Gammon racism row: why people are arguing about gammon

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People are currently arguing about whether “gammon” is a racial slur – welcome to politics in 2018.

The term began as a tongue-in-cheek, catch-all phrase for a group of voters who think a certain way – namely, right-wing, anti-immigration and pro nuclear weapons.

But by now, we’ve had multiple op-eds on what was initially an extremely niche joke on Twitter. How did we get here?

C3PO made of ham

Gammon has been used as an insult or a descriptor outside of a food context in the past.

In her book, author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran said then Prime Minister David Cameron “resembles a camp gammon robot – a C3PO made of ham”.

The origianal so called 'gammon wall' which kicked of the debate around the word's usage. Picture: Twitter

The origianal so called 'gammon wall' which kicked of the debate around the word's usage. Picture: Twitter

But to understand how it’s become topic of discussion in national newspapers and on drive time radio, you need to go back to last year’s general election and the Leaders’ Special edition of BBC Question Time.

While Theresa May was confronted about her Government’s record, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was questioned by members of the audience on nuclear weapons.

Shortly after the programme, pro-Corbyn blog Skawkbox posted a composite picture of nine men who gave the Labour leader a hard time.

They complained about how many questions these nine, seemingly right-leaning, men got compared to the rest of the audience.

Can gammon be used as a racist word? Picture: Flickr/CC

Can gammon be used as a racist word? Picture: Flickr/CC

Over on Twitter, this image was repurposed and became the origin of a catch-all phrase for a group of voters who think a certain way.

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The gammon wall

The wall of gammon was born on election night.

Children’s author Ben Davis has been dubbed the originator of gammon as an insult because of a tweet he wrote on election night.

He said: “I’ve had seven kids’ books published and the fact that the thing I’ve created that has had the biggest impact on our culture is ‘Gammon’ kind of makes me want to weep.”

Davis, who describes himself as left-leaning, said election night felt like a victory, as the Conservatives failed to get the massive majority they had hoped for.

A little bit drunk, he tweeted out the picture, alongside a hopeful message about listening to the younger electorate.

He said: “I’d seen that collage of angry older gentlemen from the election episode of Question Time and to me it was a good visual representation of the kind of blokes you’d move tables in the pub to avoid.

The kind that will complain about being persecuted (you can’t say anything, Easter is banned, poppies are banned, etc) without a shred of evidence for it.

“Plus, on a childish level, I just thought they looked like a wall of gammon. It’s the type of thing I probably wouldn’t have tweeted if I was sober.”

He forgot about it until a month later, when people began crediting him as the creator of gammon. “At that time, it was funny and kind of silly, which I love,” he said.

“But after a while, it got picked up by the Twitter far left and it seemed to turn a little nastier.”

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It spread among high profile left-wing commentators, an in joke which then filtered to the higher echelons of the British commentariat on all sides of the political spectrum.

Gammon backlash This led to the gammon backlash.

Some took issue with the term, claiming it’s racist against white men, despite having none of the historical context which comes with racial slurs still used to denigrate and marginalise people of colour today.

There is no evidence those with a rosy hue to their cheeks experience structural racism. This line of argument reached a crescendo when DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly tweeted her disdain for the term saying: “I’m appalled by the term ‘gammon’ now frequently entering the lexicon of so many (mainly on the left) & seemingly be accepted.

“This is a term based on skin colour & age - stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community. It is just wrong.”

In a piece for Huck magazine in February, Matt Zarb-Cousin, Jeremy Corbyn’s former spokesman, wrote: “It isn’t racist to say someone looks like gammon, as while there are striking aesthetic resemblances across the gammon constituency, gammon isn’t a race, it’s a lifestyle choice driven by warm ale.

“It’s a state of mind, driven in no small part by a regular spoon feeding from the trashy tabloids.”

‘If it wasn’t gammon, it would have been something else’

For Davis, the entire situation is surreal. “I know there’s been debate about whether it’s racist.

Personally I don’t think it is,” he said. “But it has become a bit mean-spirited and gone further than what was essentially a daft joke.”

He added: “Having said that, I do find it quite funny that the same people complaining about how offensive it is routinely call millennials ‘snowflakes’. “I don’t know. It just feels like another weapon in the Twitter culture war, and if it wasn’t ‘gammon’, it would have been something else.”

What’s next for gammon discourse?

As is inevitable once memes reach the mainstream media, it will probably go out of fashion – but not before a long few days of arguments. Yesterday alone, it has been the subject of a Times op-ed and a debate on the Jeremy Vine show and this morning featured heavily on Sky news.

Again, welcome to 2018!

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