Keep Your Head Down and Keep Chanting the Slogans

The (apparently scientific) stories spun by Social Justice activists are very useful contributions to a series of very live and urgent debates, but we must accept that they are only possible narratives and there may be alternatives or exceptions or necessary revisions. We must be willing to search out evidence that supports or undermines a reading, and use it to test the validity of that theory. If it does not fit the evidence, we must be willing to alter it. Most importantly, we must be open to debate and welcome those who wish to interrogate our ideas, because questioning will allow us to refine and strengthen them. 

The problem comes when people start to see a theory, or a particular point of view, as a badge of identity. Then, to question any aspect of its absolute truth is not only apostasy or treachery, it is a denial of your own identity, and a sense of identity is our most profoundly valuable spiritual possession and is fundamental to our psychological well-being. Conformism becomes self-policing. 

This is particularly true of the members of persecuted minorities, because even if rejected by their own, they will still not be accepted by the majority, and so they will be alone, wholly vulnerable to the bigots, and filled with existential angst. 

Better to stifle your doubts and keep chanting the slogans. 

Groovier than Cuvier

Pretty much all journalism displays this confirmation bias. No news article is long enough to investigate complex social issues in the depth that they require. No reader would tolerate it. So, the standard procedure is to quote a single source to back up an assertion, no matter how general and complex that claim is, and move on.

Even an in-depth investigation, covering pages of a broadsheet or an hour of radio or television airtime, might only contain, say, a couple of personal experiences, a couple of expert witnesses and a couple of bits of raw, decontextualized data. Each of these is assumed to have a direct, causal and monopolistic relationship with the writer’s thesis. She can pursue a meandering and tenuous line of argument, hopping from topic to topic with only the slightest links between them, until she reaches whatever conclusion she wishes, in a parody of good scientific investigative practice. This is particularly common in sociological or social history investigations, because it is impossible to control variables in your data sets: the subjects are multifaceted and autonomous human beings, with the right not to stay within your research’s parameters.  

In these disciplines, and the journalism that popularises them, studies resemble stories. The events and objects described are joined by a hypothetical or possible narrative. This is presented for discussion. Everyone concerned knows that the hypothesis hasn’t been substantiated, but it’s an interesting construct and there may be some truth in it. As such, they are more entertainment than instruction. 

Here’s an example: Ekow Eshun, presenting the second episode of his fascinating documentary White Mischief on BBC radio 4, was trying to get to grips with the insubstantial and protean[1] concept of “whiteness.” He started by pointing out that the scientist George Cuvier had dissected the body of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman known as “the Venus Hottentot” who was exhibited around Europe as a sort of Circus Freak. Cuvier examined her when she was being kept in appalling squalor, and dissected her after her death. He compared some of her features to those of a monkey. Yet Cuvier, Ekow Eshun points out, was “A highly respected French naturalist, one of the great men of European Science. His statue stands outside the Royal Academy in London.” Mr Eshun is “interested in the way whiteness is bound up with ideas of knowledge and scientific advancement, and ideas of what, and who, represents progress, and who does not.” Cuvier gives the “scientific rational” “that it was acceptable to study this woman… to see her as something not quite human, not quite the same as the white normal.”  His statue reminds Ekow Eshun of “how these ideas of superiority are embedded in the world we live in now.”

This is an interesting hypothesis presented humbly and without rancour, for us to discuss. He seems genuinely curious and eager to explore these issues. They are very important issues and demand to be confronted. It’s a brilliant series and I thank him for it.

But, I don’t think Cuvier’s racist behaviour is evidence that our society is founded on racist principles or continues to promulgate them. Our society may, or may not, be foundationally racist, but the respect shown to Cuvier’s memory is not evidence of this, because he is not revered for his racism. 

Cuvier is renowned for his pioneering work in palaeontology and comparative anatomy, comparing the anatomy of fossils to those of living specimens. He is considered “The founding father of Palaeontology” and named Mastadon and Megatherium, among others. Much of his work was on Molluscs and fish. Not hottentots. 

