People change, we should welcome that

The day ends in “y” so, naturally, the Internet is angry about something. Today it’s a lot of somethings because there are many things wrong with the world right now but I want to focus on one thing in particular because we need to Stop Doing This and stop it quickly.

The Internet is calling for Clive Lewis MP to be dismissed from the Labour Party because at an event in Brighton last month he bellowed “On your knees, b***h!” into a microphone in front of a large crowd of people at an event for Momentum.

Clearly this is unacceptable behaviour and we all know it – he knows it, too – we know that because he apologised.

Despite his apology, people are calling for his head.

Now I’m not going to excuse what he said – it’s absolutely wrong and absolutely inappropriate – but the thing is, people do stupid things all the time. We live in a world where this kind of behaviour must definitely be stamped out and the people responsible for it are dealt with appropriately; that much I agree with. But what’s appropriate isn’t always the immediate dismissal of a person.

Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes they don’t learn from them, at which point it is absolutely right to get rid of them and replace them with someone better. But dismissal as a first response isn’t always the right thing to do – especially when an apology is made quickly and the person responsible is willing to learn and grow from it.

It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t appear that anyone who was there at the time filed a complaint. The woman people thought he was talking to when he said “on your knees, b***h” has come out and said he wasn’t speaking to her, he was speaking to the guy next to her (that’s an issue we can get into at another time) and nobody else filed a complaint as far as I can find.

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience. Something that came up a lot in training sessions when I still worked for the Civil Service was the idea of two people who make borderline racist jokes to one-another every morning when they come in to work (I’ll point out at this stage that these two people were hypothetical, this never actually took place, it was just in the context of this training session). Both of them don’t mean harm by it and both have been good friends for years, but they are overheard every morning by their co-workers, being racist. They aren’t taking into account their audience, and they are making the whole workplace uncomfortable. They should absolutely be reprimanded and told language like that is inappropriate.

This guy didn’t get any complaints at the time, as far as I can find. So his audience appears comfortable with what he said and I’m assuming there’s a reason for what he said, however stupid that reason may be (despite what some have said online, context does matter here – because context would explain what on Earth is going on in this video). So it’s not his audience that is offended, it’s us. It’s strangers; people who are coming to this later, via a recording. Are we the audience? We certainly aren’t the intended audience. It makes things a little problematic.

Some are saying Lewis’ apology is too little, too late. They think he should have apologised at the time, not now when people are complaining. I can’t agree there. It doesn’t look from that video like anyone had taken offence at the time and, sadly, there are scenarios that spring straight to mind that would explain why he would not think he’d done anything wrong at the time; so I don’t believe apologising then would have even occurred to anyone present. It’s now, when people are saying he’s done wrong (because he has) that it’s appropriate to apologise. To do it the other way around would lead to a scenario where everyone is eventually prefixing every statement they make with an apology, in case it becomes offensive to people who hear it later on.

Now before I end this, I want to reiterate the point I made earlier about calling for someone’s head over this. We all say stupid, ignorant things from time to time; you’ve done it (even if you don’t think you have, you probably have), I’ve done it. We’ll all probably do it again at some point, because people do stupid things from time to time. The important thing is that we learn from those mistakes and don’t make the same ones again.

Was what he said acceptable? No. Is there a context in which what he said could become acceptable? No, probably not. I get the impression from the video that this was some kind of game or failing that, a “power thing” and that leads into a whole different conversation about misogyny in gaming and male culture but it still doesn’t excuse what happened. Should Clive Lewis have known better? Absolutely. The guy’s an idiot for doing this.

But the people there weren’t phased by it, he obviously knew his audience and it’s the rest of us that is offended. He and the crowd at the two guys in that Civil Service training example. We are the rest of the workforce; only in this context the civil service guys were alone in a room and we all saw them make inappropriate jokes via video link. That, in my view, changes things.

If people at the time had been offended and he hadn’t apologised until the Internet found out about this, I would not defend him. If people at the time hadn’t been offended but the Internet found out and he still didn’t apologise, I would not defend him. But that’s not what happened. He apologised when people were offended. As long as he learns from this and doesn’t do it again, I would say the job was done and we can move on.

This guy said a stupid, ignorant thing but it doesn’t seem to have been done in the manner some people are making it out to be. It’s wrong, yes, but he’s apologised. I don’t believe it’s bad enough to warrant his head on a pike. If he did it again sure, fire him – but not for one moment of stupidity.

Because if we succumb to the Outrage Culture that some people stoke up for everything under the sun, we are quickly going to run out of people who are qualified to take on all these roles we expect saints to occupy. We aren’t saints, none of us are. Stop calling for peoples’ careers to be destroyed just because they did something stupid one time – because if we do keep firing people every time they slip up, you’re just bringing one inexperienced person after another into the role and then nobody gets to learn and progress at all.