Change not Reaction: Cultivating the space for challenging our assumptions

In our contemporary age, in which some progress has been made in enshrining equal rights in law, the role of implicit prejudice has perhaps become more important than explicit prejudice in upholding structural injustices. The hidden quality of implicit bias makes it particularly insidious for that very reason: it’s usually allowed to go unnoticed by the holder.

Philosophers such as Hans Georg Gadamer have shown us the ways in which this lack of an impartial viewpoint is a feature of all our human interactions: interpretation is always from the point of view of the interpreter. This becomes a central issue for social justice via the ways in which the particular experiences, perspectives and culture of certain groups have been projected as representative of humanity as such and then further assumed in the very systems and structures of society (see Young, 1990)

Differences have historically been reconstructed in terms of ‘deviance and inferiority’ (Young, 1990) and those who don’t fit the “norm” have found themselves confronted with a double bind: not only have their voices often gone unheard, but the structures through which this marginalisation happens have been seemingly invisible. The newly named concept of “gaslighting” perfectly captures the uphill struggle of attempts to overturn this.  

To change this requires the implicit assumptions of both individuals and institutions to be interrogated. The question of what comes first – the sea change in public opinion or structural change – is complex and multifaceted and clearly it’s not a unilinear relationship. As a white “cis” woman I cannot speak on behalf of black or transgender people but I can say a few things about how the actions of well-meaning allies can impact negatively on the conditions of transformation.   

The strawman of distraction

As commentators such as Joseph Harker have pointed out, the appropriation of Black Lives Matter by white people runs the risk of it becoming an empty platitude, comfortably employed by the likes of Boris Johnson. This is not to say we shouldn’t use it but to recognise that as a rallying cry only it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a similar vein, how we respond to issues such as banning TV programmes or tearing down statues can play directly into the hands of the Right who would deliberately turn it into a “culture war” in order to build division and detract from the real structural challenge of the movement.

Exactly who is controlling the narrative? Clearly talk of banning Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the “removalist” rhetoric around the statue of Churchill and even more ridiculously the idea that the Parthenon could be next on the hit list are blatantly attempts by the Right to foster a “war on woke”.

But actually, if the need is to try and create conditions in which people can examine their own assumptions – their view for example that structural racism is no longer a thing – we need to understand how specific moments play out in the bigger context. What issues are worth the battle is obviously not up to would-be allies to decide. Clearly blackface should have no place in contemporary entertainment; statues in unqualified celebration of historical figures who made their fortunes through the slave trade have no place in our streets in 2020. But what follows from these in practice is far from self-evident and is the subject of interpretation.

Should all TV programmes and films which have included a lack of respect toward black people be banned? Should this also apply to literature? If not, where to draw the line? Should statues be destroyed, or creatively adapted or put in museums for educational purposes? And how far back should this go – as John Cleese somewhat provocatively tweeted recently, the ancient Greeks supported slavery, should statues of Aristotle and Socrates therefore be removed?

Similarly, the promulgation of transphobic or other discriminatory views is not acceptable. But what counts as transphobia and should publishers’ employees refuse to work on books by authors they perceive to express transphobic views? How is any of this balanced against the right to freedom of speech?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers; they must be complex and context-dependent. If the goal is to change attitudes, we must acknowledge that well-meant but reactive rhetoric and policies shoehorn complex issues into simplified and unhelpfully binary representations. Answers will never be amenable to all, and there may be valid points expressed on all “sides”. But there is room for creativity in working out solutions and they can be key moments for mutual learning and even connection, rather than antagonism.

Allies of social justice have a role to play in cultivating conditions for dialogue, in which we can talk about these things without living in fear of being shot down. Reconciliation of views is not necessary but attempting to understand is. The requirement is not that we know everything there is to know – how can we when we are embedded within our own lived experience? – but that we try at least to look a little beyond our present perimeters. Only then might we open up new shared horizons.

This requires no less than a reconceptualisation of the very idea of democracy: the need to think outside the box on how democracy can be reclaimed from its role as a tool for the powerful and become instead a vehicle for thinking and deliberation – though that’s another blog post.