His treatment of Saartjie Baartman was ghastly and his attitudes were common for his day. They seemed to justify the exploitation of the colonies that many were keen to pursue.  But these attitudes were not universal. In fact, one of the reasons Ms Baartman is still remembered is because her treatment caused outrage when she was exhibited in Britain. The African Association brought a legal case against her exhibitors to get her released. (Significantly, it was defeated because she testified, probably under duress, that she was exhibited voluntarily.) 

Perhaps, therefore, Cuvier’s statue should be removed. However, it is not a testament or a support of racism, but a celebration of scientific progress. His racist thought did not take root in British culture to the same extent as the liberal humanist ideas have. And these  ideas, of universal equality and valuing the human spirit in all its forms, stand in direct opposition to our tribal, exclusionary tendencies. 

So, our refusal to confront Cuvier’s eye-watering racism seems to come primarily from our neglect not of people of colour, but of Cuvier himself. Most people are completely ignorant about him. Those that do know his work and are reluctant to condemn him, are presumably doing so precisely because they abhor racism and do not want to admit their hero had anything to do with it. And, in this case, removing the statue seems a further attempt to dodge confronting our racist and colonialist past. 

[1] “Protean (Adjective): Tending or able to change frequently or easily” Good word, no?!

The Terror in Spread-sheets

Data is essentially a gathering and a counting, not a thing-in-itself. It does not exist independently of us, as physical objects and scientific processes do. It is called into being by its compilers according to their predetermined criteria and categories, which are as prone to assumption and prejudice as any other thought processes. 

Data gathering is immensely complicated. Even the narrowest, most simple investigation has an enormous number of variables. All sorts of factors can limit the validity of, or invalidate, a study. These range from the size of the data set (often too small or lacking in variety), to its limiting factors and how subjects are selected, or self-selected, to the questions asked to gain the data. Asking people who have already caught Covid how they behaved gives you different data from asking the wider population. Asking the former group if they’d taken a bath or shower around the time they were infected, may yield the conclusion that contact with water gives you the disease. 

More importantly, data must be analysed and interpreted to have any significance at all. When dealing with populations numbered in millions, gathering billions of thoughts and attitudes and behaviours and circumstances will lead to millions of tenuous correlations, apparently supporting hundreds of thousands of theories, which self-appointed spokespeople and experts can use to back up whatever theory they like.

This is, of course, confirmation bias: the questions you ask and the people you decide to ask them to, are designed to confirm what you already think. You pick the statistics that support your claims and ignore any to the contrary.

Letting Algorithms Do Your Thinking for You

The abstract-as-experience, fostered by the internet, may partly explain the modern explosion of unworkable theories of gender and sex, of racism, and of the general public’s complicity in oppression. These are spanking new. Outside university sociology departments, no-one had heard of them five years ago, but they are believed absolutely by earnest, well-meaning young people, who pronounce them as incontestable facts and integrate them into their self-defined, internet-enabled self-creation.

If apprehending data is the same thing as actually experiencing something, then that data can stand as its own corroborating evidence of the truth of a supposition. Your own personal encounters (experiences in that traditional sense) may contradict the data, but you are only one individual in a global population heading towards 10 billion. Your testimony is probably anomalous. 

So, spreadsheets of figures, cataloguing human life in various categories appear to have more validity and weight than someone’s actual in-the-flesh experiences and, as we spend more and more time online, can become a proxy for experience itself. Their convincing conclusions become the assumptions that colour our real-world interactions, if we can be bothered to tear ourselves away from our computer screens and have any. And these encounters, because they are framed in the categories chosen by the data compiler, will probably appear to back up their conclusions. 

It may be no coincidence that the most virulent iteration of Racial Justice activism took place during the Covid lockdowns, when everyone was stuck at home consuming Critical Race Theory, and the data selected by its advocates, and becoming more and more paranoid at what it seemed to imply. We were unable to get out on the streets and meet white people and be reassured that most of them were quite nice and not particularly racist. 

The Cyborg Brain: Data is Experience

Our increasing reliance on the internet, on social media, and on our phones, has made us into a curiously literate species. In the past humans lived a physical existence, through their senses. Our identities were nuclei: the co-ordinating centres, and accumulation, of swirling sense impressions, thoughts, social roles, relationships, and face to face interactions with other warm-blooded, full-nerved identities, physically embodied and present. We could read and experience them not only through their words, but through their tone of voice and inflections, their body language, facial expressions, even their smell. 

