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.

Disagreeing with Muscle-Bound Apes

My father used to sing a song that went like this:

            “Two Lovely Black Eyes – 

            O! What a surprise!

            Only for telling a man he was wrong –

            Two lovely black eyes.”

The joke wasn’t on the ape who did the punching, but on the indignant, self-righteous creep who got punched. The nasty, morally-superior little bollocks got exactly what he deserved[1]. That was the problem with disagreeing with people face to face! 

Lockdown has reminded us that there is no substitute for the physical presence of another individual, if you want to communicate. Humans have spent millennia becoming attuned to each other’s unspoken signals and cues – body language, half-smiles; eye-line. A look of surprise and confusion can inhibit our most undignified childish tantrums. 

That friction and dismay is profoundly unpleasant, although, being profound, we may not be consciously aware of how much we dislike it. Adjusting for it is part of what makes us members of a community, rather than a collection of atomised individuals, tormented by their isolation. Another part is putting up with each other’s insensitive bullshit. 

The young, in all their glorious solipsism, can tune out the distress emanating from their companions. They can view them merely as opponents, revel in the excitement of furious political debate, and triumph in their defeat. But this begins to pale as you get older. It becomes exhausting and upsetting. Or you become aware that it always has been. 

Now, however, social media insulates both trolls and activists from all that because they no longer meet the people they disagree with. Not only are they physically safe, they are protected from the anger of those they attack and insult by their translation into pixels and graphemes. Trolls and activists[2] can be incredibly rude without fear of the consequences. They can destroy an opponent and walk away without ever having to acknowledge their dismay and wounded resentment. They no longer have to grow up. 

The internet fosters a lonely, childish misanthropic solipsism.

[1] This reminds me of the old joke: “What do you call a guerrilla/ gorilla/ terrorist with a gun?” “Sir”. Similar point.

[2] Act-trolls? Tractivitists? 

Bunch of Whining White Bastards

Robin Diangelo gives a perfect example of how antagonising people makes them resist your message. In a workshop, a white woman teacher mimics a black mother’s accent while telling a story. Professor Diangelo takes her to task in a manner that so upsets the woman that she leaves the group. (pp74-5) I assume the Prof wasn’t hired to make her clients walk out, yet she made no attempt to take the woman aside to explain, confidentially, why her accent was inappropriate, or to flag up the problem in a light-hearted manner or come back to it, as a general point, later on. 

Diangelo seems proud of her conduct – this woman was to be made an example of. Any reluctance to humiliate her in front of her colleagues would have been a weakness, on Diangelo’s part, that would have allowed racism to flourish and thus must be overcome. Kindness is a flaw![1]

Robin Diangelo’s career as a diversity trainer presumably relies on the openness of people and institutions to addressing their prejudices. That’s why they hired her, right? However, her experience of her clients’ constant indignation makes me wonder if she needs to exercise a bit more tact. But, rather than addressing her own part in these exchanges, and thinking, “perhaps my teaching method is a little too antagonistic”, she has come up with the concept of “White Fragility” to explain why she is right and they are all a bunch of whining white bastards.

[1] If I’d been asked to evaluate Robin Diangelo’s workshop, I’d probably have said, “You could have handled that a bit better. Pick your battles; don’t get distracted from the workshop’s main goal – you can’t address everything at the same time.” Of course, I would have taken her aside to give her this feedback, confidentially! (I might even have used her own language: “I am offering you a teachable moment…and I am only asking that you try to listen with openness”, although I’d be risking a punch in the eye.)


Robin Diangelo and I are on the same side. I, too, want to live in a multicultural society that promotes diversity in unity. I want to become someone who celebrates and respects everyone else, no matter what their colour, creed, gender identity or sexual-orientation. 

However, I also agree that we are animals that generalise, and that our societies encourage us to have certain culturally constructed expectations about certain types of people, no matter that these types are also cultural constructs.

It is impossible to be completely without prejudice, so we must be constantly vigilant and self-critical, expecting to make errors and being open to having them discovered, without that revelation destroying our sense of self-worth. I am an opinionated, ignorant and un-empathetic bigot, but I desire to be less so[1] and I want to be loved despite this. 

