Privilege?! I’ll Give You Privilege, You Tyke!!

For everyone, the self and the lived experience are a patchwork of privileges and discriminations, abilities and limitations, opportunities and disadvantages[1]. We all enjoy some advantages over some less fortunate people, but we are so pre-occupied by the disadvantages that threaten our happiness that we take our blessings for granted. We fail to experience them[2]. Most people thoughtlessly enjoy non-amputee-privilege in comparison with amputees; non-diabetic-privilege in comparison with diabetics; vision privilege in comparison with the short-sighted… 

For example, The Black Rights activists whose work I am familiar with are Afua Hirsch, Otegha Uwagba and Renni Eddoh-Lodge. All three are graced with youth, good-looks and vigorous intellects. All three are articulate, perceptive, successful and influential: people listen to and respect what they have to say (rightly so); the first two are both graduates of Oxford University. A private school in London claims Afua Hirsch as an alumnus[3]

I know nothing else about their backgrounds, but it is clear from these facts that some things went right for them, through genetically endowed or learned intelligence and determination, or a supportive family or school, with a good work ethic, or through luck or contacts. They’ve clearly played their cards brilliantly, but they must have been dealt a playable hand in the first place. Most people don’t even get the chance to screw up a shot at Oxford, let alone get in, work hard, display their ability and graduate with honour. 

In contrast, I was born with innumerable advantages, although not exactly with a silver spoon in my mouth[4]. My parents were both graduates and I assumed I would have a good chance at going to university, although I was a lazy oaf whose only interest in intellectualism was that it helped me talk to girls.

One day, at lunch, I mused, “do you think I could apply for Oxford or Cambridge?” The whole family fell off their chairs laughing. I said, “What?! What’s so funny?!” My dad said (something like), “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? You’d need to have shown a bit more interest in school-work. And aptitude.”

That was the end of that idea. But that’s ok. My myriad of advantages far, far outweighed that momentary sense of injury, let alone my indolence, mediocre intellect, lack of confidence or resilience or independence of spirit. I was accepted into a well-respected university, although I gained mediocre grades that, nowadays, would no longer give me that opportunity. I didn’t deserve it.

Neither Afua Hirsch nor Otegha Uwagba can have had an identical experience to me, because they did attend Oxford and something must have impelled them through that process. Perhaps they had innate and irrepressible intellectual flair. If their family or community was discouraging, something must have driven them to fight against this; something must have given them the self-confidence, because my experience is that if your own family don’t think you’re up to something, you probably aren’t. You believe them, because they, of all people, ought to know. 

Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Going there must confer an advantage, as must having the capacity to get through the rigorous process in the first place. The political Right condemn people like Ms Hirsch, Ms Uwagba and Ms Eddoh-Lodge, and dismiss what they have to say, because of the advantageous positions they now occupy. That is the argumentum ad hominem, remember? And that is a fallacy. If privilege should silence you, then nobody on the planet could speak. And that is the aim of tyrants. 

What matters, surely, is the validity of what they have to say. Their advantages and abilities put them in a better position for saying it with clarity and reach. We need them. 


[1] But not with an equal amount of light and dark, unfortunately.

[2] This is probably a survival trait: we have developed to pay more attention to threats than to the harmless. Don’t beat yourself up: it’s natural not to count your blessings!

[3] This is not an attempt to undermine their opinions on inequality. As I mentioned in my previous post, what’s important is the truth of the message, no matter who makes it. Attacking the speaker, because you can find no fault in the speech, the argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacy and suggests they have a point.

[4] More like a mid-range chromium-alloy stainless-steel teaspoon, set of six for £5.

Impatience

To my previous claim (that progress has been made), you could well reply, “Not Fast Enough!” You might say, “It’s easy for you to urge patience when you already have what I lack. Why should we be expected to wait for what is rightfully our own?” 

To which I’d reply (if, indeed you did say this, and I’m aware I’m putting words in your mouth) “Life isn’t fair.” This is true no matter how complacent the person who says it. That’s why it’s the duty of each of us to strive to make it, and society, fairer.  

