This story goes back many years. It concerns a conflict that occurred in an academic department - not my own, I hasten to add, nor even one in the University of Manchester. A junior lecturer (call him J) had taken against a policy championed by a number of senior colleagues, including the then Head of Department, this policy distributing the teaching load very unequally and in J's view, as well as that of many others, unfairly. At a particularly stormy meeting of the departmental policy committee (of which J was a member) after the HoD had announced his decision to implement this policy, J first let rip with some scathing criticisms and then approached the HoD and slapped him across the face with the smelly carcass of a dead fish.
Some of J's colleagues, including from amongst those who shared his view regarding the unfairness of the new policy, thought he was out of order. As one of them is said to have admonished him: 'You're perfectly free to criticize the HoD, and I even think this particular criticism of yours is valid; but it's quite another thing to slap him in the face with a dead fish.' As you might have expected, when I was told by a friend of these words of advice to J, I fully agreed with them. However - and this is the really strange part of the story - not everyone in that unhappy department did agree. There was a sector of departmental opinion for which the legitimacy of the criticism levelled at the HoD as it were 'extended' to the act of slapping him in the face with a dead fish. Some people really thought that. The fish thing had to be OK because the criticism it accompanied was.
To this day I have trouble believing that they could think like this. But they did.
Actually, none of it is true. I made it up. What this post is really about is an argument I've long had with a friend of mine who is given to framing his criticisms of women political figures of whom he disapproves in horribly sexist language - language that comes from the repertoire of bar-room abuse and mockery of women. He used to do this when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and he does it now about Theresa May. I don't intend to give examples of the things he says; I leave it to your imagination. But, believe me, they're not mild. I hate it when he does it and have told him so many times. I try to persuade him that his criticisms can be made without resort to this kind of objectionable stuff; but like the members of that mythical academic department, my friend argues that the validity of his criticisms, where they are valid, or the fact that he has a right freely to criticize, where they aren't, renders the sexist language and imagery he uses quite proper. None of that is aimed - by him - at women in general, only at Thatcher or May, or whatever other individual woman may have come within his critical sights.
He and I disagree about quite a few things but none that has caused as much ill-feeling between us. I cannot credit his thinking that either the validity of his particular criticisms or just his right to criticize can make the use of insulting themes about women all right when in themselves they're far from all right.
In any case, the upshot of all this is that there's not one smelly fish theory of legitimate criticism; there are two smelly fish theories of legitimate criticism. In the first, neither valid criticism nor the right to criticize which is protected by norms of free speech renders abusive or prejudicial ways of representing others a commendable way of going on. In the second, provided you have a fair criticism, or merely because you have the right of free speech, such insulting or prejudicial forms cannot be faulted.
All change here.
This post isn't about the smelly carcass of a dead fish, and it isn't about a friend of mine who uses vile language towards women in criticizing women political figures. I don't have such a friend. What the post is about, as some readers will have guessed, is the use of anti-Semitic themes and images in contemporary political argument. It is prompted by two things. One is the apology in the Sunday Times this weekend for the Gerald Scarfe cartoon on Holocaust Memorial Day. The apology is both clear and forthright. The paper apologizes 'unreservedly', saying (£):
It is one thing for a newspaper to attack and caricature a leader - and it is as legitimate to attack Israeli leaders in cartoons as anyone else. But it is another thing to reflect in a caricature, even unintentionally, historical iconography that is persecutory or anti-semitic.
Got that? To attack and caricature a leader, including an Israeli leader, is fine; but with anti-Semitic iconography, not so. The distinction couldn't be more plain. But that some people will have an interest in not grasping it you can be certain, and if you look below the line, at the comments, you will find there a Mr D.J. Noble writing, 'It is impossible to criticise Israel when even the slightest hint of disagreement is depicted as anti-semitism'. He somehow didn't notice the smelly-fish component in the Sunday Times leader's specification of 'another thing'; no, even 'the slightest hint of disagreement', he reckons, has been put beyond bounds.
I said this post was prompted by two things. The second of them is Steve Bell's cartoon in today's Guardian - yes, that's the Steve Bell of recent cartooning memory - mocking the idea that there might be anti-Semitic tropes or that there might be cause for worry about them. Nothing at the Guardian relating to Jews or Israel surprises me any more. But in this case smelly fish doesn't quite capture it.