There is particularly fertile ground for mistrust in an era in which fear has become a dominant public perspective
“If an Mbaise man and a snake come into your home, leave the snake be. Focus on getting the Mbaise man out, for he is way more dangerous.” I first heard this saying about the Mbaises, a sub-group of the Igbo people of Nigeria, from an Igbo friend of mine. Since then, I have heard Nigerians of various ethnicities deploy some version of that snake metaphor against groups other than theirs. The names of the groups change, but the message is always the same: they are inherently untrustworthy.
Sometimes I get the feeling this is how Britain’s rival ideological tribes view each other these days. The way in which many on the Right will react to certain issues raised by the Left, and vice-versa, has become utterly predictable. When the Left emphasises the need to discuss racism, social justice, or the sins of the British Empire, you can almost hear the swirling of eyeballs on the Right. Right-wingers will assume such calls are motivated by white guilt or a desire to virtue-signal or perpetuate minority victimhood.
Likewise, when the Right suggests discussing freedom of speech or political correctness or the state of British patriotism, the Left will voice suspicions that this is really just about white (male) conservatives wanting to be openly racist and sexist, furious at challenges to their privilege and seeking ways to exclude black and brown people from the national family.
There is particularly fertile ground for this kind of mistrust in an era in which fear has become a dominant public perspective, as American sociologist David Altheide argued in his book Creating Fear:
Fear begins with things we fear, but over time, with enough repetition and expanded use, it becomes a way of looking at life . . . a framework for developing identities and for engaging in social life . . . while liberals and conservatives may differ in their object of fear, all sides express many fears and point to “blameworthy” sources—often each other!
While co-authoring a recent Policy Exchange report on academic freedom in British universities, I was forced into practical engagement with some of my own instinctive fears and reactions. The report’s findings suggested not just a growing preponderance of left-wing views in British academia, but also that some right-wing academics consciously self-censor and forgo research they think might not sit well with the dominant views in academia. The report thus suggested academic freedom, theoretically guaranteed under current British law, needs to be bolstered in practice. But what could such calls, if heeded, lead to in real life?
Under British law, academic freedom involves freedom to “question and test received wisdom” as well as “put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”. Such freedom could certainly encompass ideas and views that racial minorities like myself might find troubling and uncomfortable. This in a world where racists have become increasingly adept at cloaking their anti-black, anti-Muslim, or anti-Semitic views under such layers of calculated ambivalence that it is difficult to prove they are engaging in hate-speech without opening oneself up to plausible allegations of “thought-policing”.
One can construct a conspiracy theory about Jews controlling the financial system without even ever mentioning the word “Jew”, but simply citing the Jewish-sounding names of some prominent global bankers, for instance. Or, like Donald Trump campaigning in 2016, promise predominantly-white audiences “we will take our country back” as if it had been seized by foreign elements (read: black Barack Obama and his cohorts).
It is also no secret that there are genuine racists and fascists out there today who, while lambasting the Left for victimhood culture, love portraying themselves as oppressed victims of anti-free speech mobs, attaching their movements to those truly committed to the values of liberty and tolerance in a bid to boost their respectability.
Taking into consideration these realities and the fact that my own political heroes are all people associated with the Left, why should I concern myself with right-wing worries and potentially help ease the expression of views that might make me and others like me, feel uncomfortable or worse? I did not find this an easy question to answer. I would worry if I had.
But as someone who has called Britain home for five and a half years now, I feel it ultimately boils down to whether we allow fear to perpetuate itself as the dominant factor in our stance on major public issues. Whether we strive towards a society that operates on the good-faith assumption of positive intentions in others or one where we assume malignant intentions in those who differ from us ideologically, racially, or otherwise.
Is Britain to be a place where individuals are presumed well-meaning until they prove otherwise, or the contrary? It is difficult to imagine building any meaningful societal cohesion if the latter becomes our default position. Trust is the glue of any community large or small, and trust cannot be built on suspicion, whatever historical reasons there might be for it. This is a practical issue that affects our everyday lives. I simply cannot imagine enjoying life in an atmosphere under which I am supposed to assume that if my neighbours are white and conservative, I should be wary of them for they likely wish me ill.
Plus there is the bigger picture. In July this year, more than 150 intellectuals, including prominent liberals such as J.K. Rowling and hardcore leftists like Noam Chomsky, signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine warning that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”. The current narrowing of boundaries “of what can be said without threat of reprisal . . . makes everyone less capable of democratic participation,” the letter argued.
There is no doubt ideas can be dangerous, as can words. History is littered with examples of bloodthirsty dictators who rode to power on the back of words and ideas that shockingly failed to alarm majorities at the time. Millions of people perished in 20th-century Europe as a consequence of the intoxicating power of fascist and communist ideas. More recently, the 1994 Rwandan genocide which saw some 800,000 people slaughtered in the space of 100 days, started with words on a radio station urging the majority Hutus to “weed out the [minority Tutsi] cockroaches”. So I think we should avoid playing to the gallery with crowd-ingratiating arguments about people always being wise enough to distinguish between good and bad ideas.
There are words and ideas that can trigger the best of what humanity has to offer, and also the worst. It is unwise to pretend otherwise, or always to view vigilance as paranoia, especially vigilance manifested by objectively more vulnerable groups in society, such as Britain’s minorities. Vigilance, however, can graduate into paranoia if not tempered with the baseline assumption of good intent in those around us. That is when fear can start to dominate our perspective on any public issue. And when we can start to believe that a racial or ideological other is less trustworthy than a snake. Surely, that is going one step too far.