This will take time, because fairness needs to be created not reclaimed. Egalitarianism isn’t the natural condition of the world; if you remove obstacles, society won’t automatically fall into a state of natural fairness. “Natural Rights” are a romantic fantasy. If, on a walk, you trip and fall over a cliff, you can’t appeal to fairness to swoop down and save you; if, in a storm, a tree crushes your car, you can’t demand a reprieve from your own mortality on the basis that this hasn’t happened to your peers; if you develop incurable cancer, you can’t organise a protest outside the Halls of Fate, to get your sentence revoked. As William Munny (Clint Eastwood) says at the end of Unforgiven(1992), “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Equality is constructed by communities. It is agreed upon as a shared value by all its members. It is consensual. So, to defeat your enemies, through protest and confrontation, through an exercise of mass power, will not bring about a just society. It will replicate the natural divisions and inequalities we should be uniting against. To use your faculty for generalising-as-social-theory against generalising-as-prejudice is to do the very thing you condemn, to say, “The problem with white people is they always generalise about race.” 

And it is a feeble excuse to suggest that by “white” you simply mean the nexus of characteristics associated with power-broking elites. “Whiteness” is universally accepted as a set of inherited physical features of one group of humans and not another. The sins you identify, in the elites you identify, will be automatically attributed to anyone cursed with those physical features. 

It is an even feebler excuse to say that the white elite came up with the classification in the first place. If so, why are you still using the tools of your own oppression? If you don’t like typifying by skin colour, you should avoid those habits of thought altogether.

The Problem with You People is You’re Always Generalising!

What troubles me is when these clever theories about racism and society are brought to bear on individuals. 

Of course, generalising and theorising from our own personal experiences is what we do. That’s how we build knowledge and understanding of our world. By identifying patterns and structures, we can predict and manage our situations. Applying this faculty to society allows us to understand how our communities work and possibly how to change them for the better. A theory, well or persistently expressed, can also help to build a nationwide desire for change, without alienating or persecuting individuals. That’s what we want in a democracy, right? Because everybody is supposed to be equally valuable.

But, of course, generalising can also lead to wholly unjust assumptions about whole sections of our communities, and that is bigotry. So, ironically, the flipside of the coin we use to identify and explain prejudice is the currency of prejudice. 

In the past, if you talked about Britain being a racist society, the unspoken qualifier was “Of course, I don’t mean YOU, dear friend, but the society we are both entangled in.” After all, you can only talk to people who are willing to listen, so there’s no point in alienating them. Britain was racist on aggregate. In general, across a whole population and culture. 

That was how you attempted to get people on side, to persuade them to join your cause. Racism degrades us all, you’d say; a society that discriminates so arbitrarily against its own members cannot be one that nurtures the human spirit; “any man’s death diminishes me/ because I am involved with mankind” etc. etc. It was an approach that particularly suited a pre-internet/ Covid 19 world where people actually met. Face to face confrontation is very intense, and nobody enjoys a punch on the nose.

I suspect a lot of activists would say that this softly-softly approach just allowed people to rest complacently on their laurels thinking, “well, at least I’m not racist” and doing nothing, so that no progress was made in combatting social injustice. Hence the slogan, “If you’re not part of the solution, your part of the problem”, that we discussed a while back. 

This could be a very astute criticism, except that progress has been made. To claim otherwise is to do a great disservice to the tireless work of previous generations of social justice campaigners who were, despite much necessary confrontation with the right wing, more consensus-builders than character assassins.

Playing The Cards You’re Dealt

Adam Rutherford, in How to Argue with a Racist (2020, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), points out that there is more genetic variation between someone from a West African background, and someone with an East African background, than there is between either of them and a European. This is presumably because Europeans are an inbred mutant off-shoot of the main African gene-pool, although we do seem to be part Neanderthal. Both these facts would be fun to point out to a white supremacist!

Our parents’ whole genetic packs are shuffled together and re-dealt, with a few mutations thrown in, when we are conceived. This happens with every single conception on the planet. 

Genes arrange themselves in ways that build up a human being, a walking, talking automaton to do their bidding. Racial characteristics are just a few of the most superficial of a unique assemblage of genes. Race ought to be an inadequate category to define people by. Racial purity is a fantasy.

