This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the row over the BBC’s broadcast of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood speech’). It was published in the Observer, 15 April 2018, under the headline ‘Why provocateur Katie Hopkins is the perfect symbol for our tribal age’.
I have not seen the play. But I am going to write about it. Which seems an apt metaphor for the current state of public debate, an issue that lies at the heart of The Assassination of Katie Hopkins.
It’s a musical, written by Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth, that opens this week at the Theatr Clwyd, in Mold, north Wales, before transferring to London. And, even before it opens, it has generated much controversy. Hopkins, as might be expected, is none too pleased. ‘If you are black you are protected by your colour’, she wrote at the beginning of the year. ‘If you are Muslim – by your religion… But as a straight, white, conservative I am an acceptable target, unprotected by my honesty, and fair game for physical attack.’ ‘If my name was switched to another – a woman of colour, or a Muslim man’, she wondered, ‘would [it] still be acceptable and lauded by the left?’
The irony is that the musical itself asks that very question. (I have not seen the play, but I have viewed some of the rehearsals and read the script.) It might be a clickbait title, but The Assassination of Katie Hopkins is not about Hopkins, but about society’s response to a figure like Hopkins. Its real target is the pettiness of public debate – and the double standards of many liberals.
The play opens with Hopkins’s murder at a public event. A human rights charity, wanting not to look callous, decides it must find something nice to say about Hopkins for her memorial. Kayleigh, who is given the task of compiling a list of Hopkins’s positive qualities, comes to idolise her. Hopkins was, Kayleigh remarks, a ‘strong, unapologetic woman’, who speaks honestly without ‘waiting to see which way the wind was blowing’.
Kayleigh ends up starting a new campaign called Justice for Katie. She appears on TV, defending not just Hopkins but also hate speech, which she redefines as ‘passion’.
The play is a satire on the polarised character of public debate. The only choice we seem to have is either to demonise a figure such as Hopkins or to lionise her as “a strong, unapologetic woman”.
This tribal quality to debate can be seen in almost every sphere of public life, from Brexit to Zionism. The problem is not polarisation as such – politics, after all, is about taking sides – but the shallowness of political debate and attachments. It seems to matter less what people say than to which political or cultural tribe they belong. Inevitably, this has cut against a willingness both to listen to others and to scrutinise our own beliefs. Debate too has often become reduced to a ritual of provoking outrage and of being outraged. The kind of social interaction that began as online trolling seems to have invaded much of the public sphere. And this is as true of the right as it is of the left.
Hopkins is a perfect symbol of such an age. There are many people in the world, from atheist bloggers in Bangladesh to Christian voices in China, who do ‘say the unsayable’ and show great courage in challenging accepted norms. Hopkins is not one of them. She is a provocateur whose aim is to generate outrage. She succeeds because so many liberals rise to the bait, turning a shallow nonentity into a martyr for free speech.
There is a more profound issue, too. In demonising a figure such as Hopkins, we often give a free pass to politicians and institutions that are far more influential in promoting reactionary ideas, both in policy and in shaping public opinion.
Consider one of her most infamous columns for the Sun, in which she described immigrants as ‘cockroaches’ and called for gunboats to ‘drive them back to their shores’. It was an obnoxious, hate-filled piece that drew a torrent of outrage.
Yet I am always struck by how silent liberals are when it comes to the actual use by European nations of gunboats against refugees and the attempt to wall off Europe by paying millions to the most unsavoury regimes from Turkey to Eritrea to Libya to lock up would-be immigrants in hell-hole detention centres just out of sight of Brussels, Paris and London.
If half the energy expended on denouncing Hopkins had been used to challenge European migration policy, migrants might be in a better place now. But, then, to have done so would not have satisfied the demand for cheap outrage.
The cover photo of Katie Hopkins is by Dan Kennedy/Discovery Communications
para 3: I think you mean “(I have NOT seen the play..”
Katie Hopkins’ commentary about naming of children seems to sum up her journalistic cred: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwLhnZ7SjEQ
I’ve basically given up watching/listening to any media where professional trolls like this get an airing. I just wish that the more sober and nuanced interviews that are available attracted a wider audience.
Thanks for spotting (there are always a few a of these typos). It’s sorted.
And that’s a funny interview moment. I hadn’t seen it before.
The problem is that if liberals dig too deep then they have to start questioning the luxuries that underlies their moral outrage. For example many of the refugees coming from North Africa is due to the oil and gas proxy wars which in part are due to the need of European economies for energy security. Left liberals don’t question their need for oil and gas, they only question the unintended consequences of ensuring that their techno urban lifestyles are maintained.
A similar character to Katie Hopkins but on the liberal left is James O’Brien. He like many other angry left liberals has no interest in questioning the deeper implications of UK foreign policy in terms of protecting UK energy security. All he is interested in is popularity ratings, ranting and Tory bashing and this is what left liberals in general want – superficiality and an outlet for their political prejudism.
I would hazard a guess that “left liberals” are entirely cognizant of “their need for oil and gas” both from a political and environmental perspective, which is why they are often the political drivers for clean energy initiatives.
Stating that “this is what left liberals in general want” seems ironically to be an example of “superficiality and an outlet for their political prejudism [sic]”.
I don’t see any evidence that left liberals are cognisant that their demand for oil and gas which inevitably requires providing military hardware for the likes of Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen in order to protect Western energy interests. They have moral outrage for the effects but not the causes.
I find a similar cognitive dissonance occurs regarding ‘clean energy’ whereby dirty energy is required to create clean tech. Eg for smelting iron and silica. Therefore again rather than question their demand for energy, left liberals will have moral outrage at outcomes whilst ignoring the causes of climate change, that is their demand for energy.
Lastly the same can be said about the right to migrate regarding the likes of James O’Brien who gains much popularity amongst the liberal left for his moral outrage that the right to migrate is not realised, his moral outrage mainly being associated with the idea that people reject diversity. However angry left liberals like him never ever explore the implications of migration on green infrastructure within a host nation and as such the responsibility regarding migration. Therefore whilst left liberals are opining about the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services and pollution, they are also angrily supporting the population growth (through open borders) that inevitably destroys the countryside. Yet another example of the cognitive dissonance that leads to moral outrage.
And look at the way left liberals are up in arms about Windrush deportations. Successive governments have failed to provide the necessary documentation to prove permanent residency for the Windrush generation. Obviously a bureaucratic oversight which the present government were not aware of but instead the likes of James O’Brien rants on and on about it like the Tories are bringing us to the end of the world. Its a shame people like this don’t use their ‘passion’ to do good in the world but like Hopkins, their egos are far more important.
Hopkins is dreadful, as was Powell’s speech ……. however:
In 1968, Britain was still full of people who had gone through the war. There was great social change going on with the immigration, and these WW2 era people were imagining and getting fearful about how things would be in the near future. He was talking about the 1980s.
The 1980s were pretty grim in many inner city areas. There was a “Frontline” in Brixton, and parts of Birmingham were proper ghetto. How would those WW2 era people have felt being taken on a walking tour around the 1980s Handsworth and Lozells Road areas in Birmingham?
The place would be nothing like it was during the war.
Powell and the people who provided the anecdotes for his speech may have been very small minded people, but I wouldn’t have really expected it to be any other way.