Professor Diangelo presumably paints an accurate picture of US society, which is clearly very messed up. She mentions a study which found that white Americans mistakenly associate high populations of colour with high crime rates[2]. Judges and others in the legal system are also more likely to attribute criminal behaviour to bad circumstances if a defendant is white, but bad character if they are black or “Latinx”. An astonishing 2016 study found that “half a sample of medical students and residents believe that blacks feel less pain” (p63) (For fuck’s sake!) A 2009 study found that “suburban parents” say they select schools on test scores, but are really more influenced by the racial mix.  (p67)[3]

So, White Fragility provides us with a perceptive analysis of the racial conflicts and tensions that plague the modern USA. However, it’s difficult to assess how practical, accurate or reliable her revelations would be when dealing with real people in real situations. This is because, in the way of theory, incredibly complex, often contradictory situations are reduced to single causes that lead to single, universal effects. 

Diangelo breezily admits this early in the book. On page 12, she says, “as a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalising”. I expected her to point out the ways she would address this vulnerability in her method. Instead she simply dismisses the problem and moves on: “social life is patterned and predictable in measurable ways. But I understand that my generalisations may cause some defensiveness for the white people about whom I am generalizing, given how cherished the ideology of individualism is in our culture.” (ibid

I agree totally with the Professor about the damaging influence of the culture of individuality. However, I’m uncomfortable with the claim that white people are simply defensive, and deluded by false consciousness, because their objection that she is generalising unfairly is entirely valid and needs to be addressed. In fact, generalising about individuals that you don’t know is the fundamental operation of prejudice, something that Diangelo admits but then simply fails to address. (P13)

The obvious response would be NOT TO accuse individual people of committing intentionally racist acts because this will make them highly resistant to your message. Instead, admitting that culture is pervasive and makes us internalise its constructs allows you to address injustices as systemic and societal without blaming and antagonising people, and so bring them with you. 

[1] The closest I can come to a definition of a good person is somebody who sincerely wishes to be better than they are, even if they fail. Catastrophically. Every day. And cause terrible harm in the process.

[2] Perhaps, rather than naked racism, this could be an indignant condemnation, by white people, of their capitalist, racist society that forces people of colour into poverty and then forces the poor into criminal activity while simultaneously criminalising their behaviours? No? Dammit! 

[3] The UK is very different, in this respect. Here, white working class boys achieve the lowest exam results, on average, of any subgroup of the school population. Parents have little choice and usually have to make do with their nearest state-funded school, irrespective of class or race. British schools are also funded centrally, so can request funds according to need and school size, and so on, whereas, in the USA, I believe schools are funded by local taxes, so a poor area will have less money available for education. Thus, if racial minorities are denied financial opportunities, they will collect in poorer areas with less well-resourced schools. When suburban parents reject these schools because of their poor attainment levels, they are continuing racial segregation. 

Reading White Fragility

I’ve been reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo (Penguin, 2019, in the British edition), a wise, perceptive and compassionate book that expresses the author’s sincere desire to teach us all to be better people. It’s eye-opening stuff, when it comes to US culture and society, a country that seems catastrophically divided along racial lines. I hope to god Britain and Ireland (and Europe) aren’t as bad, although Diangelo attempts to attribute US style discrimination and inequality to “the Western context, generally” (p51) and to associate the term “white” with “European”.  One of the myriad injustices of the British empire was that it outsourced its racial tension and guilt, by establishing a slave trade and agrarian economies that depended on it, and then piously abolishing that trade[1], leaving America to pick up the pieces. 

I’m reluctant to accept all the conclusions she comes to, though, precisely because of this tendency to overgeneralise and to simplify everything to single causes. By doing so, she creates crimes of categorisation. In other words, how she categorises social phenomena allows her to blame particular actors in those situations. 

Injustices that result from multiple causes are misfortunes because no one is directly to blame. But if there is a single cause, racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia is infused with agency. It becomes discrimination by individuals’ decisions, and that is criminal; inexcusable. 

Robin Diangelo is eager to persuade us to join a just cause. It is very easy, if racism is a misfortune visited on other people, to just sit on our arses, ruefully shaking our heads and doing nothing. However, if her model of society is applied to Britain, it presents such an inaccurately simplified picture that she gives the far-right an opportunity to wholly reject what she has to say and carry on as normal. The UK has a largely white, largely conservative, moderately patriotic population. Telling them they are racist scum is unlikely to persuade them to change.

