Complicity and Blame

Emmanuel Macron secured a second term as president of France in the election of 25th April this year. In the last days of campaigning, he claimed that his rival Marine le Pen’s far-right party, Rassemblement National, “lives off fear and anger to create resentment… It says excluding parts of society is the answer.” He also claimed their plans to prioritise French nationals’ rights and opportunities over those of immigrants “abandons the founding texts of Europe that protect individuals, human rights and freedoms.” 

In the United Kingdom, our Right-wingers make similar capital from division, but, surprisingly, we can level the same accusations at our own Social Justice activists, the supposedly most left-wing members of our society who should stand for justice, equality, and respect for all. 

What’s worse, our left-wing activists are turning their vitriol on the general public, accusing them of complicity. It’s an attempt to galvanise and recruit us, and it seems to have worked very well, as millions of well-meaning liberals (and we are all liberals of one sort or another) scramble to re-affirm their credentials and virtue-signal themselves out of danger, by accusing others further down the moral pecking order. 

Many people take offense, of course, as Robin DiAngelo has chronicled in her 2019 Book White Fragility(London: Penguin). They feel misunderstood and badly treated, even betrayed, and this can push some of them further to the right, which can appear (Dear God!) more forgiving, more flexible, more reasonable, at least towards them. Witness the cases of Lionel Shriver who has moved from writing for the Left-wing Guardian to the very Right-wing Spectator, and Kathleen Stock, who has moved from The University of Sussex to The Right-leaning University of Austin. 

This doesn’t seem to bother the leaders and theorists of the Social Justice movements. Their coercive recruitment drives have been successful enough to bear some wastage. They think they have goaded these apostates into revealing the true colours they had kept hidden from us, (for reasons that are not explained) and that we’re better off without them. 

We aren’t. Without moderating, questioning voices among our own ranks, our movements just become more doctrinaire, inflexible and extreme, more misled. 

In truth, conflict benefits both the fundamentalist Left and Right. As in warfare, the real difference is between the combatants and non-combatants. The zealots are co-operating to establish a market-place where they can hustle and barter with each other for our support, likes, admiration and loyalty over the tops of our heads. We are the docile cattle in the cattle-market of ideas, not the buyers and sellers. The activists and extremists are colluding with each other. They are the ones who are complicit. 

The trials of the Social Justice Warrior no. 12: Keeping your Allies in Line

The actor Sam Beckinsale, star of ITV’s London’s Burning, is one of the faces of Allie Crewe’s photography project I Am, aimed at drawing attention to the problem of Domestic Abuse. Interviewed in The Observer (24thApril 2022) Ms. Beckinsale said, “Even when the cage door is open, it’s difficult to step out, but I’m stepping out now by doing this project. Whether there will be a backlash, what the outcome might be, I have no idea. I do feel vulnerable, but knowing what I know about coercive control, if I don’t speak up, my silence is complicit.” 

She is to be applauded for her courage, but this talk of complicity is nonsense. It may feel restorative and empowering to become involved in a project like this, but the victims of domestic abuse should feel under no obligation to rush back into the battlefield of hostility and online abuse that comes with all campaigning, these days. 

Survivors, of all people, should be entitled to a little quiet time recuperating. They are neither enabling nor profiting from domestic abuse by doing so. Domestic abuse is universally condemned, so its persistence must have some other cause than not being abhorred. By calling herself “complicit”, Sam Beckinsale is straying remarkably close to the self-blame that domestic abusers rely on to prevent their victims from asking for help or walking away. Is this evidence of the lasting harm her abuser has done her, psychologically?

I suspect, in searching for the words to explain her situation and her involvement in Allie Crewe’s project, Ms Beckinsale simply reached for the buzzword of the age. Modern Social Justice campaigns no longer target only those who oppose them. Now innocent bystanders, even allies are to be coerced into supporting the cause, to give it power and traction. Blame, shame and angry accusation are the cattle prods used to keep us in line and docile; the threat of condemnation and social exclusion are the whips that drive us stumbling forward.

