Condemning the government’s heartless visa restrictions on Ukrainian refugees, a couple of months ago, Nick Cohen pointed out, “If we were not so in thrall to American notions that racism solely consists of white supremacy, we would recognise the lethal prejudice for what it is.” (The Guardian, “Russian Spies? No wonder we recoil from this demonisation of refugees” 10/04/22)
“White Supremacy”, “White privilege”: new labels and separate definitions rather than nuanced and qualified descriptions are necessary in the binary-code world of algorithms. Tick boxes. This fosters the absolutes of the internet warriors: “It can’t be racism if it’s prejudice against white people.”
Why not, then, coin a new term? Because we don’t want to do all the spade work, spend all the time and energy it would take to make the new term accepted and commonly used. Instead, we want to harness the traction and power of an already established word. In the case of racist/racism, while it was never a complimentary term, the civil rights and emancipation movements sacrificed lives and lifetimes, sweated, and shed blood to establish the true horror of these words, and to embed that in the minds of our language communities.
Now Social Justice activists have stolen and repurposed them. It’s all very modern: instant gratification; the ironic appropriation of past fashions, little effort…
I remember in 2016, four years before the death of George Floyd, when Black Lives Matters was in its infancy, and some other unfortunate’s death in police custody had sparked a wave of protests in America. A small group of people had chained themselves together on the runway of London City Airport, blocking it. They were protesting under the BLM banner.
The Black Lives Matter campaign in America is absolutely necessary and right. I honour and support it wholeheartedly, as I did then. However, I was confused to see American slogans on a British runway. The disadvantages and discrimination experienced by British people of colour seem markedly different from the literally murderous hostility encountered by Americans and comes from a substantially different history and culture. (“Black Lives Matters” always struck me as a pretty restrained and modest reminder to the authorities in the US, given what the black community has suffered.)
I wondered if these British activists were blocking flights from the U.S., unlikely on such a small airport with such a short runway. I thought they were being embarrassingly hypocritical and xenophobic by criticising America when we had enough racial inequality and even outright racism in our own country. Why, I wondered, did they not join (or found) a British organisation?
I felt the same about the presence of the same groups at the Grenfell Towers protests. Why were anti-racist groups trying to muscle in on a tragedy and injustice of the poor, by calling it racist? How could they justify stealing somebody else’s trauma to fuel their own movements and further their own agendas?
MeToo seemed plagued by the same pretention. How could women who had felt a bit uncomfortable at work, due to the heavy-handed flirting of sexist male colleagues, compare themselves with the victims of rape or sexual abuse and slavery?
Of course, I can now see that this is all about solidarity – forming alliances, about recruitment to mass-movements whose size allows them enormous leverage to influence government policies and social thinking.
Protest movements must, inevitably, foreground grievance over celebration. If your response to, let’s say, prejudice against West Indian immigrants is to celebrate Caribbean culture, you will give the impression that all is well with your society. But dwelling on grievances, leads to a hierarchy of suffering, where the value of an individual is measured in their resilience in the face of adversity and privilege is a sign of weakness and worthlessness, so it became necessary to establish your own misfortunes to prove your worth.
The concept of “micro-aggressions” has been immensely useful in cementing a sense of robust unity between people with vastly different experiences. Campaigners emphasise the fact that all discriminatory acts, no matter how slight, lie on a spectrum of increasing severity and that even the merely irritating help to reinforce a culture that enables monstruous acts of oppression. This allows women who have had their hair annoyingly touched to stand next to the victims of sex trafficking to build vast and powerful movements.
So, the merely annoyed and pestered can prove their value by demonstrating their kinship with those who suffered and survived. They can also virtue-signal their way out of accusations of privilege by demonstrating their solidarity with the outraged, which they do by expressing your own outrage, aimed at the un-enlightened. It is a vast Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme of blame, as I’ve said before.
This way of campaigning is thus an intelligent and resourceful response to the modern age of connectivity. It is also deeply coercive, ideological, Machiavellian, and hypocritical. It is coercive because it accuses people of being racist or privileged unless they agree in totality with your position and join you. It is ideological, because it relies on, and assumes the truth of, the internet’s statistical abstractions of Racism by Spreadsheet: you are racist because you fit into a category with lower numbers of disadvantaged members on the spreadsheets, no matter what your own personal situation and experience is. It is Machiavellian and hypocritical because it employs division, prejudice and discrimination in the service of ending division, prejudice and discrimination, using the excuse that it works. Presumably the end justifies the means.
For the moment.