Politics and Antagonism 3: Bullying the People

So, self-identifying Left-wing activists have good reason to believe they are the only ones with principle and probity, or, at least, the only ones who strive to act in a principled way. On the other hand, if you are pursuing a moral activity so you can worship at the altar of your own virtue, integrity is nothing but selfishness and self-indulgence. Nobody benefits but yourself, if your campaigns to change society stay true to your principles, but antagonise and alienate everyone else. People are the substance society is made of, and they’re all going to disagree with you about something. You need to persuade them if you are going to change society. Imposing change is persecution, coercion, and suppression. 

This is the error made by Jeremy Corbyn’s sanctimonious leadership of the Labour party. By making himself unelectable, he simply allowed another Conservative government to continue to dismantle any last remnants of progressive policy and legislation. He colluded in Conservative rule. 

Unfortunately, campaigning groups have always existed in bubbles, even before the rise of social media. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, for safety and comfort, all we hear back are rousing cheers of support. We think we are talking for the masses until the election results come in.

As Andrew Rawnsley said of Tony Blair’s New Labour, “It is sometimes said their key insight was that principles are redundant without power. This could only be called an insight in reference to Labour, a party too often populated with people who believe winning elections has to entail betraying their values. To Tories, it is not an insight to say that achieving office matters. It is a statement of the bleeding obvious.” (The Observer, 01/05/22)

And anyway, surely one of the core principles of left-wing Humanist Liberalism, part of the principle of equality itself, is that other people’s political beliefs and opinions are as valid as your own and should have as much weight. To forcibly impose your principles on others, assuming they are always entirely superior, is a form of imperialism. Being willing negotiate and compromise, to alter your position and your legislation to accommodate some of your opponent’s beliefs is, itself, a higher principle. 

Politics and Antagonism 2: Why the Left is so self-righteous (and I should know. I’m a Leftie!)

The long and uninterrupted tradition of political antagonism has also led both left and right to assume that their portfolios of contradictory ideas have the coherence of a systematic ideology. In truth, they are just pick-and-mix bags of emotional responses to each other that they’ve collected over the years. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, has said that opposing war and violence has been “the whole purpose of his life” (“Are You a Pacifist? Labour Leader Speaks to Sky” Sky News, 25th September 2015), yet maintains a position on Irish Republicanism that is basically an endorsement of violence and of people prepared to use it against their contrary neighbours to promote their own interests. As long as his positions are all anti-establishment, Mr Corbyn thinks he has a political philosophy. 

This has always been a particular problem for the Left. Left wing groups are reformist social movements. They aim to change the world: the whole of society’s thinking and attitudes as well as its legislation. Left-wing parliamentary parties tend to be adjuncts of wider grass-roots organisations, which have much more ambitious social aims and aspirations than merely forming a 4 year administration.

In contrast, the British Conservative party is more akin to a lobby group (I realise this characterisation doesn’t work for right-wing parliamentary parties world-wide.) They first came together to defend the principles and mechanisms of inequality against what they saw as reckless social experimentation. They have handed down that sacred duty to each successive political generation, through different iterations of privilege. They are therefore much more focussed on parliamentary procedure and the maintenance of legislation than their leftist counterparts, because that is how they restrain change, and their rank and file voters seem motivated by feeling, rather than theory: patriotism and tribal loyalty, and antipathy towards the left who they see as attacking them. A conservative friend of mine recently told me that the main difference between Labour and Conservative voters was that most Conservative voters weren’t very interested in politics. 

Labourites accuse Conservative politicians of cynical self-interest and corruption; Conservatives accuse Labour politicians of self-righteous naivety or hypocrisy and corruption. Both have their point. 

Politics and Antagonism: why the Left has been badly taught.

The original factional split in the modern British parliament was between the Tories and the Whigs during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679. These groups were affiliations of like-minded MPs who had been elected as individuals on their own “merits”(!) The Whigs wished to legally exclude the catholic James, Duke of York, from succeeding to the British throne. The Tories opposed this because, while many of them were similarly anti-Catholic, they believed that inheritance from parents was the basis of a stable society.  Tory sentiments led to the formation of the Conservative Party in 1834, making it, today, the oldest continuous political party in British politics. 