We need change not reaction: organisation rather than distraction

My point is not that these issues are not important; they may turn out to be the catalysts of change in hindsight. But they are easy pickings for the government to address and do not challenge the economic and social structures which exclude many from equal participation in society. Johnson and his pals must be rubbing their hands that the Black Lives Matter movement has chosen this moment to erupt onto centre stage, taking attention away from government failings in handling coronavirus, and allowing a whole host of atrocities to go under the radar, from the relaxing of regulations over chlorinated chicken to the role of the UK in arming the most repressive regimes around the world.

Whether Little Britain should or should not be banned is not the point of this post, although the presumption that the person with the grievance has a valid point which should be heard is always a good starting point. But we need also to recognise that how conflicts are handled has important implications for achieving long term change. Only the Right benefits from division and antagonism. Vilifying J K Rowling for example for expressing her opinion is likely to do more harm than good to the campaign for greater education around transgender rights.

The construction of identities

By the very fact that our ways of thinking appear natural and right to us – we are unaware of what our assumptions are. Fostering the space for openness, a culture for democratic exchange and learning, is key if we are to avoid playing into the hands of those who don’t stand to benefit from change.

Really listening and challenging our assumptions is not easy but requires a certain openness, what Iris Marion Young calls a ‘moral humility’. To effect real change, we need to understand the ways in which identities are social and relational constructions that are shaped through interaction with, and in response to, others. When people get defensive, they become less open to self reflection, less likely to concede that their particular way of being in the world is just that, their particular way. This is what Reni Eddo-Lodge calls the “emotional disconnect”, in the context of white people refusing to acknowledge that our own ways of viewing the world are not universal. Perhaps ironically, it is exactly our critical thinking capacities rather than our emotions that are necessary to extend the limitations of our empathy.

Conclusion: Vertical and horizontal space

The space for openness and challenging our assumptions can be seen as both vertical and horizontal. How can white people begin to understand the experience of black people now if we are not taught the history of colonialism in our schools? But the handling of the vertical timeline can also impact negatively on the horizontal space for change, and can push people more into the clutches of the #worldgonemad hashtag. In our eagerness to be supportive we can risk fostering conditions that force people into binary thinking rather than usefully reflecting on our ways of looking at the world.

On the one hand we need always to be aware of who stands to gain from simplified stories. On the other we can’t let the narratives of the Right dictate the battles that are chosen or shape the ways these play out. Navigating our way through this in the context of modern media is difficult but couldn’t be more important if we are to be effective allies. This is a hopeful moment – finally, people are getting political. Rather than fall for the fragmenting tactics of those in power let’s harness the energy of the moment for real change – for connection and learning, not division and misunderstanding.


Joseph Harker, ‘‘Black Lives Matter’ risks becoming an empty slogan. It’s not enough to defeat racism’

Afua Hirsch, ‘Boris Johnson does have a strategy on racism after all. It’s called a ‘war on woke’’

Hans Georg Gadamer (1989) Truth and Method. London: Continuum

Renie Lodge, ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’

Wendy Martineau (2012) Misrecognition and cross-cultural understanding: Shaping the space for a ‘fusion of horizons’. Ethnicities 12 (2)

Iris Marion Young (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Author: Wendy Martineau

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13 thoughts on “Change not Reaction: Cultivating the space for challenging our assumptions

  1. Yes! It’s so much more INTERESTING – let alone absolutely necessary – to listen and be forced into the stretch and creativity required for a diverse, respectful, dynamic, uncomfortable, but WILLING, moving forward together towards something that has the capacity to hold complexity with respect. Wouldn’t that be AMAZING?

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  2. Yes! It’s so much more INTERESTING – let alone absolutely necessary – to listen and be forced into the stretch and creativity required for a diverse, respectful, dynamic, uncomfortable, but WILLING, moving forward together towards something that has the capacity to hold complexity with respect. Wouldn’t that be AMAZING?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely!!!! Imagine what could be achieved if difference was seen as something to be learned from. Defensiveness is one of THE most unhelpful traits and achieves the opposite of connection in our personal lives and in society.

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  3. Johnson and his pals must be rubbing their hands … ”
    The BLM in the UK also highlights the failure of the parliamentary opposition. If opposition parties were capable of articulating the concerns of the discontented then there would be no need for the extra-parliamentary activity we’ve seen in recent weeks. That Johnson, Starmer and co have been compelled to at least pay lip service to the BLM movement should be counted as a (very) minor victory.

