Pit-bull Politics

Society, culture and language are incredibly complex structures that intersect and influence each other at an uncountable number of nodes and in a myriad number of ways, to influence our collective and individual thinking. Exactly because of the simple meaning the words “racism” and “racist” have in common parlance, they are completely inadequate to the task of describing the racial aspects of these systems. 

Furthermore, as everyone keeps saying, racial divisions are recent constructs, created by elites to justify and maintain their privilege and exploitation of others. Why, then, do social theorists try to apply them in the same way as their arch enemies? Why don’t they just come up with new terms? They’re good at that. (I thought “White privilege” could be “Gruntligfunken”; “White Supremacy” could be “Slurgenjiblic”[1].) 

I suspect that campaigners are keen to harness the potency and emotional punch of these old terms because they have been so successfully vilified by previous anti-racist drives, campaigns that have built on the even deeper foundations of Liberal Humanism and its celebration of the value of the individual. People are resistant to change, so to put pressure on them, activists challenge their complacent assumptions, make them feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Activists need their language to be forceful and direct. 

Activists also need to make these challenges personal or their targets will simply shrug off injustice as the fault of “The Government” or “Society” and do nothing. 

The problem with such an approach is that it becomes relentlessly aggressive. Again and again, activists exhort each other to be angry; they celebrate it, even though anger is an expression of hatred and disdain. These are unhealthy and unhelpful emotions even when directed at faceless institutions. When, conditioned by the internet’s atomising influence, they become personal, directed at another individual with the intention of crushing them, they become drivers of destruction and persecution, sectarianism and alienation. 

[1] Am I being influenced by the joys of the German language – all compound nouns and deep throaty noises? Of course, my neologisms wouldn’t do. There needs to be a link to known language to make these terms accessible.

Re-purposing Race part 3: Operation Dictionary

Critical Race Theorists are intentionally repurposing language. It’s worth noting the activities that Robin DiAngelo says her colleagues are indulging in. Each “uses the metaphor…”, “coined the phrase…”, “describes whiteness as…” or “Critiques the concept of…”

Language is (possibly) humanity’s only inherently democratic impulse. Language is the currency of human communication; words are its coinage, and, like money, they have exactly the value we agree, as a community, they should have. Unlike money, though, words are collectively owned, by everyone. Equally. 

This is such a fundamental truth that setting it down like this seems idiotically self-evident: if most people believe the meaning of “racist” is “mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race”[1], well, I’m afraid that is what it means.

The theorists’ high-handed attitude, enabled by superior social position, seems an uncomfortable fit for people who are attempting to critique traditional power-structures and the inequalities and oppressions they lead to. 

However, their approach appears to be working. The Cambridge dictionary online now has the following definition as its first entry: “policies, behaviours, rules, etc. that result in a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on the belief that their own race makes them more intelligent, good, moral etc. than people of other races.”

Merriam Webster has amended its definition to include “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another”, after a request by an African-American woman, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd (BBC News 10th June 2020, “Racism Definition: Merriam-Webster to make update after request”) This is an admirably constructive bit of social campaigning by Kennedy Mitchum, who has done something, rather than simply protesting, but it is also a worrying example of a publication that is supposed to objectively describe language usage in a community, intentionally interfering with, and trying to influence, that usage.

It is Newspeak. The Capitalists are stealing the commons, AGAIN – our most precious communally owned assets. 

Because, surely the central principle of social justice is equality of opportunity, that what is allowed to one, must be allowed to all. And Merriam Webster is an American publication, and America is a country where the far right holds such power it can win a presidency[2], where the Republican administration in Florida can openly enact legislation explicitly designed to supress minority (and thus democrat) voting – to dismantle their own democracy. What could they do with dictionaries? 

[1] See my previous post.

[2] Albeit in a deeply flawed and only partially democratic system

Re-inventing Race Part 2

Early on in White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo admits that the common definition of racism is “intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals” (p9), and that racists are “mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive” (p13) “One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something we have said or done is racially problematic.” (p4) 

However, she and her comrades do not abandon the terms in favour of ones more suited to their purpose[1]. This may seem an odd decision. After all, if I am trying to untighten a nut and my spanner turns out to be the wrong size, I change it for one that better fits my task.  

