Diagnosing Eudaemonia

People in western democratic nations are deeply conditioned to believe in the value and equality of each individual human being. 

As a result, we are convinced that self-development is the highest possible good and purpose in life. 

But, in this era of internet-mediated self-expression, where truth and proof are unobtainable, you are what you say you are. Self-development now consists of making statements of your values and claiming your eudemonic aspirations as achievements. 

These unfalsifiable claims can be made with such ease that they leave us unconvinced and suspicious of each other, but also, most importantly, of ourselves. We know that what we are saying about ourselves isn’t quite true. It’s how we want to be seen. The sense of falsity and fragility in our online personas worsens the crises of identity we all feel as we try to construct ourselves. 

Internet users seem particularly prone to such angst, as the sheer volume of voices online leads, ironically, to the anonymity of nearly everyone. How can we gain the recognition we all crave without exaggerating our claims? 

We have become particularly dependent on validatory feedback from our online communities and particularly vulnerable to accusations of being hypocritical, or not staying true to our common beliefs, of not being who we say we are and being abandoned, in disgust, by our people. 

It is in this environment that social justice movements have prospered. Precisely because our societies venerate egalitarian principles, we all want to be considered liberal and unprejudiced. Having those characteristics is what makes you a good and valuable member of our societies. 

Accusations to the contrary have enormous power, especially now, when the vast arenas of the internet have amplified public shaming and humiliation beyond our wildest nightmares. Harnessing the power of mass condemnation must be truly intoxicating. Even governments and big business, both concerned with demographics, have to take note. 

Accusations of racism are even more potent as previous generations of social justice campaigners managed to make the term “racist” extremely insulting without addressing the underlying causes of racial inequality and the assumptions that form around these disparities. 

In this atmosphere, accusations are devastating acts of existential destruction. Digital citizens will do anything to disassociate themselves from peers who have been so accused, and will indulge in the most flagrant virtue-signalling to get themselves out of danger. If millions of people feel they have to buy into your moral and cultural pronouncements, just to prove they aren’t worthless, you will wield an enormous amount of power.

Collaborating in Your Own Oppression

There’s an understandable sense of satisfaction, among activists of colour, in using the racial epithet “white” to dismiss the complacent majority. Members of minority groups are never allowed to forget they have that status. Now there’s a sense of “let’s-see-how-you-like-it” revenge about the sudden and abundant use of terms like “White Supremacy”, “White Privilege”, “White Fragility”, “White Tears”, and so on. 

This isn’t helpful. By forcing white people to identify themselves as part of a tribe, rather than as individuals, you are widening the distance between the white majority and minority groups. You are encouraging white people to have primary loyalty to their “own kind” and to feel comfortable only with other white people. 

Yet the whole social justice movement relies on the principle of individual worth. Activists’ grounds for complaint are that they are not being valued on their own merits but instead are dismissed by prejudicial stereotypes. If we display exactly the same attitudes towards white people we not only open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy, we also justify the racists’ beliefs. 

Robin DiAngelo, in White Fragility (2019), and others, claim that racism cannot be perpetrated by people of colour because they lack institutional power. This is nonsense. Racism is prejudice based in race, no matter who expresses it, although much more damaging if expressed by the powerful or the institutions that serve them. Everybody knows this and agrees. Language meanings are democratically decided by usage and communal understanding. Robin DiAngelo and her friends are attempting to forcibly change language meanings for their own ends. They are stealing our common property and heritage using their elevated social standing to bend us to their will. This is, in its turn, hegemonic, tyrannical and unjust. 

People of colour expressing generalisations about white people aren’t racist because they are oppressing those white people. They are racist because they are supporting the white racists’ world view. They are allowing white racists to say, “Whether it’s biological, or through social conditioning, you think racial groups are incompatibly different, too. You’re blaming us just because we said it first.” 

People of colour who attack white people in general, assuming their skin colour equates to a life of privilege and ignorance, are complicit in their own oppression. If you cannot appeal to a common humanity, the racial group in control have no incentive to relinquish power. In fact, they have every reason to fear you and thus hang on to power. This exact fear is probably the root cause of all the segregation, discrimination and the lynch mobs in the Southern states of the USA. It is of fundamental importance that we, in Britain, don’t let that poison infect our society any further.

