Who Gets to Decide?

When activists complain about “the N word” being used to discuss racism, rather than as an expression of racism, they are acting on principle. There is, after all, no reason for them to be personally offended. They are not being threatened, belittled or insulted. Those they are condemning are not driven by feelings of hostility. At least, not at first. 

Instead, activists are defending some hypothetical individual against the impersonal machines of a racist system.

This is, of course, a contradiction[1]. Individuals, by definition, are the very opposite of hypothetical conceptions. Activists’ principles are founded on Liberal Humanism which aims to celebrate and protect the reality and uniqueness of each person in its care, flawed as they may be. 

The collective is also conceptually at odds with the individual. The terms form another binary opposition, and the tension between them structures and drives much of our behaviours in, and our experience of, the societies we are part of. Our desire to belong fights against our desire to stand out, be recognised and appreciated for our singular selves. 

The needs of a society, as a whole, are often at odds with the wishes of an individual. From paying taxes to waiting for medical care to keeping to the lockdown rules, to being sentenced to prison, the rights and the wishes of the individual are sacrificed for the greater good. 

The NHS must routinely make choices about who is to receive life-saving treatment and who is not, because they cannot afford to treat everyone.  Each of these choices is very like discrimination: one person is deemed worthier than another because of who they are. Medical teams make decisions based on their belief of what are the more valuable attributes: medical history, youth or age, vigour or decrepitude, ability to contribute to society, even earning potential. (These last may correlate with perceived intelligence and mental strength.) Not to be chosen is deeply dismissive: insulting. It would be a comfort, a privilege, even, to claim the deciders were driven by unfair prejudice against you, a flaw on their part. This would be far better than admitting that, despite your privileges, you are simply not good enough. 

[1] And, yes, I’m aware that I set it up and I’m putting words in the mouths of hypothetical activists. But hear me out, and then apply the idea to real situations you encounter, and if it never fits, then I accept I’m wrong and I apologise.

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