Does Activism Soothe Existential Angst?

The advice columnist Philipa Perry, writing in The Observer Magazine (24/04/22), says “There is a part of you (and me, and all of us) destined to remain alone, unseen… Because of this feeling of it not being possible for our inner world to be truly known and seen by others, when asked, most people feel that they often believe themselves to be not in the centre of a group, but more towards the edges.” 

Yet the internet age is supposed to be the era of interconnectivity. Every one is trying to belong, to work their way into the bosom of their tribe. Is this the reason many members of Britain’s minorities feel marginalised or othered by “micro-aggressions”, subtleties, and vaguely perceived “attitudes” of the putative majority? Have their concrete experiences of racist rejection made them even more sensitive to the existential isolation we all suffer from? 

Of course, the leaders and spokespeople of these tribes snuggle up right at the centre of the group. Is this what they seek: a sense of doing something useful for their people and thus being recognised and valued as indispensable? Is this all about belonging? About Existential angst?

Social Justice: Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

“Over the past few years it has often been remarked that our so-called culture war is to some extent a publishing phenomenon, driven by clickbait and careerism rather than sincere conviction. This is true, but frothing right-wing columnists aren’t the only ones on the make; liberals, too, are doing their bit to impoverish the discourse.” (Houman Barekat, “False Alarm A Political Warning Where None is Needed” in The Guardian 23/04/22, a review of Yascha Mounk’s How to Make Diverse Democracies Work, 2022, London: Bloomsbury)

Re-reading my previous posts, I’ve noticed how alarmist they sound. The invasion of Ukraine has shown us how trivial most of our grievances are, even when perfectly valid. The stakes are simply not that high, for us. I should probably lighten up.

To clarify: I am not Right-wing. I agree with most of the criticisms of society put forward by Critical Race Theorists and Social Justice activists: they are my people, but I disagree with many of their assumptions and attitudes. 

So, I’m not claiming that challenges to the status quo or criticisms of the virtue of our cultural codes will instantly plunge us into bloody revolution. I don’t think that the moment somebody says, “I’m not sure we’ve always been entirely fair…”, the whole country will immediately descend into a hell of anarchy, riots and murder. That is a deeply reactionary, conservative way of thinking that seeks to suppress all dissent or alternative thought.

But, I do believe that some Social Justice activists draw their power and influence from conflict and antagonism, from self-righteous anger and a hypocritical prejudice. They thrive on manufacturing tribes and using the word “Justice” to promote revenge, long held resentment, and antipathy. These attitudes, conducts and activities damage the fabric of society that weaves us all together. They attack us as individuals, although respect for the individual is the basis of the moral code that justifies their grievances. This, along with the divisions they intentionally promote, weaken our sense of community and thus community identity. They erode the moral and spiritual health of our society. They lower our collective morale because they make us dislike each other and thus have no loyalty to each other.

Ok. They’re young. The young always think they ‘re the first to have ever thought about, or fought for justice. They think they know best. But in trying to remake society, they are dismantling the good along with the bad. They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

And, in the case of the influencers and writers, the theorists and the leaders of the movements, they’re doing it for their own personal gain.

The Dangers of Fostering Social Justice Confrontations

So, the situation in the Ukraine demonstrates the terrible violence humans are willing to visit on people they identify as “Not Us”, as “Other”. It demonstrates how careful we must be not to foster antagonism and hatred. And this is for our own security, no matter how justified our grievances.

Because what threatens most to erode our safety is tribalism.  Not just racial, but also factional: gangs and ethnic groups and nationalities; political affiliations; religious sects; antipathy and suspicion, divisions between groups within communities that have been told that that they are different from each other, that they are at odds: these are the drivers of actual violence, although it may take time to reach these levels of intensity. 