American Cultural Imperialism

The obsession with “White Privilege” seems to have been exported from the United States, via the internet. Jon Sopel, The BBC’s North America Editor, says “race is America’s original sin” (UnPresidented, 2021, London: BBC Books, p59. ), and later, “Race has been the great – and scarring – dividing line in America since slavery” (p94). Robin DiAngelo, a Californian, claims that “racism is unavoidable”, (White Fragility, 2019, London: Penguin, p4); “race as a social construct has profound significance and shapes every aspect of our lives.” (p5) and that the relationship between racial groups is “arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years.” (p8) These quotations are from the British edition of her book. She has clearly seen no need to alter her statements when addressing a British audience. She assumes the issues are identical. Yet Kate Werran, in her An American Uprising in Second World War England (2020, Barnsley: Pen and Sword History) points out how shocked British people were, as far back as the 1940s, at the treatment of black Americans by their white American comrades.  

The World Wide Web, pioneered and developed, if not invented, in America, is saturated with the values and assumptions of its coders, and much of the information and discourse on the web is generated by that most communicative of nations, and then made available to the whole world. This has massively accelerated American cultural Imperialism, already well underway due to its affluence, political power and media output. 

Domineering Imperial cultures impose their values on their colonies, and their colonial enforcers assume all other societies dance to that same tune. What’s more unusual, I think, about internet cultural imperialism is the lack of resistance to it from colonised peoples. My children eagerly adopt every American trend and craze, and their vocabulary and spelling has been thoroughly Americanised. I think this is because the internet, especially social media, sells itself as a tool of agency and empowerment, and, at the same time a way of bringing people together, forming movements of international solidarity, very like the Ummah in Islam. Perhaps minority groups hope to find their majority, and the mythical sense of existential security it promises, online. 

And social media is perfect for international rebellions and channelling the power of mass outrage. Trotsky would have loved it.

Glorying in that power, though, these freedom fighters don’t notice how they have been coerced and enculturated into an American way of seeing and understanding their world. In Britain this has meant that far greater racial tension has been imported from the USA. Racialised assumptions seem to have increased among the very people who suffer most from them. 

You Lucky, Lucky Bastards! (Another Aside)

Our conscious existence is multifaceted. It is a patchwork of highs and lows, triumphs and humiliations, loss, grief, betrayal, love, acceptance, generosity. We are fully occupied in experiencing life, even when we are bored and everything seems pointless. Especially then.

I think this pre-disposes us to dissatisfaction. It is virtually impossible for us to celebrate not having a disadvantage. There is no urgency in an absence: that space is filled by immediate concerns. Disadvantages, being various and almost infinite in number, make us all almost infinitely advantaged. Any complaint we might make can be countered by pointing out that we aren’t quadriplegic or schizophrenic or drowning or dead.

This is why “White Privilege” is not a helpful concept. Anyone can be accused of any number of privileges if all it means is not experiencing a disadvantage. There’s Male privilege (obviously), affluence, intelligence privilege, youth privilege, beauty privilege, mother-who-loved-you privilege, good-schooling privilege; high-expectations privilege, not-scarred-by-sadistic-bullying-as-a-child privilege, and so on. Not suffering a disadvantage should not disqualify you from thought on any topic. It should not make you a less valuable person or less deserving of respect. 

Statistics Are Not Lived Experiences

But, if British racists are an unrepresentative minority of resentful xenophobes and sadistic trolls, and if they have little real power, how can we explain the racial inequality so starkly displayed by the statistics? 

First of all, I think it’s important to remember that statistics are not lived experiences. The data sets are so large, the prohibiting factors so multifarious, that even if most company directors and government ministers are white males, the typical experience of white males is of NOT being a company director or government minister, just as it is for most people of colour. If an unborn white boy was to ask his guardian angel, “what can I expect from this life that awaits me?”, the angel might reply, “Well, you can forget being a captain of industry or a government minister. That virtually never happens to kids like you.” That’s the same message that an unborn black girl would receive. 

At the same time, the occasional Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Dr David Olusoga or David Lammy (or Barack Obama, in the United States) manages to outwit and outperform the limitations placed on people of colour, although the reasons for their achievements – good fortune, supportive parents, self-confidence, intelligence – could be framed as unfair advantages by begrudgers. In America, blighted by much more overt racism than the UK, many people of colour hold positions of responsibility and respect.  

All this means everyone, whatever their background, can aspire to greatness but most must content themselves with a much more modest level of achievement. To be identified as white does not mean that you will personally experience a life of luxury and ease; to be identified as black does not mean you will automatically be doomed to abject poverty and social marginalisation. 

