People are Morons

BUT

the Zero Tolerance campaign seems to have encouraged and excused a humourless intolerance, a relentless unforgiving aggression in some British activists[1]. They are proud of their courage and strength in being constantly huffy and thin-skinned, even though it distresses them.

Here, for example, is Otegha Uwagba remembering a conversation about Swedish people.

“’Yeah, I know,” he replies, continuing, ‘and they’re all beautiful in that really, like, Aryan-looking way as well,’ as though dreamily invoking a beauty standard popularised by a regime that murdered six million Jews in part because they didn’t conform to it is an entirely normal thing to say.”

Her pamphlet, Whites: on Race and Other Falsehoods[2], from which this is taken, provides other examples of tactless comments that remind her of our society’s racial injustices. Continuously encountering such moments throughout their life would erode the patience (and capacity for forgiveness) of a saint. It must also lead to a sense of alienation, and Ms Uwagba talks, later, of how grateful she feels to be surrounded by “Black people, Black Joy, Black children, Black food. It feels almost baptismal, like I am being washed clean.”[3] She is talking about a sense of belonging. Her implication is that it is ONLY in the company of others who simply share a perceived colour, that she can feel at home. Worse, that to be around (perceived) white people, and their idiotic comments, is actually soiling, if you are black. That is awful: to be so divided on such trivial grounds. 

However, in this “Aryan” incident, the problem seems mainly to be Ms Uwagba’s sensitivity. She shouldn’t take on the burden of tackling the holocaust as well as Britain’s enormous history of racism. She will exhaust herself. And it is unfair on a guy who’s using a very common way of referring to blond, beautiful, healthy people[4]. It’s an instantly recognisable category, and when we use it we are ruefully and ironically aware of its provenance.

By pursuing the smallest perceived slights, and labelling them “micro-aggressions” campaigners are defining simple insensitivity, or awkward inexperience with cultural and racial diversity, as the beginnings of racist oppression. 

The word “aggression” has a powerful emotional and ethical charge, and it is wholly negative. It criminalises tactlessness, and justifies intolerance and aggression in return. It allows you to angrily rebut annoying, complacent normals, but still claim that they started it. If they become defensive or annoyed, in their turn, that just confirms your point – they werebeing aggressive. 

When is something a micro-aggression and when is it just a clumsy turn of phrase? When is it thoughtlessly touching a raw nerve and when is it expressing a culture-wide bias? When does the thin edge of the wedge fade away into somebody just being annoying? Because people are idiots, whatever their heritage. And it makes them really irritating. 


[1] It’s different for Americans.

[2] 2020, London: 4th Estate, p44

[3] ibid, p47

[4] Whether you approve or not, it is a normal thing to say. Ordinary people do it all the time.

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