taken with them and left apparently on good terms. When he got home, he tore into her for selling racist stuff.

Possibly she knew perfectly well how offensive her stock was to some people and she was being provocative. Maybe she’s in the BNP or worse, for all I know. However, there are many offensive items in the world that shouldn’t be openly on sale in any community that values its social cohesion. Most people won’t display them. A minority, however, will not comply – for all manner of reasons ranging from out-and-out racism to an inability to understand how something that seems innocent to them can be so unacceptable to others.

Some time ago, following a thoughtless line in a fanfic that was taken the wrong way, I was accused of racism and vilified in certain circles of a popular fandom for a while. I was mortified and wept for days. I hope I learned that what seems innocent to me may not be to members of certain minority groups and certainly I’ve been more careful with my words since. I’m still not sure if the anguish I experienced was proportionate to my social crime, but hopefully it had some benign effect.

What bothers me about this particular story is the element of duplicity. And I feel that this is particularly significant when a sophisticated, metropolitan performance poet who is at home in Internet circles is visiting a remote island community. Now being remote doesn’t give anyone the right to be racist. (Nor am I suggesting that all Shetlanders are innocents or angels. Some isolated communities in beautiful places behave in ways that would make the Borgias blush). It does, however, mean that the code of social interaction may vary from, say, Manchester.

When we accuse someone of racism (or any sort of prejudice, in fact), we are saying, in essence, that they should be able to emphathise with the feelings and reactions of people whose experience is different from their own. If we happen to be white, It isn’t good enough to say we like black people; we have to try and imagine how our actions and statements appear to them, listen to their responses and make humble changes if we have given offence. If we then persist in our previous behaviour, we can justly be accused of prejudice.

But this surely goes both ways. If an elderly Shetlander should consider the feelings of everyone who enters her shop, regardless of ethnic background, surely she should be accorded a similar courtesy. People who have cause to question her choices should also be expected to consider how conflict is handled in her society. The answer, in most remote island communities, is face to face, or possibly by having a discreet word with someone else who can act as arbitrator. In such societies, there is little choice. You cannot avoid uncongenial people. You have to find a way to live with them.

And that is what bothers me about Sissay’s behaviour here, even though his disgust is justified. In a society that works on face-to-face contact and trust, he deliberately misled someone by appearing benign and then stabbing her in the back from a safe distance. Is he entitled to do so, because she has committed a sin so grievous that she deserves to be hurt and humiliated as publicly as possible? Does the fact that black people have historically endured centuries of such treatment justify Sissay inflicting it on her?

I think one thing that often seems strangely detached from this kind of debate is the question of what, precisely, the protestor hopes to achieve. Does Sissay really believe that dealing with the situation in this particular way will make Shetland a less racist society, if indeed that is necessary? Since he’s an intelligent and articulate man, and he was there as the guest of a festival, an event dedicated to furthering human understanding and cultural links (a point he makes himself as a justification for his intervention), I have to ask how likely it really seemed to him that he would make the world a better place by dealing with his grievance in this particular way.

What would the alternative have been? A quiet word with someone on the local paper, a few probing questions about the lady’s attitudes and whether the issue had come up before, a little respect for how things are done in a society different from his own? Would that have been sensible, common courtesy or would it have smacked of complicity?

Are some evils so great that we are excused from behaving decently and reasonably in the name of combatting them? That, to me at least, strays a little too close to the doctrine that the ends justify the means. There is a lot of shrillness in political debate, and a lot of people (myself included) who should maybe be asking themselves whether they’re protesting to help the powerless, or to wield the power that they feel has been historically denied to their class, gender, or race – the power to make someone feel awful, preferably with no right of reply on equal terms?


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