    “how democracy can be reclaimed from its role as a tool for the powerful and become instead a vehicle for thinking and deliberation”
    The key, I believe, can be found in movements such as BLM and Extinction Rebellion. Of course, thinking and deliberation can be enjoyed while sitting comfortably in ones favourite armchair. But importantly, knowledge, and therefore thinking, can also arise during social engagement – through participation in group activity. This happened with toppling of the Colston statue – an event that reverberated around the globe.
    Group activity of the BLM-XR sort appears to present a more coherent challenge to the Establishment than does participation in our less than democratic mainstream political parties.

    BTW – Thanks for an interesting read!

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    1. Thanks for these comments Howard, really useful. I am increasingly dismayed with Labour under Starmer, as you know I was holding onto some hope but getting rid of RLB in this fashion seems to show his colours pretty clearly (although her refusal to delete the tweet appears to be a huge error of judgement). But I am not quite ready to give up on parliamentary politics though I completely agree that group activity such as BLM & XR are absolutely crucial. To actually get laws put into place there still needs to be a government in office so I think its still important to get Labour in and use direct action to hold them to account?


      1. It’s “the space for openness, a culture for democratic exchange and learning” that interests me – a sort of public sphere where a common voice can be realised and expressed(1). The constraints placed on members of our often corrupt (2), top-down mainstream political parties prevents even the possibility of such a development. Members are denied the space (3) from which new thinking could emerge.

        So for me, it’s not about reclaiming democracy (from the Right) but of devising forms of participation (4) that can produce a solidarity capable of driving the political process. I’m not close enough to the BLM movement to know if this is happening there but it is certainly happening in XR(5).

        You mention passing laws, well, fair enough. But legislation is often consequent to lobbying, industrial struggles and long campaigning (6) to which, in order to remain relevant, politicians feel they have to respond. This is true of outlawing the slave trade, equal pay for women, the banning of asbestos use, the repeal of Section 28 etc. etc.

        So, let’s put the horse before the cart and recognise that our out-of-touch political parties are all to often dragged kicking and screaming behind the strong and determined body of public opinion.

        1. Charles Taylor (2005) Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke Uni Press.
        2. Brian Eno:
        3. Michel de Certeau (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Uni of California Press.
        4. William H. McNeill (1995) Keeping Together in Time, Harvard Uni Press.
        5. Roger Hallam (2019) Common Sense for the 21st Century, CSFT21C.
        6. Georfrey Foot (1987) The Labour Party’s Political Thought, Croom Helm.

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      2. I love the image of putting the horse before the cart and I completely agree that lobbying and campaigning are utterly crucial to getting real change. Inevitably the establishment lends itself to more or less supporting the status quo unless its under that constant pressure. The options presented to us by our party political system have become narrower and narrower until there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference between them. I completely agree that it takes work outside of that sphere to think outside the box and widen the debate. Its not about choosing between the options that are presented to us but about US shaping and widening the options that are available.

        That’s exactly my point in the essay, that if we are to effect real change we need to look at how we create conditions for real democratic dialogue and participation – I really like how you frame that as the need to produce ‘a solidarity capable of driving the political process’. How to achieve this is the next step. We know from trying to encourage political participation that many just aren’t that interested. This is partly why movements like XR and BLM are so exciting as they have wide appeal and make specific demands but as I’ve argued in my essay we have to remain highly aware of who is controlling the narratives around them otherwise it just ends up playing into the hands of the Right.

        There are many issues to talk about here but for me, one of the key ones is developing critical thinking and awareness through education. I think teachers are often trying to do this but are constrained by the limits of a curriculum which might be seen more often as designed to produce individualistic capitalist consumers rather than empathetic community-minded critical thinkers.

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      3. Where we differ, I think, is on the role of critical thinking. Solidarity is crucial and critical thinking does not produce the solidarity required of a grass roots political movement.

        Because of this I prefer to put the emphasis on practice or action. Of course, political parties would have us meekly traipse to the ballot box once every five years and give our votes to whichever ever clown is able to produce the most convincing ‘priministerial’ impression.