Instead, the social theorists set about altering the definition. Firstly, Professor DiAngelo derides the common understanding of the term, suggesting we have been mis-taught the meaning of a pre-existing term. She tells us that “we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people” (p3) and “we are taught to define racism…”(my italics). She calls this definition of racism “simplistic” (p9), as if the concept of “racism” was a thing that existed before and outside language, and that the words “racism” and “racist” were generously gifted to us by a higher language authority, but we ignorantly misuse them or are intentionally misguided by the forces of evil.  

Then activists provide their own definitions. White Fragility is full of statements like, “To understand racism, we need to first distinguish it from mere prejudice and discrimination…” (p19), “when a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism.”(p20), “Racism is a structure, not an event”(p20), or “Racism is a system” (p21), “Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level.” (p22) and so on. 

It is unclear what gives her and colleagues the right to impose their new definitions on us and on our commonly owned language. I never agreed to it. Presumably it has something to do with being a former professor who is asked to speak at prestigious events and whose books are published by major publishing houses. In other words, they are exercising exactly the sort of hegemonic power that they are in the business of condemning. And, I suspect, they are being financed and thus enabled by sponsors who maintain and benefit from the most fundamental hierarchies of power and privilege, ones that underpin the statistical inequalities of race[2]: Business and Finance: Capitalism.

As an unconscious bias trainer, Professor DiAngelo was presumably paid by corporate interests to provide training to their staff, so that management can claim to have tackled the problem of bias in their organisation and thus can shift the blame entirely to their workforce.

[1] of identifying racialized assumptions and biased social structures that their readers are unaware of.

[2] Although not the individual incidences of race based personal antipathy.

Re-inventing Race Part 1

Social Theorists hijack word meanings. The most obvious example is their repurposing of the words “Racist” and “Racism”. Dictionaries tend to define this as something like, “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism by an individual, community or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalised.” This is the Oxford dictionary definition, on Lexico, but very similar definitions are to be found on Merriam-Webster[1], Dictionary.com[2], and Wikepedia[3].

This is not how Critical Race Theorists, and some Unconscious Bias trainers, wish to define racism. They point out that most people sincerely believe, from the depth of their humanist-liberal-conditioned souls, that all humans are, fundamentally, of equal value, yet racial inequality is rife in our societies. Traditional definitions of racism imply that to be racist you must actively participate in intentionally discriminatory acts, motivated by a conscious acceptance of an explicitly racist doctrine. 

This simply doesn’t apply to most people, who therefore assume racial inequality has nothing to do with them. They carry on as normal, tutting at the injustice of the world and doing nothing about it. 

In fact, many nations have been successful in making racial discrimination illegal, and denouncing racism as evil, probably because doctrinaire racism is relatively modern, developed as a way of excusing exploitation in the ages of slavery and then of emancipation[4]. Progressive educators can appeal to our underlying humanism to condemn these superficial beliefs. Yet inequality and prejudice persist, with the added complication that now people feel extremely offended if you suggest they are complicit. 

[1] “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”

[2] “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural and individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to others.”

[3] “Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided on the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based on social perceptions of biological differences of peoples.”

[4] See just about every commentator on race, for example, Robin DiAngelo, 2019, White Fragility, London: Penguin, p16, or Robert P Baird, “The Invention of Whiteness” in The Guardian 20/04/21.

And He Said unto the Social Theorists, “Go Forth and Multiply”

Returning to “Allyship”: theorists rely on the mutability of language. Words are not hard, unchanging nuggets of meaning, they are cloudy penumbra of associations. Or perhaps they are like the type of firework known as the “willow” or “falling leaves”: when somebody says a word it triggers an explosion of associations that drift slowly down through your mind[1].

