“What Do We Want?” “Self-Expression!”

Modern anti-racism campaigns encourage people to identify and call out examples of endemic racism. Our society has long declared itself racially egalitarian. Most Brits are proud of this, so persistent racism is unlikely to be glaringly obvious. It will probably need to be uncovered, often through the undeniable discrepancies in statistics. Hence to “call out” racism or sexism or trans-phobia, means to expose and name it for what it is.

The zeitgeist is one of internet-enhanced protest, conflict and schism. Modern people pride themselves in having the courage and self-belief to personally challenge injustice. As well as calling it out, they “stand up to” it, and, of course, “speak truth to power”. What is important to modern activists is not collaborating to create a better community, it is self-expression, the firming up of their own atomised identity, their personal integrity. 

This egotism is supercharged by the consumer-capitalism of the internet, which assumes that personal self-realisation is the ultimate goal and good of human life. The post-modern scepticism[1] of any truth beyond personal, emotional experience or statistics[2], also encourages people to see community and collective action as simply an acknowledgement of superior numbers. This must come from the assumption, drummed into us since infanthood, that democracy is the perfect, virtuous form of state structure, so that by voting on an issue, and reaching a majority verdict, a position becomes justified and moral: it is shriven. 

The goal, then, becomes to create a mass movement and to force governments (and industry leaders) to acknowledge the size of it. This will automatically lead to beneficial change. Hence #MeToo and (years ago) the anti-war “Not in My Name” campaign, and so on. 

We are increasingly used to having things served to us on a plate. Apps and algorithms that we don’t understand are able, inexplicably, able to provide us with whatever we demand. Or so it appears. 

We carry that attitude into our protest movements. As citizens of a democracy, we demand that something is done and then sit back with self-congratulatory satisfaction, expecting that somebody will do it. It’s writing to The Times for the internet generation; we are demanding, en masse, to see the manager: “Siri, dim the lights and dismantle systemic racism”; “Alexa, challenge everyday sexism.” 

All this seems to lead to a very strange phenomenon: mass demonstrations of unfocused self-expression. The response to the murder of Sarah Everard seems to exemplify this. A lone male policeman appears to have opportunistically abducted and murdered this poor woman. There has been a nation-wide outpouring of dismay and anger, and of empathy for the victim and her family. 

But this poignant moment of national unity has somehow led many people to demonstrate and protest – a confrontational act intended to challenge…what? Whom? It is unclear. People don’t seem to be sure what they are marching for, because the (alleged) perpetrator of this terrible act is transgressing against some of the most sacred patriarchal principles. Patriarchs can’t have rival men randomly abducting and murdering their women. The taboos this guy has broken are vociferously defended by our sexist society, so a culture of sexism can’t be said to have enabled him. 

This doesn’t seem to matter much to the protestors, though. The belief that self-expression in support of a cause is the purpose of campaigning, has allowed them to believe that shouting at somebody is “starting the conversation”, and that will automatically lead to some sort of “progress”.


[1] probably Descartes-derived

[2] the poor man’s scientific investigation

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