So, statistics do not reveal any single person’s experience or quality of life. Being white is no guarantee of being socially and financially successful, or of living an easier, more graceful life. It just means that factors other than race are limiting which of them can achieve. Identifying these factors allows white people also to claim to be part of a marginalised group. Perhaps they are women or working class, or have dyslexia or a Northern accent or Polish or Irish names…

For this same reason, while white people cannot, by definition, experience being of colour, most should be able to understand and imaginatively engage with minority struggles. Empathy, imagination and the ability to communicate our profound, interior existence are our greatest assets as we try to build community.

Of course, no one should assume they are above generalising and racial bias. There are always going to be divisions, tensions and suspicions in society. We were born to theorise and predict; to form tribal alliances, exclude and fear exclusion. But we should monitor and control these tendencies. To assume anyone’s character or attitudes or experience is the same as a generalised trend you’ve identified across a whole data set is to deny them their individuality and, if done on racial grounds, is racism. And racism is bad: divisive and discriminatory. To use terms like “White Privilege” is to surrender to the mind-set of the oppressors and thus to justify their way of organising the world. You are colluding with racists. You are “part of the problem.”

British Vintage Racism (Try the ’48)

After the Second World War, the British government invited immigration from its colonies, to solve a labour shortage and thus prop up its ailing economy. This began the first major influx of people of colour into the UK. Rather than being met with open arms, as they had a right to expect[1], they, and their British-born children, would often encounter horrible abuse. And still do. This must be a most alienating experience.

However, unlike in the United States, the presence of Black people on British streets was not perceived as a testament to an awful, society-wide crime, perpetrated right there on British soil by the British people themselves. It was not seen as a reproach and, crucially, white Britons did not think people of colour nursed a brooding, justified hatred against them, personally.

Modern American culture was established abruptly, by its founding generations, with an unbridgeable chasm between slavers and enslaved already in place. In contrast, British culture and society had been developing for centuries. Modern Western values had evolved from a foundation of Renaissance/ Enlightenment thought into a creed of democracy, human rights, equality and freedom, even if few citizens kept to these tenets. Modern Brits were proud of their country’s (perceived) record of diversity and inclusion. Immigrants were expected to arrive in easily-absorbable numbers, to appreciate the chance of a better life, and to integrate into British communities. They were to serve as tokenistic demonstrations of British tolerance. 

However, the 1948 British Nationality Act allowed vastly larger numbers than expected to arrive in Britain. British racism was resistance to mass immigration, although the idiocies of racial theory were used to justify this resistance. It was the classic fear of foreigners with the added bonus (for the xenophobes) that foreigners of colour were instantly recognisable. The rhetoric of the British far right has always been about “coming over here and stealing our jobs, benefits, resources” and telling people of colour to “Go Home, if you feel that way”, if they complain about being ill-treated.  

So, immigrants to the UK have always faced vile abuse, but of a different type, I think, to that of the United States. American racists seem to treat each ethnic minority differently, reserving their most powerful hatred for African Americans, whose anger they fear most. In contrast, British racists have traditionally made little distinction between immigrant groups, disliking all equally, as foreigners. After the 2nd World War, with Poland devastated and occupied by the murderous Stalinist Soviet Union, a small majority of respondents to a poll conducted by The Daily Mail (I think) wanted Polish refugees to be repatriated[2]. Polish soldiers and airmen had fought with outstanding bravery in defence of Britain and British interests in the Second World War; Polish pilots had been perhaps the most effective defenders of the British population in the Battle of Britain. The Katyn Wood massacres, by the Soviets, of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals, was well known. Did any of this matter to the British public? It did not. And these Polish people were white. 

[1] They had been invited to come to the aid of the mother country, and the Empire’s only justification was that it was “the white man’s burden”: its purpose was to benefit the indigenous peoples of the colonies.

[2] See many sources. I just accessed “Why Did We Humiliate the Polish Aces After Their Battle of Britain Heroics?”, The Daily Mail, 29/10/2016.

Inherited Guilt

America’s declaration of independence allowed British people to wash their hands of slavery and its legacy. It became an American problem and Brits didn’t need to concern themselves with it. They were claiming that privilege of innocence, but the claim was fraudulent. No-one is innocent of crimes their society profits from, not even the victims. If a descendant of slaves attends a university endowed by a slaver, they are benefitting just as much as the descendants of the whitest aristocrats. After all, anyone who even uses the roads in a country whose wealth was partly established by slavery, is benefitting from slavery. Any nation that trades with them, including former slave colonies, is profiting from slavery… 

We should probably avoid grievance and self-righteousness. Who knows what terrible crimes our ancestors committed. And presumably we do not want to suggest that guilt is racially inherited. We don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, do we?