I suspect very little racist behaviour is motivated by a sincerely believed in system of racist ideology (at least in Britain.) Conscious acts of racist cruelty are acts of bullying and oppression, using whatever vulnerability the chosen victim has; unconscious bias is a product of this word-cloud of associations. [2]

However, some associations are more prominent than others. The more one string of ideas is dwelt upon, the more easily it will come to mind and the more it will dominate your thinking. It’s straightforward neural reinforcement. If the emphasis of a word shower begins to shift, the whole network of associations will migrate. This is how words change their meanings. 

Traditionally, this would take decades or centuries of slightly altered usage – millions of repeated utterances. Nowadays, the internet can so amplify your message that this shift can be effected in a few months, if you have the authority and hence the receptive audience. 

Critical race theorists exploit this flexibility of meaning. They worm their way into the gaps and try to push the meaning in a particular direction, using the internet’s enormous power to multiply messages.

[1] These associations can be very random and idiosyncratic. This morning, I had to turn a yogurt pot sideways to get it out of the fridge between two other items. It reminded me of the Millennium Falcon turning sideways to escape down a trench in the Death Star. I realised that my brain has made this association a lot!

[2] Systemic racism, though very real and very iniquitous, need not concern us when dealing with individuals. It is a numbers game, relevant when we are trying to improve society’s systems. It is an issue of policy and law.

“Allyship” and other weirdness

A favourite Critical Race Theory term is “Allyship”, a word that embodies a lot of what is problematic about these theorists’ approach. 

To start with, it is a neologism, so new, in fact, that my edition of Word is still underlining it in red, as an error. We should ask ourselves who coined the term, and to what end, because those who define the terms of a debate control it. 

Who has the authority to coin new words? Many of them seem to originate in Social Science departments of universities. “Micro-aggressions”, the most unhelpful, or misused term in the race debate, was coined by a Harvard University psychiatrist[1]. Professor DiAngelo is keen to state the academic position of the commentators she quotes. White Fragilityis full of phrases that begin, “Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor…”, “Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of being classified as white, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris coined the phrase…”, “Ruth Frankenberg, a premier white scholar in the field of whiteness studies, describes whiteness as…”, “Critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo[2] critiques the concept…” (my italics)

Commentators who feel they are part of the same campaign, can reinforce each other’s authority, and give credence to their spanking new coinages. Diangelo always foregrounds her comrades’ academic credentials. This is, of course, a mark of respect for their achievements, their industry and their great knowledge and wisdom. However, it also emphasises their authority, their superior social position. 

But such authority relies on hierarchical power structures and hegemonies that are just as anti-egalitarian as any others in our societies. Academics can mint neologisms to their hearts’ content, and have them taken seriously, a privilege denied to guttersnipes like you and I[3].

And, of course, the most prestigious universities are mired in exactly the same iniquitous histories of subjugation and tyranny as any other of society’s structures. Who are the alumni of these bodies? Who endowed them and where did this wealth come from? Was it blood money? Arms? Slavery? Exploitation of the developing world? Eco-system-destroying, climate-change-causing consumer capitalism?

Prosperity breeds prosperity; wealth allows investment and attracts talent, which attracts investment and further endowment, which attracts further talent. Surely, anyone who has benefitted from these, by education and opportunity and prestige is just as privileged as anyone else, irrespective of their racial background. Two of Britain’s most prominent racial activists, Afua Hirsch and Otegha Uwagba are graduates of Oxford university[4], an institution infamously endowed by the uber-imperialist Cecil Rhodes[5]

We all have blood in our hands, just by living in a morally compromised society, with a dubious past, merely by benefitting from what it has to offer in political stability or healthcare or infrastructure because all of that has been under-written by the head-start a prosperous past has given it. And that’s before we get into who was exploited in making your jeans or how much CO2 you’ve helped produce by your holidays and your commute and your Peruvian coffee, or how much rubbish you produce, and how many people died to get you your cocaine. So perhaps the idea of anyone’s guilt or conscious complicity is unhelpful. We should focus on thoughtful alterations to our society and to our own behaviours and attitudes without getting all self-righteous and blamey and judgey. 

[1] Charles M. Pierce, in 1970, According to Wiki. It would be nice to think we’d moved on a little, since then, so that the word has less relevance. 