I don’t mean the deeply inappropriate metaphoric use of the words “Violence” or “trauma”, as used by social justice activists, to signify not being treated with as much respect as they think they deserve. I mean  children chased down alleys, cornered in stairwells; Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd, Srebrenica, the Holocaust: real wounding, skull cracking, murderous violence: knives in the dark; red, sticky blood on the tarmac; gunshots at night outside your barricaded door; artillery and bombs aimed deliberately at occupied apartment blocks; mass executions; mass graves. 

The seeds of the Rwandan genocide were sown when the Belgian colonial administrators started to make an artificial distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, and to privilege the former, supposing them to be lighter skinned and more European. 

Vladimir Putin has, for years, fostered such a mindset in the Russian people, and it is this that allows him to enjoy a reported 80% approval rating in Russia for his butchery, telling his people that the West is against them, that their reports of atrocities are fake, that he is protecting Donbas Russians from Ukrainian Nazis.

Social Justice after the Invasion of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has (perhaps) given a new sense of perspective to the social justice debates in the U.K. As we all now know, around the same time that Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed were being honoured for their unsparing depiction of a hypothetical Britain, identical crimes were being uncovered in Bucha on the North-western outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine: the bodies of civilians lying in the street, some with their hands tied behind their backs, many shot in the head. Mass graves held around 150 more bodies.

This was real. These were not trained actors in a dystopian drama. These were actual, living people, and their “inalienable rights”, not just to respect and equal treatment before the law, but to life itself, had simply evaporated on the day Russian troops had arrived in their town. 

They were just like us. They lived normal lives on the outskirts of a modern European capital city, with Twitter and Netflix and lockdown-acquired kittens underfoot and the gloom of Monday mornings on the way to work. Maybe sometimes they forgot to put the bins out until they heard the lorry, and had to rush out in embarrassing pyjamas. 

Like us, they didn’t live in a warzone. They had no need of that miserable civilian fatalism until February this year. Just the other day they walked where they wanted, acted according to their own desires, talked of their hopes and fears, loved and were loved. 

And then, suddenly, without time to prepare themselves, only a few moments, perhaps, of terror and despair, of disbelief, of awful pain, they became nothing. Lumps of putrescent, blackening meat, relics that once held the gleam of sacred fire. 

And nobody came to save them. Nobody could. No well attended protests, no “speaking truth to power” or “calling out injustice” rescued them or could have. No statistics on inequality would have made a difference.[1]

Because, the truth is, Inalienable Rights are a fiction. Life isn’t fair. All we have is a series of fragile and approximate truces. 

[1] There was a joke or a cartoon doing the rounds in Russia a few weeks ago: two Russian soldiers are sitting in a Parisian café, having conquered the whole of Europe. One is saying to the other, “Apparently, we lost the information war…”

How Do You Know I Don’t Understand Your Experience?

No doubt, many would say I have no right to comment on the sense of alienation and threat, let alone the actual discrimination experienced by British-Asians. How would I know the psychological reality of life as a member of a minority in this country? In his excellent Jews Don’t Count (2021, London: TLS Books) David Baddiel says, “Being white [is] not just about skin colour, but about security…White really means: safe.”(p117)

However, as I said before, I live in this country, too. I communicate with people of different ethnic and cultural heritage. I walk these streets. I’d notice if people were being dragged into them and shot en masse. 

In addition, if we are excluded from knowing and understanding the thoughts and experiences of other racial groups, surely I am better placed than the film makers to speak with authority on the motivations and actions of white people? I am a member of that complicit and complacent majority. 

But I reject the increasingly held view that we cannot possibly understand the experiences of others, merely because of these (literally) superficial differences. To dismiss people’s opinions not on their truth or falsity, but on presumptions you make about who they are, is to promote the very prejudice you are condemning. To do so on the grounds of your perception of their race is racist.

We all share a deep and fundamental common humanity. The human experience – the need for love acceptance and community, the misery of alienation, the fear of death is shared by all.

Community is held together by bonds of empathy that (nearly) all can access, and that we should cultivate and strengthen. These bonds are felt personally and individually. The key to breaking down ethnic divisions is individuals reaching out to each other across the barriers, accepting other individuals simply for who they are. 