Our legislature has remained rigidly binary, oppositional, and combative ever since, although it has been through many versions, most importantly when the newly formed Labour party took over from the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the 1920s. 

The stability of British society has led the British people, and its parliamentary representatives, to assume such an adversarial system is natural and inevitable. We assume that there is honour in a blind and destructive refusal to compromise or negotiate, that only by rejecting any other points of view, attempting to wholly defeat them, by whatever means prove effective, do we demonstrate our integrity and sense of principle.

Politics and Emotion

On reflection, I’m being unfair to the political Left by suggesting they are deliberately collaborating with the Right. It is more likely, I think, that they are simply confused. 

We are emotional, not rational animals, as I’m ALWAYS saying, and our beliefs and opinions are the products more of sentimental impulse than ratiocination. Our opinions on politics seem to be picked up from the prevailing assumptions of our communities and cemented by our tribal identities and loyalty to family, friends, and community. These are feelings not soberly deduced conclusions, and they are reinforced by other emotional responses: pity and empathy for those we feel solidarity with; anger, fear or resentment towards those who threaten or oppose us.  

Political loyalties seem to be held with peculiar strength. It’s very difficult to admit that you’ve made a mistake in choosing your tribe or casting your vote. This must be partly to do with the accusatory and oppositional nature of the politics in Britain. I think it will be very difficult for the Labour party to win back the Northern Brexiteer voters they lost when they were led by Jeremy Corbyn. Acts of angry renunciation become instantly entrenched. Nobody likes to come crawling back. 

Complicity and Blame

Emmanuel Macron secured a second term as president of France in the election of 25th April this year. In the last days of campaigning, he claimed that his rival Marine le Pen’s far-right party, Rassemblement National, “lives off fear and anger to create resentment… It says excluding parts of society is the answer.” He also claimed their plans to prioritise French nationals’ rights and opportunities over those of immigrants “abandons the founding texts of Europe that protect individuals, human rights and freedoms.” 

In the United Kingdom, our Right-wingers make similar capital from division, but, surprisingly, we can level the same accusations at our own Social Justice activists, the supposedly most left-wing members of our society who should stand for justice, equality, and respect for all. 

What’s worse, our left-wing activists are turning their vitriol on the general public, accusing them of complicity. It’s an attempt to galvanise and recruit us, and it seems to have worked very well, as millions of well-meaning liberals (and we are all liberals of one sort or another) scramble to re-affirm their credentials and virtue-signal themselves out of danger, by accusing others further down the moral pecking order. 

Many people take offense, of course, as Robin DiAngelo has chronicled in her 2019 Book White Fragility(London: Penguin). They feel misunderstood and badly treated, even betrayed, and this can push some of them further to the right, which can appear (Dear God!) more forgiving, more flexible, more reasonable, at least towards them. Witness the cases of Lionel Shriver who has moved from writing for the Left-wing Guardian to the very Right-wing Spectator, and Kathleen Stock, who has moved from The University of Sussex to The Right-leaning University of Austin. 

This doesn’t seem to bother the leaders and theorists of the Social Justice movements. Their coercive recruitment drives have been successful enough to bear some wastage. They think they have goaded these apostates into revealing the true colours they had kept hidden from us, (for reasons that are not explained) and that we’re better off without them. 

We aren’t. Without moderating, questioning voices among our own ranks, our movements just become more doctrinaire, inflexible and extreme, more misled. 

In truth, conflict benefits both the fundamentalist Left and Right. As in warfare, the real difference is between the combatants and non-combatants. The zealots are co-operating to establish a market-place where they can hustle and barter with each other for our support, likes, admiration and loyalty over the tops of our heads. We are the docile cattle in the cattle-market of ideas, not the buyers and sellers. The activists and extremists are colluding with each other. They are the ones who are complicit. 