[2] Fantastic name!

[3] Nobody is going to write, “Serial Complainer Xan Nichols has coined the phrase ‘Grumblebunkum’ to describe the collective texts of critical race theory and its opponents.” 

[4] Which may explain their fury. Oxford University, in my limited experience, is horribly retrograde and classist. The Postgraduate common room of one of their colleges remains the only place I have heard the terms “oiks” and “plebs” used in anger. (Admittedly that was in the late 90s. it may have changed.)

[5] Figures like David Olosuga (respect) and David Lammy (oodles of respect) also have highly respectable academic pedigrees, but they occupy different, even more institutionalised positions and are thus, perhaps, compromised in the eyes of social scientists. And they may have benefitted from “Male Privilege” (if such a thing exists!)

Just a Short One to Be Getting On With (more soon)

Much of the metaphorical language, in the struggle for racial equality, is that of violence, confrontation and conflict. There’s the language of argument: “speak out”, “Stand up to”, “challenge”, as well as the militaristic vocabulary of “struggle”, “campaign”, “resistance”, “strategy”, “Fight.” “Get angry. Anger is useful. Use it for good”, Reni Eddo-Lodge exhorts us[1]

These terms promote the idea of fighting the good fight, that it is your duty to confront and challenge, head on. When applied in practice, though, it is individual members of your own communities that you are confronting. They are likely to feel personally attacked and condemned. They are likely to be deeply wounded by the impression that you dislike them, personally, that you blame them, personally, for your misfortunes and this will make them resist your message. It will also encourage them to attack you, personally, for if you are an idiot, they can assume your accusations are nonsense. This will wound you, in your turn.

This is no way to persuade people, so your challenge must have some other goal. Presumably, this is to, somehow, utterly defeat them, to destroy their resistance so that they come over to your side as a sort of intellectually broken prisoner of war.     

This choice of vocabulary, then, continues deep hegemonies of tribal division, that are much older than racial theory[2]. They foster mind-sets and expectations that value conflict and destruction, victory and defeat, dominance, oppression and suppression: deep, ancient ur-narratives that may even bridge the gap between natural urges and social constructs – tales of single combat of triumph, dominance and power: the black-hatted gunman murders your wife and children, so you hunt him down and shoot him and all his allies, in revenge. And that gives you closure, and a happy ending, because, ultimately, Might is Right. 

[1] Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race, 2018, London: Bloomsbury, p221

[2] See Robert P Baird’s article in the Guardian, “The Invention of Whiteness”, 20/04/’21. He quotes WEB Du Bois, saying, “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.”

Theory as Weapon; Grievance as Demand: A Theory!

The internet has ushered in an age of strange quasi-intellectualism. Theories and concepts that might, in previous times, have remained confined to the ivory towers of the universities, and their alumni, have percolated through the general population by means of online conversations[1].

We are so overwhelmed by information that we can give each idea only a brief, impatient glance before we rush into the fray, waving it like a weapon. These days, most topical issues are laced with a strong dose of simplified, half-understood theory, often used to accuse![2]

Theorising seems to encourage people to use metaphors. It’s a similar process, I guess: correlating one thing with another, without substantial links. Social activism borrows from several lexical fields, including militarism and violence.

It’s mostly the language of grievance, though –  the “trauma” and “pain” suffered – or unsubstantiated statements of the “structural” and “systemic” nature of racism[3]. Personal experiences of slights and insults are described in detail, but in the brief chapters that follow, vague and doubtful suggestions are often made; abstract generalities and advice about types of actions or behaviours without any specifics. 

I think this focus on the grievance is because the social activist movements, fostered by the internet, are unsure what to do once they have “spoken out”. They air their grievances; they start the conversation, they demand to see the manager, and then, as you might expect from a disempowered population whose only purpose is to consume, to make consumer choices, they wait for it to be sorted out for them, before they take their custom elsewhere

This mirrors our reliance on computer algorithms that seem to reliably do our bidding while we have not the slightest sense of how or why they work. You protest, or, at worst, you riot, and then you wait for something to be done.