We can group people in many other ways than race. Everyone has multiple identities: age, gender, religion, job, education, birth-place, accent, sexual orientation, musical likes, football team, right or left handedness, eye-colour etc, etc. Correlations of these may have a bearing on why ethnic minorities show up so strongly in the disadvantaged groups[1].

From an ethno-racial perspective, white people still make up the majority of the population in Britain, far higher than any one ethnic minority group. they have had thousands of years to bed themselves into the most desirable social positions with the greatest advantages and social support. They can be expected, therefore, to be more evenly spread among advantaged and disadvantaged groups[2]

White people are closer to the statistical norm than they are a fortunate sub-group. But everyone experiences life primarily as a lonely individual trying to make connections, even the norms. Few will feel their complicated and troubled lives are privileged, or will thank you for the reminder. They want sympathy, fellow feeling,  not resentment.


[1] This interaction of different facets of our identities is what some bright spark has re-labelled Intersectionality, and has probably secured a professorship and a book-deal in the process. Good on them.

[2] White boys from poorer backgrounds are the least likely to succeed at school, I believe. 

Institutional and Systemic Racism 101

So, the first thing to ask is whether these appalling numbers[1] are the result of personal, intentional acts of racial dislike, or of unconscious discrimination caused by conditioning.

Perhaps something even more fundamental is going on, to do with how society is organised. In other words, are people from ethnic minorities being made miserable by racist bullies, or are they being funnelled towards certain limited life choices without anyone, white or not, being fully aware of the reason? Are there other, pre-existing social inequalities that ethnic minorities tend to be clustered around, for some reason? Is racism the cause or the result?  

I think this last possibility is what is meant by Institutional or Systemic Racism. Immigration status might be an example: Britain’s colonial past means that much permanent immigration has been from her former, non-“white” colonies. More recent arrivals in this country are less likely to be embedded in institutional support networks, with fewer advantageous social or professional connections. Immigrants have often been recruited to do less desirable jobs and have been willing to accept lower pay to do them than locals, partly because much immigration is driven by disadvantage at home. The well-off have less reason to move. Those that do are unlikely to arrive with money or other assets, like high levels of education, to get them started. As all the best properties are already bagsied, they may have to make do with less desirable and more crowded accommodation, from our aging housing stock. For all these reasons, disadvantage may be more concentrated in recent immigrant communities which also tend to be the racial minorities.  

And our experience of institutional racism, and the social ghettoization it leads to, will, no doubt, lead many of us to make unpleasant and unfair generalisations. We’ll make assumptions and jump to conclusions after the most cursory glances, based on the most superficial details of people’s appearance, skin colour, accent and manner. Unfortunately, that is human nature. We are tribal and suspicious of difference. We must all be hyper-aware of our negative tendencies, and resist these impulses.

BUT it is important to remember that Systemic Racism itself isn’t an accusation that can be levelled at an individual. It’s an explanation of why some people might make racist assumptions, but you can’t say, “There is Institutional Racism and it’s your fault.” The term was coined precisely to explain why inequalities persist despite it being nobody’s fault.

Everyone ought to resist racism and work hard to redress the imbalances in our society whenever they can. 

But only people who actively support Racism should be condemned.


[1] see previous post

Number Crunching (Crunch, Crunch, Crunch)

In Britain, we make boastful claims about our inclusive, multi-cultural society. However, if you break down the raw data it generates by (putative) race, there are some glaring inequities. According to the Equality and Human Rights commission[1], the unemployment rate for ethnic minorities is over twice that of white people; black graduates earn 23.1% less than white graduates, on average; black and mixed race Caribbean school students are three times more likely to be excluded from school; prosecution and sentencing rates are three times higher for black than white citizens; 35.7% of ethnic minority people live in poverty, compared with 17.2% of white people (figures up to 15 October 2020.)

The numbers are bad. Undeniable. How is this to be accounted for, in a country where everyone celebrates diversity and respect for difference?

Well, it can’t be. There is clearly a problem. 

However, all broad generalisations deserve to be qualified. statistics don’t explain the variety of different lives in our societies. Statistically, it’s perfectly possible for no-one at all to fit the average profile, and numbers can’t reflect the sheer plurality of experiences we each have every day (or had, pre-lockdown!), although threat is more memorable than kindness – probably another consequence of evolutionary caution – which can over-simplify the conclusions we draw. 