The trials of the Social Justice Warrior no. 12: Keeping your Allies in Line

The actor Sam Beckinsale, star of ITV’s London’s Burning, is one of the faces of Allie Crewe’s photography project I Am, aimed at drawing attention to the problem of Domestic Abuse. Interviewed in The Observer (24thApril 2022) Ms. Beckinsale said, “Even when the cage door is open, it’s difficult to step out, but I’m stepping out now by doing this project. Whether there will be a backlash, what the outcome might be, I have no idea. I do feel vulnerable, but knowing what I know about coercive control, if I don’t speak up, my silence is complicit.” 

She is to be applauded for her courage, but this talk of complicity is nonsense. It may feel restorative and empowering to become involved in a project like this, but the victims of domestic abuse should feel under no obligation to rush back into the battlefield of hostility and online abuse that comes with all campaigning, these days. 

Survivors, of all people, should be entitled to a little quiet time recuperating. They are neither enabling nor profiting from domestic abuse by doing so. Domestic abuse is universally condemned, so its persistence must have some other cause than not being abhorred. By calling herself “complicit”, Sam Beckinsale is straying remarkably close to the self-blame that domestic abusers rely on to prevent their victims from asking for help or walking away. Is this evidence of the lasting harm her abuser has done her, psychologically?

I suspect, in searching for the words to explain her situation and her involvement in Allie Crewe’s project, Ms Beckinsale simply reached for the buzzword of the age. Modern Social Justice campaigns no longer target only those who oppose them. Now innocent bystanders, even allies are to be coerced into supporting the cause, to give it power and traction. Blame, shame and angry accusation are the cattle prods used to keep us in line and docile; the threat of condemnation and social exclusion are the whips that drive us stumbling forward.

Does Activism Soothe Existential Angst?

The advice columnist Philipa Perry, writing in The Observer Magazine (24/04/22), says “There is a part of you (and me, and all of us) destined to remain alone, unseen… Because of this feeling of it not being possible for our inner world to be truly known and seen by others, when asked, most people feel that they often believe themselves to be not in the centre of a group, but more towards the edges.” 

Yet the internet age is supposed to be the era of interconnectivity. Every one is trying to belong, to work their way into the bosom of their tribe. Is this the reason many members of Britain’s minorities feel marginalised or othered by “micro-aggressions”, subtleties, and vaguely perceived “attitudes” of the putative majority? Have their concrete experiences of racist rejection made them even more sensitive to the existential isolation we all suffer from? 

Of course, the leaders and spokespeople of these tribes snuggle up right at the centre of the group. Is this what they seek: a sense of doing something useful for their people and thus being recognised and valued as indispensable? Is this all about belonging? About Existential angst?

Social Justice: Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

“Over the past few years it has often been remarked that our so-called culture war is to some extent a publishing phenomenon, driven by clickbait and careerism rather than sincere conviction. This is true, but frothing right-wing columnists aren’t the only ones on the make; liberals, too, are doing their bit to impoverish the discourse.” (Houman Barekat, “False Alarm A Political Warning Where None is Needed” in The Guardian 23/04/22, a review of Yascha Mounk’s How to Make Diverse Democracies Work, 2022, London: Bloomsbury)

Re-reading my previous posts, I’ve noticed how alarmist they sound. The invasion of Ukraine has shown us how trivial most of our grievances are, even when perfectly valid. The stakes are simply not that high, for us. I should probably lighten up.

To clarify: I am not Right-wing. I agree with most of the criticisms of society put forward by Critical Race Theorists and Social Justice activists: they are my people, but I disagree with many of their assumptions and attitudes. 

So, I’m not claiming that challenges to the status quo or criticisms of the virtue of our cultural codes will instantly plunge us into bloody revolution. I don’t think that the moment somebody says, “I’m not sure we’ve always been entirely fair…”, the whole country will immediately descend into a hell of anarchy, riots and murder. That is a deeply reactionary, conservative way of thinking that seeks to suppress all dissent or alternative thought.