There is an assumption that inviable codes underpin the very substance of existence, so that no matter how much we disrupt our world, our “natural rights” will still robustly exist. When they are not being manifested, they are being actively thwarted, we think. That leads to accusations of complicity from innocent passers-by, of “white privilege” against people who have experienced no privilege.  

[1] And the proportion of the population doing 3rd level courses has increased. 

[2] Otegha Uwagba points out that these scraps of theory are often employed by the privileged, “eager to demonstrate their own lack of racism by positioning themselves against” their peers. (Whites : On Race and Other Falsehoods, 2020, London: 4th Estate, p32) 

[3] Actually, I don’t doubt that racism in our societies is likely to be systemic – a malign co-incidence of disparate factors, largely to do with people trying to preserve their advantages rather than crushing others – but leading to a tendency for some groups to be disadvantaged. But activists rarely substantiate these claims. I guess it would take too long.


Modern discourse has been profoundly conditioned by social-media. Users are protected by the armour of their physical distance and inaccessibility. They can dismiss the common humanity of their interlocutors and indulge in brief, single combats. It reminds me of the way battles are described in The Iliad: individual heroes encounter each other in the general hubbub and melee, exchange insults and boasts, then set to, in a flurry of exchanges that will leave one utterly crushed while the other crows in triumph. Or so each hopes. 

Bolstered by the sense of being part of a righteous crusade, that it’s their duty to challenge and confront, social activists can carry these practices into their journalism and books, their conferences and debates and talk shows[1].

These are not mutually constructive explorations of a topic. What’s important is how these exchanges make you feel, not what your interlocutor intended or the content of the conversation itself. The only important thing is your own internal state. You don’t share an experience with the other person. 

This emphasises differences and antagonisms, and exacerbates schism and a sense of disconnection. Furthermore, by responding aggressively to other people’s irritating behaviours, you are likely to make them feel even more awkward about interacting with you and confirm any underlying prejudices they may have about how “difficult” “You People” are. 

[1] It seems that an increasing number of writers on social issues start their careers online and then move into more traditional formats once their reputations have been established. Reni Eddo-Lodge, Author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race ( Bloomsbury, 2018) being a prime example. 

Fight Fight Fight

Social media has become such a central part of how we conduct our relationships that its Consumerist-identitarian values, with their promotion of self-absorption, are bleeding back into the general discourse of activism and Social Justice, as I’ve said many times before.

Modern activists seem to thrive on conflict. It allows them to demonstrate their courage. If they’re not involved in an almighty row, they don’t think they’re doing their jobs. They are not “interrupting”[1] the easy habitudes of our unjust and unequal societies. They see reluctance to offend people as cowardly, as social conditioning designed to keep us all in our place. I suspect this attitude is a combination of the “no pain, no gain” principle combined with some form of Marxist belief that elites will always fiercely defend their privileges. (A fair assumption, I think)

Marginalised groups need to be more assertive than the majority, so they can be heard. However, self-assertion has become its own purpose. Activists are turning inwards, to assess their own performances, rather than outwards to evaluate their success. Robin DiAngelo is quite open about this, and advances an admirable reason for it. In the final, inspiring chapter of White Fragility (2019), she points out, “In the end, my actions are driven by my own need for integrity, not a need to correct or change someone else.”(p151) This comment exhibits an unusual humility for an activist[2], but it still demonstrates the awful isolation of modern life, and, in practice, the activists’ tendency to solipsistic cruelty and aggression. 

In the scenario I outlined before, Robin Diangelo seemed most concerned with successfully testing herself and her integrity. A communal experience was conceived of as one of individuals in contest, of dominance and defeat. Diangelo interrupted the woman and successfully over-rode a number of counter interruptions to hold the floor, eventually driving the woman to leave the workshop. DiAngelo seems to see this as a successful exchange, presumably because she has stayed true to her values and has triumphed, even though she has probably made this woman feel more vulnerable, humiliated and thus probably more resistant to her messages. 

[1] Note how “interrupting” has been changed from a rude demonstration of selfishness, to a noble duty.

[2] Although DiAngelo still knows best.