[1] It’s unfair, though, to talk about this issue as if the empire made voluntary decisions, and thus to blame all its millions of subjects equally. The slavers, their supporters and the abolitionists all made their own decisions, as far as they were able, within the context and limitations of British imperial culture. The abolitionists fought hard and long in a just cause against powerful opponents. 

It’s the Cultural Revolution All Over Again!

Successful social science academics enter power relationships with their students that are as unequal as any they describe in wider society. They have been placed in positions of privilege by hegemonies quite as real and powerful as any others in our society: those of academia. These hegemonies are powered by the same forces as any others: money, tradition, inherited status, nepotism. In fact, academia is complicit in all the injustices of our societies, as universities have long been the beneficiaries of those vested interests. As have all their students, irrespective of racial heritage: the universities they attend have been established, supported and grown through the wealth of slave-owning, imperial, hierarchical and oppressive nations.  

From these (tainted) positions, Social Science academic can teach their theory-as-fact virtually unopposed, then set and mark the assessments on them that could decide their students’ futures. They can mutually reinforce each other’s statuses by referring to each other in their respective publications. This allows them to amplify their messages and their influence far beyond those of the normal pub philosopher, without even going near the internet. 

Young people, who make up the student population, are always the activist generation. They have the most time and energy and tend to be unencumbered by financial responsibilities, mortgages and children. They are still learning about their world and relish meta-narratives that seem to explain it in understandable structures. They have newly emerged into their majority after a life-time of being controlled by their parents and teachers, and they still feel resentful, having spent the last few years in conflict with them as they tried to break free. They’ve had enough of being pushed around and they want to exercise power.

They are also still developing their senses of self, so it is incredibly important to establish their identities and their tribes, and they have not yet been bludgeoned by fate and their own weaknesses into admitting how fatally morally compromised we all are. They are desperate to defend the righteousness of any position they adopt. 

These are probably the people who are most influenced by the social theorists. They take their courses, listen avidly to their lectures, write essays demonstrating how right they are. Especially if the theorist appears to be part of a counter-culture. 

They often lack perspective because they have no way of knowing how different the academic zeitgeist was even just a few years before. They are only beginning to learn how to sceptically analyse what they are told. They can be induced to accept theories as indisputable truths, because their lecturers suggest they are the pre-conditions or foundations of intellectual debate[1]

Young people are also the most adept at navigating the internet and social media, so it is no surprise that the debates and language of the campus end up first on social media and then on the streets. Or that, on K-pop platforms, teenage and pre-teen fans bandy terms such as “transphobic” and “racial bias” like children in a war zone playing with live ammunition. 

Add in how confrontational social media is, and its global reach, and we find ourselves prey to super-charged monsters that rampage across the planet like Godzilla or Covid-19, before subsiding,  conceding to the next angry fashion. 

It’s the cultural revolution all over again!

[1] Probably because the lecturers themselves have forgotten that their pet theories can be challenged. Our brains reinforce the neural pathways we use most often. We are designed to get set in our ways.

The Playground of Social Science

The rise of terms such as “White Privilege” demonstrates the peculiar literacy and articulacy fostered by the internet, and the resultant rise of Social Science theory. I wonder if this is allied to the increasing numbers of young people attending university and other 3rd level institutions[1]. Mine is a doubtful construction, which is entirely appropriate, and it goes like this:

Long before the internet, universities were sources and forums (fora?) of debate and discussion. They were societies’ great word generators. Now they must share that title with the internet itself. It was natural, practically inevitable, that academic debate should move online and, as more people attend university, the population becomes increasingly aware of the vocabulary and concerns that are current among academics. 

Those interested in the state of society and the injustices of life are often drawn to the Social Science departments. Socialscience, however, is not like other disciplines. The traditional sciences try to base their theories on data generated by rigorous experimentation, where they try to control all the variables so they can isolate one factor and scrutinise its behaviour. Social Science is hoping to identify and analyse trends and patterns in human societies, so it cannot create such controlled laboratory environments without committing some terrible human rights abuses!

Social scientists must content themselves with plucking one or two pieces of data from the whirling mess of human interactions and then creating a plausible narrative that fits them. Consequently, they have become very comfortable with highly speculative theories based on reductive mono-causal explanations of highly complex phenomena. 

