When Social Justice Goes Rogue

Support for the action of the Colston 4, rather than sympathy for their beliefs, (and, more importantly, their acquittal) is more troubling than the initial vandalism of an obscure statue of an old-time slaver. Those of us on The Left found it hard to suppress a wicked sense of glee, as we read about this flouting of the stuffy old system, at the thought of the outrage and alarm of those red-faced old racists.

But our laughter was complacent. We were assuming that people can take the law into their own hands, if they sincerely feel they are in the right, and everything will be absolutely fine. We could dismantle any protections against arbitrary, even destructive, political action and create a society without consensus and agreed codes, but by some miraculous process, no malign actors could possibly take advantage of this. Perish the thought! 

These assumptions are the result of all of us growing up in a country and society that is largely peaceable and nurturing; that provides us with at least basic education, and healthcare that’s free at the point of provision, that allows us to voice most opinions without serious suppression, that doesn’t arbitrarily imprison most of us. Or execute us. Most of us. Or at least most of the sort of people who go on protests. 

The expectation that we will be provided for, is further enhanced by our dependence on the digital world. The structures of programming are limiting and untransmutable; they allow only the options set out in their coding and algorithms. This gives us a sense that there is a natural structure and order to society and to the world itself, that we can fall back on, as there is online. And the more complete an experience of existence the digital realm provides us with, the more this sense is reinforced. 

This virtual world spoon feeds us, delivers to our door (“Alexa dim the lights”) which in turn leads to a the complacent belief that protest can stand in for reform: that all we need to do is express anger and a sense of disadvantage, and a better world will also be delivered to our door by somebody who deals with these things. 

For example, while many Social Justice advocates have come up with ingenious solutions to social ills, I have heard others say such things as, “white people are just going to have to learn to share their privileges” (or words to that effect.) This is not an actionable plan, and the implicit threat is unlikely to encourage the powerful to relinquish their power, which they hoard partly out of a sense of insecurity in the first place. 

Even if justified and understandable, expressions of anger can still make the situation worse, increasing resistance to our campaigns, polarisation and conflict. Self-expression for its own sake is not always constructive and beneficial.

But, in the developed world, we are spoilt; we live in happy ignorance of the wariness and circumspection, that so many people must exercise every day; the uncertainty that their community will not suddenly tip back over into bloody outrage: civil war, suppression, snatch squads roaring through the night, genocidal lynch mobs, whipped up by self-seeking demagogues dragging minorities from their beds, frantic combat over scarce resources; destitution and starvation caused by climate disaster that our enfeebled governments are increasingly powerless to mitigate; armed right-wing insurrectionists storming the capitol in an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected president…

We can believe that we can kick over the traces, from time to time, have a little tantrum, and, in the end, everything will settle down, and we can return to our safe, law and police-protected, comfortable lives. It’ll be fine. Suburban. This is Britain, for goodness’ sake! Peace and relative security are the natural order of things. 

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