We are all members of one sub-group or another: the left handed, the very tall, the gingers, the overweight. All have experiences that, although of incomparable mildness to the truly persecuted, allow us to imaginatively empathise with them. White people don’t feel universally safe, they fear all sorts of persecution, just not racial persecution. (Some do, of course, but they are simply wrong!) 

For example, growing up with proudly British-Scottish parents in the republic of Ireland, during the troubles, I experienced a very gentle form of alienation and exclusion, a murmured message that I was an enemy alien, but it wasn’t my fault, and my friends and neighbours loved me, anyway. There were even slight tremors of feeling that we weren’t entirely safe, when news reached us, occasionally, of the murder of people we identified as our own. There was a need to keep quiet about our Britishness among people we didn’t know. This must allow me, through empathy, to imagine some aspects of the immigrant experience in Britain. You, through warm and constructive communication, appealing to my imagination, can help me understand it further. 

Very Last Words on The Long Goodbye

In America, the involvement of uniformed police in execution-style shootings has received a lot of media attention. I was just reading about the shooting of Patrick Lyoya in Michigan, on April 4th. He was shot in the head while lying on the ground, apparently. With the development of high-quality phone cameras, more and more footage of these events has become available. 

A British audience, recognising the quintessentially modern British nature of the characters, and the suburban setting, in The Long Goodbye will instantly recognise it as depicting an event that has never actually occurred in this country. They will automatically understand this as a dystopian nightmare, a fear for the future and an expression of alienated anxiety. Not so an American audience. For them, the imagery must seem much more plausible and immediate. 

My daughter (a 16 year old political firebrand) was online, discussing Britain’s relatively high rates of inter-racial marriage (though lower than the U.S.) and her American inter-locutor said, “Yes, but you guys are still very racist. Look at The Long Goodbye.”

In fact, minorities in Britain seem, by and large, much more integrated than in the US, although this isn’t saying much. Most people don’t seem to have much trouble getting along with, and forming friendships with, people of other ethnic backgrounds. 

Of course, there are tensions and misunderstandings. Biased assumptions are made, but that’s not restricted to racial issues. After all, one of the great miracles of human intelligence and imagination is our ability to generalise from one experience, situation, or piece of information to another. It’s something A.I. is unable to replicate, so far. 

The greatest racial problem in Britain remains whole population unequalness, demonstrated statistically, rather than through the frequency of racist attacks most individuals experience. (off-line, at least. On-line trolls will use any insult they think will work.) This is, I think, usually a consequence of a xenophobic indigenous population hoarding their resources, rather than actual racial disdain. 

I can’t believe such talented and thoughtful film makers truly believe that their demonic Neo-Nazi death-squads represent the attitudes of the majority British population, so The Long Goodbye feels more like an appeal for reassurance than an outright attack, although that direct address to the camera and thus the viewer, at the end, does make you feel personally accused. That’s probably good for us, though. It makes us stop and think, “Am I complicit?” and, even if you conclude, in the end, that you are not, it’s an important check to make. 

My fear for this film is that it will now be picked up by American influencers as evidence that British society is as divided as American, perhaps more so. It is my belief that the division between self-identifying groups in Britain is being aggravated by American cultural imperialism, imported through the internet. People brought up on the internet assume that all culture and cultural tensions in their own countries are the same as those delivered to them online. But the internet is a dark, digital mirror of its creator-culture: America’s capitalist Silicon Valley, where racial tensions are much greater. 

Basing their campaigns on undeniable statistical imbalances, powering them with mass online support, social activists have encouraged tribes to pit themselves against each other, in pursuit of their rights. Ironically this has driven tribes into mutually hostile enclaves. 

Might this film not become an instrument of such division? 