To assume that ethnic minority people will have led lives of prejudice and lack, and will respond with antipathy, is to perpetuate racial stereotypes. This is true even if you identify as a member of that group and have experienced the prejudice. You are lumping everyone together into an undifferentiated mass, a “Them”. That is surely a sort of racism, however kindly meant.

On the other hand, individual success stories can mask the statistics, and the scale of the problem. 


[1] equalityhumanrights.com

Keeping It Together, Politically

At least since the 1960s, terms such as “Racist”[1] and “White Supremacy” have been associated with horrifying images of lynch mobs and bodies hanging from southern trees, with the KKK, with angry, hate-filled faces shouting abuse at children trying to get to school [2]

Very few people would define themselves as racist – It is such an ugly idea. Our incompletely democratic societies are at least founded on principles of equality. That’s entirely compatible with the Consumer Capitalist ethic that we all live by[3]. In recent years, our schools have made a pretty good attempt at teaching children that “Racist” is a very very bad word, although we’ve been less good at teaching them what it actually is or how to identify it in ourselves or others. So, most citizens believe sincerely and passionately in the equal value of all peoples. In principle

Tribalism is another matter. All nations are too highly populated for our primitive little ape-brains to cope with. We can’t comprehend such numbers and so can’t possibly embrace everyone as being part of our gang. The larger a nation’s population, the more likely it is that it will fragment into many different factions. 

Our brains are hard-wired to generalise from our limited experience and thus to make assumptions. It’s a highly desirable trait. It makes us able to approach new things with caution and common sense, to make speedy assessments and decisions. It equips us to meet the world. 

We are also hard-wired to view difference with suspicion. That is a survival trait as well. Creatures will probably have fewer chances to reproduce if they think, “Hey, I wonder who that big, angry-looking dude with the blood-smeared fangs and claws is. I’ll go and introduce myself.”

It is to overcome these reluctances, and forge a sense of common identity, that modern democratic nation states have promoted values of equality and fraternity[4]


[1] The earliest usage that Merriam-Webster has found for the word “Racist” is 1902, where it is used much as we would use it today. This suggests that it has always had a negative meaning, I think. 

[2] See, for example, Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility (2019, London: Allen Lane/ Penguin)

[3] An oppressed and impoverished minority is a lost market opportunity.

[4] Unity and size endow the state with the power to protect its citizens. Fragmentation makes us vulnerable.

Some Examples

Recently, in what appears to be a defence of trans-gender rights (a just cause) some people have tried to make a distinction between “sex” and “gender”. I think it’s a way of challenging old curmudgeons who mutter “If you’ve got a Y chromosome you’re a boy, dangnammit! Live with it!” 

When asked to explain, the supporters of the Sex/Gender dichotomy tend to trail to a halt, because, while there may be some carefully defined distinction on Gender Studies courses, on the streets there is no difference at all. They are completely synonymous. 

Similarly, “Cultural Appropriation” and all the “White-”s (White Privilege, Blindness, shame, solidarity, etc.) may be very useful labels in academic discourse and analysis, but in the streets, and on social media, they all just communicate the same sense of resentment and score settling. They are used to destroy individuals rather than critique society. 

Activists know that words can encode power, and thus preserve it. They wish to wrest language from the vested interests by coining new terms that better reflect their values and ideas. But to do this, they are trying to impose their meanings on everyone else, top down. And, due to the power of the internet, not without success. 

I sense the high-handed arrogance of academics in this. They can become too used to being experts, having their every word taken down by anxious undergraduates. But, really, what gives them the right to decide what words mean? Because they went to university? Because they have tenure? Who says “sex” and “gender” have different meanings? I never consented to that. 

It is coercive. It enforces conformity to the cause of non-conformity with the threat of mass persecution and exclusion. And this is effective because everyone wants to belong.

Privatising The Commons

Modern activists challenge inequality and prejudice using a new and urgent language that seems to come straight out of university social science departments[1]. As I’ve said before, at 7 syllables, “intersectionality” doesn’t sound like a word coined on the picket line.

