“Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be a unit; – not to be reckoned one character; – not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Quoted as the epigraph to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, 2008 London: Penguin)
So, online culture allows activists an enormous amount of leverage. However, it also presents them with a problem: in this fevered atmosphere of consumerist individualism and existential angst, activists perform a sort of emotional blackmail on their victims/opponents to coerce or defeat them. And it works very well. But, in doing so, they are attributing the crimes of the whole society to the individual.
And jumping to conclusions based on immediate impressions is…, well…, it’s prejudiced.
Critical Race theorists, for example, make vast, generalised assumptions about their targets’ attitudes, cultural knowledge and experience based on how they look. The argument is that the statistics prove racial inequality persists, despite most white people being apparently innocent of any racialized behaviour. People of colour aren’t oppressing themselves, so white people’s unspoken attitudes and inaction, rather than active participation, and their unwillingness to dismantle a system that benefits them, must be holding this inequality in place. Hence the slogan, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
This is a persuasive theory when expounded by sociologists and written up in books. I suspect there is a lot of truth to it, especially in America. However, when you take this idea out into the streets and try to force it onto real people, you are accusing individuals, who haven’t done anything, of inherited racial guilt. And that is racism. After all, if society conditions our thoughts, beliefs and expectations then why should people of colour be absolved of guilt? They are just as likely to be complicit in their own oppression as their white sisters and brothers. They are also refusing to dismantle the systems they know (and which disadvantage them) because of the advantages these systems also bring them.
In fact, if you take this unforgiving attitude to its logical conclusion, complicity is impossible to avoid. Why single out race? All members of a society must share some measure of responsibility for all manner of crimes. How many flights have you taken, in your life? How much climate change has that contributed to? How much of the food you eat has been flown in from abroad? How many deaths in extreme weather events can be laid at your door? How many droughts, floods and famines? What are the working conditions of the people in the developing countries who manufacture your goods? The clothes you wear? The rare-earth metals in your phones? How much pollution from your waste?
And what about the increasing inequality in our own societies, or between the rich countries and the developing world? How can we live with even one of our luxuries and indulgences, when other human beings have so much less? How can we justify owning more than one t-shirt, pair of shoes, an i-phone, a bed, a home, when other human beings, our brethren, our equals, don’t have these advantages?
Or the legacies of the past? Wealth and advantage breed further wealth and advantage, because they gain assets to invest and bequeath. Whatever your racial background, you are benefitting from the British Empire when you attend a university endowed by imperialists like Cecil Rhodes. When you use the road network, or go on the underground, you have blood on your hands, because the country’s wealth, which made these projects possible, was propped up by imperialism, slavery and the exploitation of the poor. And this is true even if you can claim the heritage of an exploited group.
But we cannot possibly confront all our guilt, head on, all the time. It would kill us. And, anyway, we have to go to work, pick the kids up from school, sort out our council tax, get the boiler fixed. If this is privilege, it doesn’t feel like it, and the guilt tends to get lost in the swirling mix of micro-privileges, -disadvantages, -aggressions and -anxieties we all experience all the time.
Of course, it is vitally important that we campaign tirelessly against inequality, discrimination and injustice. But it is unfair to attack and condemn individuals simply for just getting on with their lives, or for holding different opinions to yourself, or for interrogating your assertions.
And it is hypocritical to accuse your fellow citizens of prejudice, based on your assumptions about their putative racial subgroup, that you admit is a construct, anyway.
And it is cowardly to try to absolve yourself of responsibility by blaming other people.
“How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody?
How else can one change it?
He who understands and forgives – where would he find a motive to act?
Where would he not?”
Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1964, p25)