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June 16, 2018
For a few days in 2018, people talked about gammon.
Defined on Urban Dictionary as, “a term used to describe a particular type of Brexit-voting, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke,” gammon really came into focus when Belfast South MP Emma Little-Pengelly objected to the insult in a tweet. She claimed to be appalled by “a term based on skin colour & age” and objected that “stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community.”
Debate followed—particularly over whether gammon is indeed racist. Joe Sommerland summarizes the debate on the Independent. Steven Poole's Word of the Week asked, “Is ‘gammon’ racist or just stupid?” Sean Lang challenged that “the term’s real tin ear comes in its inability to understand that personal characteristics, over which we have no control, should always be kept out of political discourse, even insults.” Joe Murphy attributes the pun to Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson that conservatives must offer more than just “a choice between serrano or gammon.”
As a matter for public debate, gammon will have a short shelf life. A word that lends itself so readily to puns deserves to expire fast. But while the word gammon is not itself particularly interesting, the claim that the word is racist deserves attention. And it is not the word that matters, but the strategy behind the claim.
In short, calling gammon “racist” is intended to build ideological connections between support for Brexit and white identity. Here’s how the strategy works:
1. Recognise group-building potential of an insult.
Gammon insults by making a joke. Jokes inherently divide people into groups: People who laugh at the joke are included in one group and people who get laughed at are excluded into another. If people say gammon, they like it because it unites them and gives some power over the people they insult. If people get called gammon, they don't like it because they're isolated and disempowered. But, an out-group is still a group. And if you can make that group big, it can be powerful.
2. Highlight the right features of the insult for your purposes.
There are lots of ways for gammon to be offensive. It could be that gammon is pink and some white people get pink-faced when upset. It could be that gammon is pork and some religions restrict consumption of pork (as Sean Lang notes), this could be a particularly problematic association for Labour). It could be that only wealthy people can afford the luxury of enjoying a fancy cut of meat with some pineapple on a Sunday. It could be that gammon, as far as meats go, seems antiquated. It could be that gammon is round. Any of these associations may be transferred from the meat to particular groups of people. Highlighting race, especially, and age additionally reflects a conscious choice about shaping the way that people are insulted by the word.
3. Reframe the insult to build a group.
If you highlight the “correct” features of the insult, you can cause the “correct” people to be insulted by it. They then become part of the same group as you. You then share characteristics with them. The fact that you share characteristics reinforces the fact that you belong in a group together. You become more closely aligned to each other and, by default, more clearly aligned against the opposition. The fact that you’re working together against some other group will increase the unity of your group, and you’re likely to become more ideologically aligned.
The point of calling gammon “racist” has little to do with whether gammon is actually racist. The point of calling gammon racist is to unify support for Brexit and other nationalist politics with whiteness. The underlying logic is “attacks on Brexit supporters are attacks on white people, so white people should defend themselves by unifying in support of Brexit (etc.)”.
Labelling gammon “racist” strategically co-opts the language of racial unity in order to foster racial division for the political gain. Moreover, there is really no way to respond. As George Lakoff notes in Don’t Think of an Elephant, when we argue within a particular psychological frame, we reinforce that frame. So if someone argues that gammon is not a racist word, they simultaneously reinforce the possibility that it might be racist. (And the Alt-Right just needs to make a better case that gammon is racist, which is easy since colour is part of the insult’s frame.) And, if the Left points out that the Alt-Right complains about “political correctness gone mad” and snowflakes, then the Left simultaneously legitimates mocking political correctness and snowflakes.
So, there’s really not much to be said about gammon—or that should be said about gammon. But the identify politics that underlie objections to the word as racist matter a great deal, and opponents of Brexit and other nationalist politics would be wise to recognise the strategic implications.