Academics have their prejudices, just like the rest of us, but they are also in the business of promoting their ideas. That’s fair enough. It’s literally how they make a living. They create or redefine words, often explicitly at the beginning of their theses, because that allows them to control the associations users have when they come to mind. Their vocabulary choices aid their agendas and help to keep them in book contracts and TED talks.

All language is demotic and democratic. Meaning is decreed by consensus, by habitual usage of a whole population[2]. The problem comes when academic theories put forward for debate are used by campaigners as objective, undebatable facts, all too often by activist-academics, themselves, who ought to know better. Then definition ceases to be a way of clarifying understanding and becomes a way of hijacking a language community’s collective property. 

Digital technology has amplified and pluralised individual voices literally millions of times. This has allowed the activists to ape a commonality of usage that looks like consensus. If a word is being used millions of times in a particular way, this looks like its meaning, even if all those usages come from the same group of people. A new term can colonise a whole discourse in a matter of days. 

But words have a habit of twisting away from their original owners. Once out in the public forum, they become worn and blurry from overuse, not exactly understood, used in vague, approximate ways to express imprecise emotional, relational notions. 

This has led to a world of confusion, with angry people slipping and sliding between different meanings and associations of the same terms, especially if activists have tried to repurpose a word that already has very strong associations, like “racist”[3]


[1] Is this because more people are going to university?

[2] For this reason, “Common Misuses” (“Envious” vs “Jealous”; “uninterested” vs “disinterested”, etc.) is a self-contradictory term. The meaning of a word is its use in a language community.  If it’s “Common” it’s not “misused”. “Common Confusions” is a more accurate term. 

[3] And then there are terms that are used differently in different and geographically distant language communities, but are now brought together by the internet. Usually these confusions are resolved by adopting the American usage. “Momentarily” used to mean “For only a few seconds”, as in, “He was momentarily confused”. Now it is always used in the American sense, “immanently”/ “in a moment”, “Please fasten your seatbelts as the flight will commence momentarily”. That’s Cultural Imperialism, for you.

Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World

We all have multiple identities, so there are many ways we can all be othered and excluded, and most people have both minority and majority experiences pretty frequently. There are times when even affluent, well-educated heterosexual white boys find it necessary to hide that they vote Conservative or have a Scottish accent or are Christian or Jewish (or have a train set, or like musicals or don’t find that joke funny.)

The triviality of some of these examples should remind us that not all minority transgressions are treated equally. People who don’t watch Gogglebox still get asked for interview; lovers of Wicked rarely get murdered for it; Hornby enthusiasts aren’t over-represented in the prison population[1]. Certain people encounter far more venomous prejudice and discrimination than others, and far more frequently. Minority groups that are large enough to be perceived as a threat to the majority, or the status quo, encounter much more trouble.

I discovered, recently, that kids in England can get bullied just for having red hair[2]. This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have: kids are experimenting with power and will pick up on any possible weakness or difference to practice on.

Online trolls are replicating this childish behaviour (or they’re actually children) so they seek out your weaknesses. This means Black activists attract racist abuse at an even higher rate and intensity than the base level in society; outspoken women attract violent misogyny with such frequency that it must appear that the country is crawling with would-be rapists. In other words, the trolls confirm your worst fears. It’s a Satanic inversion of confirmation bias. 

On top of this, I think, as a species, we are particularly attuned to threat. It’s a survival trait. So, majorities see group difference as dangerous, but there’s safety in numbers, while, for minorities, a hundred gestures of welcome, inclusion and respect are outweighed by one utterance of hostility. This makes minority experiences of society qualitatively different from, and much worse than, majority experiences. 

Ours remains an unequal and unfair society. So, yes, there is still great injustice in the world and we need to work to end it, because the struggle is never-ending and gains made can very soon be lost. Things fall apart; schisms widen unless an effort is made to bind us together. That is the entropic law of the human experience.

But to do this we need unity, despite our differences. And that demands empathy and understanding, an emphasis on what we have in common. 


[1] As far as I’m aware.

[2] You couldn’t do that in Ireland, where I come from. You’d exhaust yourself getting everyone bullied. It’d be a full-time job!