But, I do believe that some Social Justice activists draw their power and influence from conflict and antagonism, from self-righteous anger and a hypocritical prejudice. They thrive on manufacturing tribes and using the word “Justice” to promote revenge, long held resentment, and antipathy. These attitudes, conducts and activities damage the fabric of society that weaves us all together. They attack us as individuals, although respect for the individual is the basis of the moral code that justifies their grievances. This, along with the divisions they intentionally promote, weaken our sense of community and thus community identity. They erode the moral and spiritual health of our society. They lower our collective morale because they make us dislike each other and thus have no loyalty to each other.

Ok. They’re young. The young always think they ‘re the first to have ever thought about, or fought for justice. They think they know best. But in trying to remake society, they are dismantling the good along with the bad. They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

And, in the case of the influencers and writers, the theorists and the leaders of the movements, they’re doing it for their own personal gain.

The Dangers of Fostering Social Justice Confrontations

So, the situation in the Ukraine demonstrates the terrible violence humans are willing to visit on people they identify as “Not Us”, as “Other”. It demonstrates how careful we must be not to foster antagonism and hatred. And this is for our own security, no matter how justified our grievances.

Because what threatens most to erode our safety is tribalism.  Not just racial, but also factional: gangs and ethnic groups and nationalities; political affiliations; religious sects; antipathy and suspicion, divisions between groups within communities that have been told that that they are different from each other, that they are at odds: these are the drivers of actual violence, although it may take time to reach these levels of intensity. 

I don’t mean the deeply inappropriate metaphoric use of the words “Violence” or “trauma”, as used by social justice activists, to signify not being treated with as much respect as they think they deserve. I mean  children chased down alleys, cornered in stairwells; Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd, Srebrenica, the Holocaust: real wounding, skull cracking, murderous violence: knives in the dark; red, sticky blood on the tarmac; gunshots at night outside your barricaded door; artillery and bombs aimed deliberately at occupied apartment blocks; mass executions; mass graves. 

The seeds of the Rwandan genocide were sown when the Belgian colonial administrators started to make an artificial distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, and to privilege the former, supposing them to be lighter skinned and more European. 

Vladimir Putin has, for years, fostered such a mindset in the Russian people, and it is this that allows him to enjoy a reported 80% approval rating in Russia for his butchery, telling his people that the West is against them, that their reports of atrocities are fake, that he is protecting Donbas Russians from Ukrainian Nazis.

Social Justice after the Invasion of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has (perhaps) given a new sense of perspective to the social justice debates in the U.K. As we all now know, around the same time that Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed were being honoured for their unsparing depiction of a hypothetical Britain, identical crimes were being uncovered in Bucha on the North-western outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine: the bodies of civilians lying in the street, some with their hands tied behind their backs, many shot in the head. Mass graves held around 150 more bodies.

This was real. These were not trained actors in a dystopian drama. These were actual, living people, and their “inalienable rights”, not just to respect and equal treatment before the law, but to life itself, had simply evaporated on the day Russian troops had arrived in their town. 

They were just like us. They lived normal lives on the outskirts of a modern European capital city, with Twitter and Netflix and lockdown-acquired kittens underfoot and the gloom of Monday mornings on the way to work. Maybe sometimes they forgot to put the bins out until they heard the lorry, and had to rush out in embarrassing pyjamas. 

Like us, they didn’t live in a warzone. They had no need of that miserable civilian fatalism until February this year. Just the other day they walked where they wanted, acted according to their own desires, talked of their hopes and fears, loved and were loved. 

And then, suddenly, without time to prepare themselves, only a few moments, perhaps, of terror and despair, of disbelief, of awful pain, they became nothing. Lumps of putrescent, blackening meat, relics that once held the gleam of sacred fire. 

And nobody came to save them. Nobody could. No well attended protests, no “speaking truth to power” or “calling out injustice” rescued them or could have. No statistics on inequality would have made a difference.[1]

Because, the truth is, Inalienable Rights are a fiction. Life isn’t fair. All we have is a series of fragile and approximate truces. 


[1] There was a joke or a cartoon doing the rounds in Russia a few weeks ago: two Russian soldiers are sitting in a Parisian café, having conquered the whole of Europe. One is saying to the other, “Apparently, we lost the information war…”