They support and firm up their arguments by reference to other equally speculative theories which chime with their own ideas, but they cannot go on to test their ideas experimentally. So, what would traditionally amount to the literature review that precedes an investigation is presented to us as the investigation itself. Its hypothesis stands in for its lack of conclusion 

Academics and scientists are supposed to test their ideas by publishing peer-reviewed papers and through open debate. However, as no reliable dataset is available, this usually amounts to matching one set of unverifiable assumptions against another. Social Scientists can just pick their preferred theory and run with it, and to hell with the balance of probability. With reputations, tenure and careers at stake[2], academics have a good reason to stubbornly resist changing their minds. They treat their hypotheses as fact, dismissing all contradictions, all alternative explanations as anomalies. 

[1] According to The Independent online (27/09/19) 50.2% of people between the age of 17 and 30 had attended a 3rd level education provider, by the academic year 2017/18, thus finally reaching Tony Blair’s target of 50%, set in 1997. 

[2] Thus salaries and the ability to put food on the table.

Sign Up Here for the Self-Police

A good example of self-policing is, I think, the theory of “White Privilege”. This operates like the tailors’ scam in The Emperor’s New Clothes: we are told that only the enlightened can recognise endemic racism. If you don’t see your own racism (or oppression, if you are of colour), or if you question the logic and the definitions of the theory, that proves you ARE racist. You’ve been trained by a racist society to be blind to it.

Liberal, capitalist individualism has finally accepted that racists are the worst sort of scum[1]. Previous equality and diversity campaigns have made the accusation extremely insulting. (Rightly so. It is one of the many achievements of such campaigns[2].) “Racist” encapsulates all that is bad about Britain (Please adapt for your own country/culture): a monstrous hybrid of blood-soaked imperial werewolf, snarling, emasculated English-Nationalist skinhead-rat, and, complacent, narrow-minded little-Englander.

So, there is enormous pressure (among Lefty-Liberals like me) to accept White Privilege as true, even though, by definition, you cannot experience it. By doing so you can distance yourself from your inherited white racial guilt. 

But our acceptance is laced with secret doubt and suspicion that we dare not admit to in public. Because everyone only has a theoretical understanding of others’ experiences, everybody is locked into their own minds, every misfortune you don’t personally and directly experience is a privilege. Non-amputees have Non-Amputee Privilege; non-battered partners have Non-Battered Partner privilege; People with good eyesight have Eyesight Privilege; Non-anorexics have Healthy-Relationship-with-Food Privilege (You lucky, lucky bastards!) Coming from Ireland, I was astonished to discover that, in England, red-haired children sometimes get bullied for being “Gingers”! Non-Ginger Privilege! Who Knew?![3]

We are encouraged to support a theory that claims the absence of suffering and disadvantage is privilege. Everyone can be dismissed and silenced for simply having the normal experience. It becomes, ironically, a disadvantage in any debate on the issue. In light-filled, liberal forums, having a minority or oppressed status gives you authority and passion; it gives identity.

And so we get to play under-privilege Top Trumps again. Also known as The Intersectionality Game.

[1] Capitalism prefers all people equal, thus equally exploitable.

[2] By identifying the ways that our societies still manifest bias, without recognising the progress that’s been made, activists are being unfair on their fore-parents. But I guess all generations are ego-centric. Everyone thinks they are the first people to have thought their revolutionary thoughts. 

[3] Mind you, like internet trolls, playground bullies pick the person they want to bully first, and then target their victim’s vulnerabilities.

A Sort of Recap

According to modern Western values, meaning and purpose in life are located within the individual. Social-media promotes the idea that self-actualisation is the goal of life, which leads people to respond to terrible crimes by recounting their own experience of everyday racism and sexism. A vague knowledge of various speculative and generalising social theories, has convinced them that such minor incidents are gateway or enabling behaviours and are thus relevant, so it is not inappropriate to connect somebody touching your hair with the killing of George Floyd, or, in response to the killing of Sarah Everard, to point out that you have encountered some unwanted sexual attention at work. It is starting a conversation about racism and sexism. In fact, to suggest it is inappropriate is probably just a way of protecting the racist patriarchy. 

Meanwhile, a belief in the virtue of democracy, just because it’s democracy, drives activists to recruit as many people as possible to their cause because the sheer size of the movement will justify their positions.

