Saturday, 14 January 2012

Stephen Lawrence – Britain, A Liberal Utopia?


Dr Mark Featherstone and Dr Siobhan Holohan

On 3rd January 2012 Gary Dobson and David Norris were finally found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence over 18 years after he died of stab wounds in April 1993. The immediate media reaction to the guilty verdict was that two of Stephen’s killers had finally been held to account for his murder and that some kind of justice had been done. However, there was a sub-text to this reaction - Britain has changed in the wake of the Macpherson Report that essentially exposed institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police and argued in favour of victim-centred justice. In other words, the media reaction has been that lessons have been learned. Britain is no longer a racist country, but rather a tolerant, multicultural, nation sensitive to difference.

A decade ago we wrote about the case using discourse analysis to explore media representations around Lawrence. On the basis of this work we argued that the media sought to save the image of Britain as a tolerant multicultural society by scapegoating various groups as ‘racist’ – the killers, as representatives of the racist underbelly of British society, and then the police as a symbol of intolerant British institutions. The central point, here, was that society itself was innocent – the problem resided in deviant others. In our works on the case – ‘The Search for Justice in the Media Age’ (Holohan, Ashgate, 2002) and ‘Multiculturalism, Institutional Law, and Imaginary Justice’ (Featherstone and Holohan, Law and Critique, Vol. 14:1, 2003) – we disagreed with this popular media construction and argued that what we really needed to learn from the Lawrence case was much more profound – we argued that until we learn to take responsibility for the racism running through our society, and stop believing that we can contain it in particular individuals or particular institutions, we will never be able to deal with racial inequality. In other words, we argued that we live in an exclusionary, intolerant, society and that the Lawrence case needed to be taken as a wake up call, rather than a singular event revealing particular criminal elements within society. On the contrary, we wanted to say that those criminal elements were not somehow other, but rather symbolic, hyperbolic, representations of the social whole.

We would make a similar point today by examining the contemporary Lawrence verdict in relation to recent events, such as David Cameron’s condemnation of state multiculturalism speech and the summer riots, which we would argue show that Britain is far from inclusive. Speaking about the failure of multiculturalism early last year (February, 2011), Cameron argued that Britain needed a unified ethnic identity, and that passive tolerance was an invitation to extremism. Advocating a brand of macho ‘muscular liberalism’, Cameron explained that we need less tolerance, and more sense of morality, and the courage to make tough decisions about right and wrong. There was really nothing revolutionary about this speech. In many ways, Britain was ready for this message and had been since 7 / 7, which as we have shown in another article (Featherstone, Holohan, Poole, ‘Discourses of the War on Terror: Constructions of the Islamic Other in the Wake of 7/7’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, Volume 6, Number 2, 2010) produced widespread racist sentiment in Britain and normalised Islamophobic exclusionary politics. In other words, we would not see Cameron’s advocacy of ‘muscular liberalism’ as objective or neutral, but instead based in notions of right and justice which are essentially white, and also very male, in their construction.

Following 7 / 7 we argued that Britain was moving away from multiculturalism and that this position was becoming more acceptable. Indeed, our view was that British society was becoming increasingly intolerant and exclusive in ethnic, gendered, and class terms. Although, this is not the place to explore each of these social exclusions in depth, in our paper on 7 / 7 we connected the increasing exclusivity of British society to the expansion of neo-liberal economics and the hegemony of an ultra-competitive model of society. We would argue that this exclusivity has been further revealed by the economic crash and the increasing stress this has placed on society. Under pressure, British society has become a more hostile place, and social inequalities based upon divisions such as race, gender, and class have simply widened and become economic and political battlegrounds. Certainly two of these social divisions – race and class – were central to the summer riots, which began on the basis of ethnic tensions between the black community and police in Tottenham, and quickly expanded to take in class divisions between ‘normal’ Britain and the excluded underclass in other cities, such as Manchester.

But what does any of this have to do with Lawrence? Our point is very simple. Against the background of Cameron’s critique of multiculturalism and advocacy of muscular liberalism and the summer riots, we think it would be a mistake to imagine that the contemporary Lawrence verdict says anything about the transformation of Britain into an inclusive utopian society. We cannot use Lawrence as a political football. On the contrary, we would follow Domenico Losurdo, and argue that liberalism has always been a colonial discourse, possessed by an exclusive dark side, which means that the price of tolerance is the construction of some other who is by definition tolerated on the very margins of society. Is this not exactly what the Islamic and underclass other represent today? These people are in society, but only insofar as they inhabit the very margins of the social system. They are in, but out of society. They are marginal others that normal society 'tolerates'. What does this mean and how should we conclude our discussion? Again, we have a simple conclusion. Despite the Lawrence verdict, which has finally seen some kind of justice done in relation to Stephen’s murder in 1993, we would argue that this is no time for complacency and we need to remain critical. As Islamophobia and the summer riots show, Britain is no liberal utopia.

1 comment:

Adam said...

"We cannot use Lawrence as a political football" And yet the article seems to do so in the very next sentence:
"liberalism has always been a colonial discourse, possessed by an exclusive dark side"
Surely the whole purpose of the post is to posit a political view (I don't mean that in a bad way. Surely you want to mobilise society into one that values multiculturalism? which seems a political, as well as ethical, aim?
Whilst it may be the case that certain society members adopt this innocence discourse it doesn't mean that all do, and at least there is something positive in it, in that people no longer accept overt racism, surely that is progress, even if only of sorts.