        Instead, I suggest practice or action is the primary fact. I’d offer the Colston statue toppling as an example of this.

        As someone with a bit of a theoretical bent, the question I struggle with is how to think about a politics in which the practice (when people act as if they are free – to quote David Graeber) comes first and theorising follows. It’s a difficult one… but life ain’t easy!

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      4. Yes I think the question of the relationship between practice or critical thinking (or “reason” even, noting all its subjectivity of course), is very important. In my essay I am contrasting critical thinking with emotive response, not with practice. I agree re the importance of action and that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m thinking of in saying we need to think about democracy as something much more than having a vote every 5 years.

        But the thing with more participatory politics is that it cannot be assumed that it will go in the direction we want it to. The massive support for Trump and the resurgence of public expressions of white power makes this starkly obvious. For me, critical thinking is crucial to guiding practice. To your question of which comes first, I don’t think either should come first – we’ve seen the hugely damaging effects of both ideologically driven practice as well as practice which is all rhetoric over reason. Ideally they should exist in a reiterative, dialogical relationship where each is subject to the highest standards of the other! Therefore for me, developing critical thinking in education for example should be seen as being alongside, and part of, the need for practice not instead of it. In fact, it would drive the need to get involved at the level of action.

        I fully agree on the importance of wider movements as more able to articulate injustices in a way which can appeal to people widely and build the solidarity that is needed. As Thomas Hobbes says, no one is ever persuaded to do anything by reason alone. In fact this is exactly why I became disillusioned with academia doing political theory! But I think reasoned argument is still key as a corrective to more emotion-based forms of action if progress in institutional change is to be achieved. I think where we differ is that you don’t want to waste any more of your energies on political parties where I think they still have an important role to play. It’s a very interesting topic, thank you!

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      5. “you don’t want to waste any more of your energies on political parties”

        Au contraire, Wendy, I’m a member of the Green Party, I’m active in Extinction Rebellion and I support BLM – a movement which Starmer, disgracefully, refers to as ‘a moment’. I would argue that movements such as XR, BLM and the Me Too movement are 21st century political parties – not founded on critical thinking (though far from unthinking) but centred on the solidarity arising from common experience, a shared sense humanity and responsibility. These are expression of the politics of the multitude: “… a plane of singularities, an open set of relations, which is not homogeneous or identical with itself and bears an indistinct, inclusive relation to those outside of it.”*
        The multitude is politically at odds with the Hobbesian divisive conception of ‘the people’ as trundled out, often with tawdry rhetoric, by the likes of Starmer, Johnson and co.

        * Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri (2000) Empire. Harvard Uni Press.

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      6. My apologies Howard for completely misrepresenting your views – I meant you have decided not to put any more of your energies into Labour which is a very different thing. Your answer is very helpful thank you – so, an expanded view of what counts as political parties. I guess the way in which the Tories and Labour have managed to get people to see politics as the choice between two parties is part of the power of the Establishment. I would still argue that critical thinking is crucial to encouraging solidarity and a shared sense of humanity though as otherwise its too easy to have a “them” who isn’t included in “us”.

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  4. Yes, yes, yes. Looking at ‘difference’ as something to celebrate, be respectfully curious about (that is wanting to learn more) is something I have been saying for years to any one who would listen. Thank you so much for these words if wisdom do eloquently expressed Wendy.

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    1. Exactly Maureen! Difference is something to be celebrated and engaged with, not to be subsumed under a “difference blind” approach which tries to treat people equally but inevitably fails to see the ways in which we project our own assumptions on to others. I think that the need to be ‘respectfully curious’ as you put it is absolutely key. Being respectfully curious implies that as well as learning about other people’s experiences we also need to look at our own selves – to recognise what we don’t know and the assumptions we hold. This can help us to avoid an attitude of ‘arrogant perception’, a concept used by a writer called Maria Lugones which I’ve found really helpful. We don’t have to have complete knowledge but even to start with this attitude of being respectfully curious can guard against arrogantly assuming that we know how it feels to be in others’ shoes. Then difference can become something which we can celebrate and learn from and that can generate new and creative responses. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and think I’m going to take it as the subject of my next post so thank you very much for your helpful comments and for reading my essay!


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