Innocence is a Privilege and a Luxury

British merchants profited from the slave trade while outsourcing its legacy of trauma, resentment and racial tension. Slavery was enacted thousands of miles away, in Africa and America. Only the money and the cotton flowed in and out of Britain. It was a society untroubled by widespread racial friction or suspicion up until the 1950s and 60s, because, until then, it had few ethnic minority communities. 

By contrast there were huge numbers of slaves in the United States, perhaps as many as 4 million, 13% of the population at the time of emancipation[1]. Those who benefitted from the slave trade had to witness the misery it caused. In these circumstances, innocence is a sort of privilege, because ordinary people were complicit in slavery’s systems, just by living ordinary lives.They badly needed ways to justify it. They had most need of blessing. This must have been traumatic enough, before we even get to the experience of the enslaved. 

Both the slavers and the enslaved were immigrants, so the apologists couldn’t claim the superiority of being the “true” Americans. Instead they had to turn to the even more pernicious ideas of racial science. These ideas were not necessarily American in origin, but there they found fertile ground and were nurtured with what seems like a fevered urgency.

All this is deeply damaging both socially and psychologically. American culture, an immigrant culture, is a very young tree. It has grown up and around this enormous wound at its base, one that contradicted its own founding principles in the 1791 Bill of Rights. 

The USA is a traumatised and dysfunctional society, deeply divided along racial lines, scarred by the memory of awful racial crimes, riven by alienating distrust, bitter resentment, and paranoid fear born of an unprocessed guilt.

And then you add in the guns.

But Britain is not like this. Britain is not America. 

[1] According to various websites, Wiki, etc. I’m such a scholar!

Racism Versus Old-School Xenophobia

The vile racist trolling of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka shames England. However, I suspect it says more about the poisonous cruelty fostered by the internet, than it says about the country’s underlying racism. Trolls seek out their victims’ vulnerabilities. There has been a rise in reported racist incidents since Brexit, and the greater awareness of racial tension in recent years seems, ironically, to have increased BAME people’s perception of that threat[1]. Trolls exploit this to add venom to their attacks. 

British trolls are not necessarily driven by a racist ideology, although they clearly don’t find expressions of racism as repugnant as they should, implying a degree of racial segregation. In fact, I suspect trolls are untroubled by any complex thought structures, no matter how intelligent they may be. They just get a visceral thrill out of being nasty and the power it gives them to upset people. 

Trolls reinforce our perception that we live in a starkly discriminatory society. Yet racial inequality in the UK doesn’t seem to originate from a racist belief system, either. That would conflict with our core liberal humanist values. In this respect, it seems very different from the United States. It seems to have a different source: old fashioned xenophobia. 

[1] Only time will tell if these are the birth pangs of a better society or the beginning of a new era of alienation. Guess what I think!

Human Sacrifice

We experience the world as solitary individuals, entirely isolated from each other, psychologically, competing with some and cooperate with others, to our own advantage. 

Yet we crave company and understanding. We are endowed with the extra-ordinary capacity for empathy and care, but our own experiences are immediate and overwhelming, while those of others are merely deduced and imagined. The deaths of others, their utter extinction, are merely formative experiences for us, as ours will be to those who survive us.

Such a state of affairs isn’t necessarily a sign of a dysfunctional society. To come over all “evolutionary psychologist” on your asses, selflessness could benefit a species without being of any benefit to an individual at all. A genetic advantage might be conveyed by allowing only the alphas to procreate and not weakening the species by contesting that right, which would involve your kin in costly battles. 

If such a drive existed it could be without immediate personal reward; it would probably be a puritanical aversion to self-indulgence, held by some lowly individuals[1], while others, the more able, revelled in sybaritic pleasure and saw no reason not to. 

So we may not be able to map a simple positive correlation between benefits to a society and benefits to an individual. It may feel highly unsatisfying to do the right thing. The immediate experience of sexual fidelity, for example, is deeply upsetting, presumably as frustrated sex hormones, unreleased, rage through your blood-stream. 

This is problematic both for the utilitarian perspective, which relies on collecting a numerical majority of personal benefits, and for straightforward liberal humanism, which tells us that its systems are guaranteed to benefit us all, individually, through its concept of inalienable, individual rights. 

So, a sense of well-being, personally, is not an indication of a just society, and a sense of personal misery is not necessarily indicative of the breakdown of society. 

[1] Some parents, especially mothers, will put themselves in danger to save their own offspring, as we all know, but this isn’t exactly what I mean. The evolutionary benefit is obvious and they are trying to ensure the survival of their own, personal genes, not benefitting the species/ genepool as a whole.