Now, however, our selves are mediated by symbols: typed words made of letters, emojis, our senses of humour demonstrated by gifs and memes constructed by others. We live through communicating symbolic representations of other things, rather than just being, in our skins. 

Phones and the internet are prizing us out of the here and now. The physical aspect of experience is dwindling away, leaving us with the purely cognitive. We are increasingly comfortable with theorising and the abstractions it generates. We are so glued to our devices as to be virtual cyborgs, with our phones’ programming picking up or enhancing our intellectual functions (starting with something as simple as autocorrect). So, reading and absorbing (consuming) streams of symbols on a phone has become an essential part, perhaps the dominant part, of our experience. After all, as Sam Harris points out, even “the world you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery”[1], so why should sense data have primacy over internally generated, self-referential thought?

This move towards the-abstract-as-experience has wide-reaching consequences: as long as a version of events has internal plausibility, in your eyes, it can be treated as true; it can be felt as true, passionately and sincerely, without the need for supporting, concrete evidence. 

Entirely fabricated news stories; weird, unsubstantiated pseudo-science and social theories; wild, paranoid rumours, labelled as God’s honest truth – all have become entirely free-floating entities, completely un-anchored to the real world. They have become “my truth”, equal in power to the real things, and demanding a response with as much conviction. And anyone who dares to question your system, or to suggest that it doesn’t fit the facts, is a dangerous heretic who may destroy the very fabric of your world. They must be burnt at the stake.

More subtly, to merely read about discrimination against your ethnic group has become to experience it first-hand. The killing of George Floyd has been experienced by Black British people as a blow against each of them personally – an attack and affront, despite being a completely foreign event with no connection to Britain at all: an American man murdered by American police in America. Time and again, British people have dated their struggle against racism from his death, saying such things as, “Since the death of George Floyd, has anything truly changed?”, even accusing the (London) Met of racism and then referring to this American murder as evidence! This is nonsensical, a bit like accusing Jack the Ripper of organising the Manson killings: the Met doesn’t need fitting up for crimes it didn’t commit – the charge sheet is long enough, already! (Sorry, Met! I’m sure the Modern Metropolitan Police are squeaky clean!)

[1] Sam Harris, 2005: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of reason, London: Free Press, p41 – an intolerant secularist rant, but erudite, entertaining and studded with wise saws, although his prose is overly complex.

Working For The Man

News sites are packed with stories about film stars apologising for acting characters of other ethnicities than their own. It is absolutely right that, where possible, minority characters should be played by minority actors. There are far fewer starring roles for them, and it is laughably ironic to depict a racially or sexually diverse community on screen, but to deny it by only casting white actors. It almost looks like a hegemonic conspiracy. 

However, this is not the actors’ fault. They can’t be blamed for wanting to play meaty roles that will stretch them. Denunciation makes them apologise, but they seem to do so with increasing ease and glibness (although many testify how upsetting it is, to feel yourself hated, so),  but what good is an insincere apology, especially after the film has been released?

From a Machiavellian point of view, I suppose it puts pressure on casting directors and film companies for fear of bad publicity, a dimming of their star’s wattage, and boycotting. However, even they don’t deserve anger and hatred. Films are incredibly expensive and film makers must do their utmost to guarantee a return on their backers’ investments, if they are to get funding for their projects. Actors are picked for their acting chops, their beauty and their pulling power. The standards for these qualities are set by an unequal society, not by individual film makers.

Still, each film that sets up exclusively white beauty, skill and success standards is reinforcing the ideology, so campaigns to challenge that are justified.

This is no excuse, however, for vindictive persecution of individuals, even gallingly beautiful and successful ones, and especially not the vulnerable, flash-in-the-pan vloggers, desperate to be loved. They are denounced with relish, out of venomous envy, for invented crimes.

It is nothing more than bullying, as in a playground, where children perceived as posher than their classmates are put into headlocks and squeezed until they gasp “uncle” (or “pax”, it used to be where I grew up in Ireland): it is an exhilarating and addictive demonstration, a reassurance, of the bullies’ personal power and consequence. But, in the end, it is just another sort of destruction of the different. 

