The Lost Art of Discussing Racism

“Society can and does execute its own mandates, and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

John stuart Mill

There are some orthodoxies about which there is this kind of super-injunction. Doctrines which we know we’re not supposed to publicly critique because there is only one publicly accepted viewpoint. But beyond that, one is not even supposed to discuss the Overton shift that has occurred and to call for a corrective discussion. To do so would challenge the notion of widespread consensus and instead point to widespread conformity. Things which only look the same.

There are two things which most holding any view wish to believe. That they are the majority and that those who disagree with them are fools. In the run up to the Brexit referendum, those who wished to leave the EU were characterised as a minority and, after the majority voted to leave, they became ‘low-information voters’ susceptible to simplistic slogans and xenophobia. Few asked if it was simply that the minority was wrong about the wholistic benefits of EU membership, and that this was the corrective mechanism of democracy coming into play.

Holding a view contrary to the network of isolation or ‘echo chamber’ of which one is part leads to accusations of conspiratorial derangement.

Speaking personally (coming as I do from suburban Hampshire, holding a bachelor of arts degree, having predominantly middle class friends and working in a public-facing industry) I easily accrue a certain set of friends and colleagues with some consistency in what they believe. And so, while there are some things about which I’m utterly convicted, I know that I diverge so strongly from the mainstream narrative that I develop this kind of political writers block. It’s a persistent reflex – somewhere between fear and loyalty – that mobilises my imagination to threaten possible repercussions from my group.

This is the result of the societal mandate which Mill describes above and which Foucault elaborated on; We will censor ourselves in speech and thought with even mild social pressure. It is evident from most lives that the balance of peaceable interactions versus truth tips in favour of the former almost every time.

Indeed, in tackling this issue I have had to allow my anger at the past few years to bubble up in order to motivate my nonconformity and challenge the hurricane force prevailing view.

It is more apparent than ever that we are losing the art of discussing racism.

When George Floyd died (and I use that word deliberately- see The Lost Art of Nuance) the days following were socially chaotic. A seething mass of soul searching, data, rows, protests, riots, posts, speeches, sermons and articles. From the cacophony rose a simple message; the West is systemically racist and being ‘anti-racist’ was the cure.

It’s worth defining these slippery terms.

Systemic racism refers not to racism enacted by individuals, nor by institutions in any specific or intentional manner. Instead it alleges that, because western countries are predominantly of European descent, they must subconsciously create customs, institutions and laws which significantly discriminate against citizens of other ethnicities. This is said to persist even though open racism is publicly unacceptable and legal equality has been a fifty year norm. (The term is often incorrectly applied to the legacy of institutional racism and the poverty it perpetuated). Examples given by critical race theorists include things like ‘punctuality’ and ‘rational thinking’.

Graphic published and subsequently retracted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in July 2020.

Anti-racism is defined in contrast to ‘not racist’. Because the claim is that racism is the norm for ethnic europeans, the only sufficient response then becomes a constant effort by white individuals and western institutions to accept and publicly admit their racism and to accuse and correct other white people and institutions. Anti-racism is not so much seen as salvation as a constant penance.

Both of these assertions of the BLM movement are aspects of critical race theory which traces its lineage back to marxism via the ‘cultural marxist’ Frankfurt school. The commonality is the viewing of society primarily through an oppressor/oppressed matrix – replacing social class with ethnicity as the dividing line. It is also influenced by postmodernist theories around the subtleties of language and power dynamics. All coming under the umbrella of critical theory.

It’s clear that systemic racism is a significant assertion about the nature of our countries; the magnitude of which is matched only by the demand that all white people become ‘anti-racists’.

They are the kind of enormous ‘social mandates’ which should receive the fiercest inquisition prior to acceptance, lest we waste an equally enormous amount of resources accepting and fighting a falsehood. However, the troubling thing about these two core assertions of the movement is that they are accompanied by rhetoric designed to silence discussion and force conformity.

Academics such as Peter Boghossian have spoken on the often nefarious efforts of social justice advocates to silence critics and much has been said about ‘cancel culture’ more broadly- both on the right and left. It is, however, worth exploring the mechanisms which have developed specifically around discussions of race within the Anglosphere as they have their own particular character. This section will inevitably focus on the organisation Black Lives Matter as they have been the main conduit and disseminator of this mechanism.

Constant eulogising of the dead

It would of course be utterly insensitive to stand up at a funeral and correct the eulogist with a few home truths about the deceased. Indeed, bereavement – and the rituals surrounding it – are where cultures’ most rigid customs reside. Not ‘speaking ill of the dead’ is one such custom. It extends for some time after the deceased’s passing and is an important facet of grief. Believing they made the most of their life helps us to let them go peacefully.

The organisation Black Lives Matter are notable for their foregrounding of shooting victims in their campaigns. In contrast to other charities for police reform, such as Campaign Zero, there is a notable absence of discussion around data and specific policies. The majority of videos, posts and public statements emanating from BLM and associated organisers are focussed on these deaths. Moreover the three key surges in BLM’s popularity have been in the aftermath of the deaths of Martin, Brown and Floyd. Understandably, it is during these emotionally heightened moments that public interest in the topic of inter-ethnic relations grows exponentially. Whether by accident or design, this tendency steers the public away from discussion and towards sympathetic agreement with whatever the ‘mourners’ demand. It ensures a space never develops to have a dispassionate discussion about the truth of their accusations or their remedies. With around fifteen highly publicised shootings of unarmed black Americans per year, there is a predictable monthly reset that prevents conversations around racism being able to advance beyond expressions of sympathy.

It is a natural tendency for conversations about racism to arise in the immediate aftermath of white on black violence. Additionally, it is also natural for any dispassionate discussion beyond a simplistic emotional response to the situation to feel crass. That being said, BLM has so consistently taken this approach that we could argue they have begun to utilise this natural reaction as their key campaign technique. We could also argue that they have been so effective at this that they have fundamentally altered discussions around racism; Further entrenching within much of society and media the reflex of emotional response to complex events with complex causes.

Our cultural sphere has become one long sombre dirge for the alleged victims of racism. Their caskets are kept open as we are forced daily to file past and pay our respects. How dare we desecrate this charnel house with data or reason or any other component of effective change.

Light a candle and shuffle past quietly.

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

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