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’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/11/black-lives-matter-racism-bristol-colston
Afua Hirsch, ‘Boris Johnson does have a strategy on racism after all. It’s called a ‘war on woke’’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/17/boris-johnson-racism-woke-tories
Hans Georg Gadamer (1989) Truth and Method. London: Continuum
Renie Lodge, ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ http://renieddolodge.co.uk/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race/#comment-442
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