More on The Long Goodbye

In my last post I was suggesting that American viewers of Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbyemight assume that it depicted the true state of race relations in Britain, at an essential, if not a literal level. This hunch appears to be borne out by an interview I discovered in The Hollywood Reporter, where the journalist describes the film as “A terrifying look at an everyday nightmare for certain marginalised communities” (“Riz Ahmed and Director Aneil Karia on Making ‘The Long Goodbye’: “It’s a deceptively difficult thing to Nail”” 31/01/22)

I hope such cataclysmic terror isn’t the “everyday” truth for Britain’s Asian communities. I don’t think it is. It would surely be impossible to live with that level of extreme anxiety, day to day. 

Of course, there are some terrible, violent racists, in Britain, who hate and fear Asian people. Of course, there are some prejudiced white policemen who make biased judgements and can even infect the whole working practices of their organisation with racist assumptions, as they gain seniority. Of course, there is institutional racism, which, when demonstrated statistically, can show how much more difficult it is to excel if you are a person of colour.

What there isn’t (yet) is an explicit, intentional collaboration between these factors, so that organised paramilitaries, openly supported by the organs of the state, can enact a systematic programme of genocide in broad daylight. 

There isn’t even anything approaching that in atmosphere or public rhetoric. No matter how cowardly, prejudiced, and miserly we all are, neither the government nor the police, nor the people of Britain would tolerate that, at this point in our history. Each would feel too threatened by the lawless violence of it all; none currently feel threatened enough by ordinary British people of minority heritage. 

I am decidedly anti-nationalist and have no illusions about the “virtues of the British character.” This is the nation that pretty much single-handedly invented rapacious modern capitalism and imperialism, although the U.S. has learned to excel us, and to claim British people were born with certain democratic qualities would be deeply racist.  

Of course, our cultures and societies profoundly condition our thinking and our assumptions, and not all are equally benign. The current British ethico-political belief system is founded in liberal humanist principles: however hypocritical we are, we like to think we believe in the equality, the rights and freedom of all individuals whatever their race or creed. Examples of ethnic cleansing from around the world suggest we could be persuaded to accept murderous regimes, but from this starting point it would take time to prepare us. 

The Long Goodbye: A savage Gut-Punch of British-Asian Paranoia

I’ve just watched The Long Goodbye (Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed, 2020), which won the 2022 Oscar for best short film. Ouch! Brutal. Very powerful. A savage gut-punch of British-Asian paranoia, resentment and hurt. It ends with Riz Ahmed delivering the most thrilling performance poem I have ever seen, straight to camera. That monologue is a truly exhilarating experience. It’s a brilliant example of artistic creation: intense, passionate expression, comunicating a profound psycho-social message that might genuinely change minds for the better.

The viewer is made receptive to that final message by the increasing horror of the story that precedes it. The warmth and happiness of a crowded British-Asian household, as they prepare for a celebration, is enhanced by the intimacy of a hand-held camera that weaves its way through them, following Riz Ahmed’s character as he plays with his little nephew, bickers with his siblings, helps set up. It’s such a lovely portrait of normal, British family life that you just know it’s all going to go wrong, which it duly does, as black vans full of armed and balaclava-wearing racists pull up outside. They are supervised by weary looking police officers who do not intervene.

The film conveys the sense of alienation and threat felt by some, in contemporary Britain. It’s a deeply disturbing attempt to render society’s divisions and tensions in a visible, concrete form. The fear of organised racist violence endorsed by the state is depicted as actual organised racist violence endorsed by the state. 

As a result, this short is troubling in a way that the film makers may not have intended. The Academy awards are American as, presumably, are most of its prize jury. Racial tension in America is clearly endemic, virulent, and highly, highly toxic, especially between people of colour and the police. The catastrophic rifts in American society have become increasingly visible, as more and more videos of police brutality and summary execution have emerged. 

Academy jurors may have taken for granted, then, that The Long Goodbye, in its depiction of distress, rage and hatred between racial groups, is expressing an essential emotional truth of British society, rather than an expression of British-Asian fears for the future. 

But it isn’t like that, in Britain. It truly isn’t. I am not British-Asian, but I walk these same streets, and I see how different people interact. An event like this has never occurred in modern Britain. Not yet.