And is there much difference between these trolls and the highly educated, respected and successful activists who spend their time telling much less successful and less gifted people that they are the racist beneficiaries of “white privilege”? After all, these activists are often the beautiful people, endorsed by, and with tenure at, exclusive academic institutions. And these institutions are deeply embedded in the elitist systems of our society, gaining millions of pounds/ dollars of funding from them to produce the next generations of their members. 

The Self-Policing Police State

The internet has allowed the collective power of mass protest to be focussed down on tiny, frail individuals, at a moment’s notice, and with virtually no effort or organisation. Nobody needs to be bussed anywhere, anymore. Checking their phones on the way to work, targets can be suddenly overwhelmed by a deluge of scorn and condemnation, often for an off-hand, trivial aside. 

This is extremely intimidating and upsetting. Victims fear for their safety, not knowing how far these unknown attackers are willing to go. Influencers fear cancelling. People can even lose their jobs, in a spasm of virtue-signalling, if their employers think the internet storm is damaging their brand. 

Victims feel wounded, humiliated and excluded –alone and unloved. This is the most damaging aspect of all. We are pack animals and we need to be included and accepted. No one wants to be singled out. 

Online campaigns against individuals are thus highly coercive – as much so as most government policies. Everyone has come, very quickly to rely on internet for so many aspects of their interactions with their society. So users are frightened into conformity by the examples of those who have been sacrificed before. Critics of a movement are silenced, no matter how constructive and useful their comments are; internet personalities, who rely on likes for their career and income, are willing to indulge in the most cringe-worthy virtue signalling. They are also vociferous in their condemnation of others, to put themselves beyond reproach. 

And these campaigns are tribal. You proclaim your allegiance and reinforce your identity by adding to the condemnation. You banish your target from your tribe for their crimes, which mark them out as agents of your enemy. 

These are the paranoid witch-hunts of a self-policing police state. 

Activism, Complaining and Persecution: the Three Pronged Approach

A belief in justified aggression and confrontation isn’t new, but it used to be directed at impersonal powers. The cry of “I Blame the Government!” is probably as old as governments themselves. 

“Activist”, meaning “professional protestor”, however, is a modern job description, existing only in safe, regulated democracies, where citizens’ needs are provided for by the state, so they can assume their complaints will be attended to. Young activists’ disdain of what they call “Karens” – entitled middle-aged women who are always summoning the manager to get what they want – is deeply hypocritical: what is a protest other than a mass complaint to the manager? “Sort it out (for us)”, they chant.

But modern Social Justice activists are also employing a new tactic. They are targeting ordinary, individual people. Activists seem to think that if they identify racial bias (for example) in that person’s words or behaviour, then blame can be directed at them, and they can be shouted at until they apologise. This will resolve the issue and end racism in our society. 

Wrestling in the Mud with Pigs

The whole issue of online abuse is complicated by the celebration of confrontation as a sort of glorious heroic combat. Being able to sustain aggression and not shy away from conflict are seen as knightly virtues. By hurling insults back at your insulters, you are fighting the good fight. 

Where I work, kids occasionally make complaints of text abuse and online bullying. They, or their horrified parents, will take screen shots of texts and emails, containing dreadful messages, to show as proof of their allegations.

However, when confronted, the accused teenager will often produce texts and emails, of equal viciousness, from their accuser. Then the school is left searching for an “Ur text” (ho ho) that began it all, which is rarely possible, and when it is, the sender claims it was in response to an original, unprovoked attack off-line. 

If the target isn’t obviously from a marginalised group, texts will often contain a variety of attacks. The students are sounding out each other’s defences, feeling for their vulnerabilities. Expressions of hatred, of racism, of size-ism, of homophobia are made speculatively, at first, to see what wounds the most; they aren’t made because the students sincerely believe them. (Although structural prejudice might be noticeable in which forms of insult the kids have the nerve to use, and which are truly taboo.)    

I think you can usually tell who has been more reprehensible, more abusive earlier, more dominant, but the school can’t punish someone on a hunch, so either both students are punished, one of them too harshly, or neither is (adequately.)