Slogans such as, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” encourage everybody to get involved in the campaign, and suggest that if you can’t be bothered, or are too intimidated, to challenge every single example of bias, you are betraying your comrades and, crucially, yourselves. Not to stand up against racism, or to doubt the truth of any of the central tenets of the movement, is heresy. You are denying your own identity as an oppressed people of colour or an LGBTQ person, or whatever. 

This is an internet age of atomised, international connectivity, made worse by Covid lockdown. In the past, community was an accident of geography. Your people were whatever bunch of bastards you had the misfortune to be living next to. the fact that half of them were embarrassing blood- relatives only made it worse. But you had to learn to put up with their shit. 

Nowadays, community is an active decision – a declaration of loyalty. You can view your neighbours with naked hostility and still feel you belong, as long as you keep the faith. 

This keeps everybody in line, because, as The Secret Barrister has pointed out, “We are yet to find a society that does not have rules surrounding the behaviour of its members and sanctions for their transgression. Agreeing social imperatives and taboos, and enforcing them through shunning, appears to be instinctual behaviour in primates.”[1] Being a member of a subversive organisation demands a particularly strict form of conformism.

Social-media, the field upon which these battles take place, fosters extreme and confrontational behaviours, because it protects its participants from harm, while it’s algorithms feed their biases and deny them access to alternative views. 

[1] The Secret Barrister, P7, 2019, London: Picador

“What Do We Want?” “Self-Expression!”

Modern anti-racism campaigns encourage people to identify and call out examples of endemic racism. Our society has long declared itself racially egalitarian. Most Brits are proud of this, so persistent racism is unlikely to be glaringly obvious. It will probably need to be uncovered, often through the undeniable discrepancies in statistics. Hence to “call out” racism or sexism or trans-phobia, means to expose and name it for what it is.

The zeitgeist is one of internet-enhanced protest, conflict and schism. Modern people pride themselves in having the courage and self-belief to personally challenge injustice. As well as calling it out, they “stand up to” it, and, of course, “speak truth to power”. What is important to modern activists is not collaborating to create a better community, it is self-expression, the firming up of their own atomised identity, their personal integrity. 

This egotism is supercharged by the consumer-capitalism of the internet, which assumes that personal self-realisation is the ultimate goal and good of human life. The post-modern scepticism[1] of any truth beyond personal, emotional experience or statistics[2], also encourages people to see community and collective action as simply an acknowledgement of superior numbers. This must come from the assumption, drummed into us since infanthood, that democracy is the perfect, virtuous form of state structure, so that by voting on an issue, and reaching a majority verdict, a position becomes justified and moral: it is shriven. 

The goal, then, becomes to create a mass movement and to force governments (and industry leaders) to acknowledge the size of it. This will automatically lead to beneficial change. Hence #MeToo and (years ago) the anti-war “Not in My Name” campaign, and so on. 

We are increasingly used to having things served to us on a plate. Apps and algorithms that we don’t understand are able, inexplicably, able to provide us with whatever we demand. Or so it appears. 

We carry that attitude into our protest movements. As citizens of a democracy, we demand that something is done and then sit back with self-congratulatory satisfaction, expecting that somebody will do it. It’s writing to The Times for the internet generation; we are demanding, en masse, to see the manager: “Siri, dim the lights and dismantle systemic racism”; “Alexa, challenge everyday sexism.” 

All this seems to lead to a very strange phenomenon: mass demonstrations of unfocused self-expression. The response to the murder of Sarah Everard seems to exemplify this. A lone male policeman appears to have opportunistically abducted and murdered this poor woman. There has been a nation-wide outpouring of dismay and anger, and of empathy for the victim and her family. 

But this poignant moment of national unity has somehow led many people to demonstrate and protest – a confrontational act intended to challenge…what? Whom? It is unclear. People don’t seem to be sure what they are marching for, because the (alleged) perpetrator of this terrible act is transgressing against some of the most sacred patriarchal principles. Patriarchs can’t have rival men randomly abducting and murdering their women. The taboos this guy has broken are vociferously defended by our sexist society, so a culture of sexism can’t be said to have enabled him. 

This doesn’t seem to matter much to the protestors, though. The belief that self-expression in support of a cause is the purpose of campaigning, has allowed them to believe that shouting at somebody is “starting the conversation”, and that will automatically lead to some sort of “progress”.

[1] probably Descartes-derived

[2] the poor man’s scientific investigation