Theory as Weapon; Grievance as Demand: A Theory!

The internet has ushered in an age of strange quasi-intellectualism. Theories and concepts that might, in previous times, have remained confined to the ivory towers of the universities, and their alumni, have percolated through the general population by means of online conversations[1].

We are so overwhelmed by information that we can give each idea only a brief, impatient glance before we rush into the fray, waving it like a weapon. These days, most topical issues are laced with a strong dose of simplified, half-understood theory, often used to accuse![2]

Theorising seems to encourage people to use metaphors. It’s a similar process, I guess: correlating one thing with another, without substantial links. Social activism borrows from several lexical fields, including militarism and violence.

It’s mostly the language of grievance, though –  the “trauma” and “pain” suffered – or unsubstantiated statements of the “structural” and “systemic” nature of racism[3]. Personal experiences of slights and insults are described in detail, but in the brief chapters that follow, vague and doubtful suggestions are often made; abstract generalities and advice about types of actions or behaviours without any specifics. 

I think this focus on the grievance is because the social activist movements, fostered by the internet, are unsure what to do once they have “spoken out”. They air their grievances; they start the conversation, they demand to see the manager, and then, as you might expect from a disempowered population whose only purpose is to consume, to make consumer choices, they wait for it to be sorted out for them, before they take their custom elsewhere

This mirrors our reliance on computer algorithms that seem to reliably do our bidding while we have not the slightest sense of how or why they work. You protest, or, at worst, you riot, and then you wait for something to be done.

There is an assumption that inviable codes underpin the very substance of existence, so that no matter how much we disrupt our world, our “natural rights” will still robustly exist. When they are not being manifested, they are being actively thwarted, we think. That leads to accusations of complicity from innocent passers-by, of “white privilege” against people who have experienced no privilege.  


[1] And the proportion of the population doing 3rd level courses has increased. 

[2] Otegha Uwagba points out that these scraps of theory are often employed by the privileged, “eager to demonstrate their own lack of racism by positioning themselves against” their peers. (Whites : On Race and Other Falsehoods, 2020, London: 4th Estate, p32) 

[3] Actually, I don’t doubt that racism in our societies is likely to be systemic – a malign co-incidence of disparate factors, largely to do with people trying to preserve their advantages rather than crushing others – but leading to a tendency for some groups to be disadvantaged. But activists rarely substantiate these claims. I guess it would take too long.

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