So too in society beyond the school gates. Social media is competitive and combative. On-line culture has persuaded victims that it is sassy and spirited to reply to nastiness and disdain with equal unkindness. It is in vain that you tell them that It is to their credit if they are no good at it, that it shows they are kinder, more generous and empathetic people. They’re probably just more intelligent all round. 

The digital world is uncaring and neglectful. Its citizens do not really know each other and are not truly invested in their on-line friendships. They can ignore the common humanity and sentience of their opponents.

In this environment, in a trial of cruelty and venom, the cruellest and most venomous, the less imaginative and sensitive, will triumph. 

It is a mistake to confuse savagery with strength. That justifies the savagery aimed at you and drives people apart. Resorting to anger, antipathy and cruelty is agreeing to play by the bigots’ rules. It gives them a natural advantage: they’ve always been very comfortable with this behaviour. They seek division, the pre-condition of exclusion. 

And if you take a willingness to hurt to its logical conclusion, you reach actual, physical violence and the white racists have always been happy to resort to violence. In America, far more Black Lives Matters activists appear to have been murdered than right-wing protestors. (see The Guardian “At Least 25 Americans Were Killed during Protests and Political Unrest in 2020”, 31/10/20)

I suspect, throughout history, far more violence has been visited on Black people by White Europeans and White Americans than vice versa. Think about the slave trade itself. 

On Alex Krotoski’s The Digital Human (BBC Radio 4), Loretta Ross, an academic and activist, gives the following advice to people who are targeted by trolls (online. Not real ones): “George Bernard Shaw says, ‘Don’t wrestle in the mud with pigs, because only the pig enjoys it.’” That is very relevant, here. 

Has Racism Increased or Decreased?

So, the questions you ask will generate the landscape you expect to find. That’s problematic if you’re overly-sensitive to racial slurs: every slight will be attributed to racism, rather than its real cause, general prickery.

Race is a trivial detail of pigmentation. Acknowledging this, we used to believe that all people had the right to be treated equally. Black or white, gay or straight, our similarities far out-weighed our differences, and everyone should be allowed equality of opportunity to earn respect. Campaigning on this principle we made much progress – from slavery to widespread acceptance of difference (at least in principle) to a vibrant multicultural society. It’s appalling that it was necessary in the first place, and that it took so long to achieve such partial victories, but at least progress was made. 

Now, however, we seem to be going backwards. The distance between self-identified racial groups seem to have increased, since the rise of Critical Race Theory and the latest iterations of the Racial Justice movement (at least, in Britain.)

I think far fewer people make racist assumptions now, than in my childhood. We have largely abandoned the 20th century modes of thought that understood the world by broadly categorising it. The zeitgeist is now consumerist individualism. Our grandparents and parents are the most likely people, in any gathering, to make embarrassing racist generalisations. They are the unreconstructed products of a more racist age. 

Racist abuse has increased, but that’s because the amount of abuse has increased exponentially due to the internet and social media. That’s why BBC Radio’s File on 4 programme dedicated a whole programme to the rise of racism in football. Various insiders pointed out that, in the past, players of colour only had to endure racist abuse in the stadium, whereas, now, they are vulnerable at any moment. Of course, stadium racism is absolutely horrifying and unacceptable – it’s a sign of a racist population, but the rise in reported incidents doesn’t necessarily mean we are more racist than we were.

Trolls reach for the most hurtful thing they can think of. They don’t necessarily believe what they are saying; they just want to defeat you and see you cry. In the wake of England’s defeat in the Euros some fans were angry and wanted to hurt the players who had missed penalties. These fans knew they’d be susceptible to racial slurs, so that’s how they opted to attack their victims. 

Modern social media users advertise their over-sensitivity. They believe they have a human right not to be insulted, triggered, or even made uncomfortable, and this fragility should be served and protected by the structures of society, policed and maintained by other people. Just as the council arranges for the rubbish to be collected, they should be able to register their anger online and then the insulters, or the insensitive, should be jailed, prosecuted, persecuted. Outrage has become a weapon. 

But, of course, highlighting where you feel most vulnerable lights a flare path straight to it along which the trolls, emboldened by online anonymity, can attack.