No grace, even for the repentant, in the new moral order

Yesterday, it was reported that Jared O’Mara – the Labour MP who pulled off a surprise victory to unseat Nick Clegg in the Sheffield Hallam constituency – announced that he was leaving the Labour Party. He will now sit as an independent in the House of Commons.

O’Mara himself is not especially noteworthy as an backbench MP. He has not risen to prominence within the party and he doesn’t chair any powerful select committees. So how has this become headline news? O’Mara is less famous and more infamous.

As the Guardian report here, O’Mara had been suspended from the party since 2017 for ‘making abusive comments on social media’. As reported here, the offensive comments were made over a decade before they were unearthed. There is no doubt the comments were offensive and there is a good case to be made for not permitting O’Mara to run as your candidate (certainly around that time) because it would bring the party into disrepute. Just to be clear, I am not writing to defend O’Mara and his comments here.

What is interesting is how things transpired since then. O’Mara was suspended from the Labour Party in 2017 over the comments that were made over a decade beforehand. Again, I make no comment on the rights and wrongs of that decision here. Then, it was reported on the 3rd of this month, that O’Mara was readmitted to the Labour Party (and, once again, not making a comment on the rights and wrongs of that). This is all context for what I do wish to discuss.

Having (rightly or wrongly) suspended O’Mara, conducted an investigation and concluded that he should be re-admitted to the party with a warning, O’Mara himself offered a full and profuse apology, noting that he had developed an anxiety disorder and sought to take his own life three times. He openly repented – making no excuses for the behaviour – and was clear that he was seeking nothing other than forgiveness. You may judge for yourself whether you deem this sufficient and/or genuine.

It is, therefore, surprising that less than 10 days later, O’Mara has decided to leave the party that has just re-admitted him and to sit as an independent. You can read his full statement here. There are several things worth saying.

First, it seems apparent that having re-admitted O’Mara and he having sought forgiveness publicly, the Labour Party are not in a forgiving mood. This should come as little surprise. The new morality does not consider grace and forgiveness an option. It would seem there is more than one unforgiveable sin and they usually surround utterances deemed unacceptable. Even when you are restored to your former position, you are never quite considered OK. There is no time at which you can say, I have been fully restored, forgiven and reconciled. There is no grace in the new moral order. It is once a homophobe, misogynist, islamophobe, racist or whatever you will be considered such until your dying day, no matter how repentant nor what evidence of change exists.

Second, it is interesting to see how O’Mara sought to justify his leaving the party. He couches his comments as mere ‘mistakes’ that should not be held against him as they were made when he was young. He does offer another apology for them. However, he immediately goes on to decry his treatment as unfair, particularly in respect to being ‘a working class, underprivileged disabled man’. This is off the back of having made public comments regarding an anxiety disorder he developed and the attempts on his life that he made.

We shouldn’t be cold toward those things, but this line of reasoning is interesting on two fronts. First, O’Mara is trying to cast himself as a victim to garner sympathy. It is a clear effort to cast oneself as underprivileged (the very word he uses) in order that – as we are wont to do these days – grant him special privilege as a result. It is a culturally observable phenomenon that if we can paint ourselves as victims, we believe there is a sense in which we can receive special treatment or our ‘mistakes’ can be overlooked given our victim-status.

Second, in a wider sense, this points to our current cultural tendency to want to privilege certain minority groups who we deem to have been underprivileged in the past. We often talk about equality when, often, what we really mean is privileging certain previously underprivileged groups so that everybody has a bit of a go in the ascendancy just to level things up. O’Mara clearly seeks to tap into this as he paints himself as underprivileged and disabled, looking to grasp hold of whatever label he can so that he might receive a special level of understanding and forgiveness that he knows is usually not afforded to anybody else.

The charitable reading of O’Mara’s tactic is that given there is no forgiveness in the new moral order, the only way to stand any chance of receiving it is to paint oneself as a victim who is being attacked by those more powerful and privileged than yourself. There is certainly a case to be made here. The less charitable reading is that O’Mara is cynically exploiting this cultural tendency to privilege minorities to receive more lenient treatment in the public eye. I shall leave you to determine which seems more likely.

What bears saying, however, is that all of this is toxic. We have created a culture whereby neither purposeful error nor mistakes will be forgiven. This can only lead to a sub-culture of cover-up – lest one be found out with no prospect of grace being shown – and despondency as those welcomed back into the fold are never trusted thereafter. Similarly, the tendency to seek victimhood to escape such graceless treatment is simply a more subtle form of the desire to scapegoat others. For victims, of necessity, are vitims of oppressors, and it is those oppressors on whom we want to lay the blame.

It was interesting to see these two cultural views play out in public. On the one hand, there was a re-admittance that was not attended by any grace or forgiveness. On the other, a view of oppression and a victim mentality that meant the ‘mistakes’ in this particlar case ought to have been overlooked. Neither seems particularly satisfactory.

If only there was a better way…