A defence of difference

“We seldom hear much about freedom from contemporary social justice activists. They don’t want freedom — freedom would mean taking responsibility for one’s life”

Open Season

What started out as an understandable outpouring of emotion in response to the killing of George Floyd has now spiralled into something dark and disturbing. What was claimed to be a fight against racial injustice has instead become a fight for societal racialisation and a defence of racial difference. This movement—the current manifestation of social justice activism—rejects the liberation of people to exercise their agency and define their own futures. It favours instead a form of collectivism blended with racial essentialism. It calls for the subjugation of the individual to one’s group identity and it denies the notion of freedom itself. One might think it easier to submit to it but that would be a fatal error for, while the act of resisting may be a lonely, exhausting path to take for now, the alternative is a descent into racial tribalism and social fragmentation. 

In the supposed quest to slay the already dying dragon of racism, Black Lives Matter and its supporters have lost all political and moral bearings. The result is the development of a reimagined form of racism and a radical assault on Western culture, free speech and liberal democracy. The riots, vandalism, censorship and statue toppling have given us a glimpse into an anarchic, twisted world. We must not only resist but challenge this rigid ideology that is undermining decades of social progress.

As progressive movements emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were broadly conceived of in universalistic terms. They were based on an understanding of common interests which united movements of the working class, women’s emancipation and anti-colonialism. They rejected not merely notions of class, racial and gender “superiority” but the concept of “superiority” itself. As Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, he dreamed of a society where people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

In stark contrast to this, the pernicious ideology of apartheid in South Africa remained a dark stain on our shared humanity. It maintained that white people thought differently to black people, a view repudiated by activists who wanted to create an equal society based on the notion that what potentially united black and white was their future unity as South Africans. It was a noble goal, albeit a work in progress, but it was one which progressive thinkers in Britain for a long time supported and defended.

Today, racial essentialism has reared its ugly head once again but the domain previously occupied primarily by white racial supremacists has a new champion. A new movement has emerged to take up the cause of fatalistic notions of racial identity and victim-centred politics—they are the social justice activists and left-wing identitarians.

An idea—the battle against which was largely won—now finds a home in an integral part of the cultural elite in many Western societies and particularly in Britain. Kehinde Andrews, a British academic specialising in Black Studies, talks about a “psychosis of whiteness”. Robin DiAngelo, an American lecturer writes about “white fragility”. Notions of white privilege, black victimhood and black oppression now form part of a wider ideology that defines and essentialises individual minds, thoughts and behaviour by their racial category. Contrary to what MLK dreamed of, the colour of a person’s skin is exactly what we are now being urged to judge them by. This is not a continuation of the liberation struggles of the past but a rejection of them.

Any movement that ceases to be guided by universalist principles and refuses to acknowledge the great strides made regarding what was once genuinely “institutional racism” cannot sincerely bear the name of social justice. It is not fuelled by passion, informed by principle and empirical knowledge. It is fuelled by ideology, rage and zealotry. Hence the statue toppling and censorship. As Roger Scruton wrote, “the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious, and dull”.

The educational successes of British Nigerian children, the economic achievements of British Indian and Chinese people, the sharp increase in interracial relationships, among other positive developments, have forged a new story of multi-ethnic Britain. But the more evidence there is of the gains made by society in terms of equality, the greater the need for the identity-politics zealots to embrace emotionalism and irrationality. In the absence of genuine discrimination, it needs to be, if not fabricated, at least exaggerated. Their response, when confronted by the empirical realities of a de facto post-racist society is to appeal to purportedly “essential” age-old passions with cries of “what about 400 years of slavery?” and calls for reparations.

And those who do choose to adhere to this essentialism are then infantilised, framed as uniquely unable to deal with the realities of life. They require special treatment: lower university admission standards, leniency in exams, the removal of offensive words. Black people are encouraged to stay in a permanent state of victimhood. This isn’t social justice activism, it’s racial paternalism.

The aim of social justice activism is surely to make itself redundant by achieving social justice, but just when we are in a position to finally say that progress has been made, many who fear a loss of their power and position have found new ways to assert themselves in perpetuity. An entire industry now exists in book deals, charities, quangos, academic fields, to find “solutions” to real or perceived racial problems.

We seldom hear much about freedom from contemporary social justice activists. They don’t want freedom—freedom would mean taking responsibility for one’s life. Fredrick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist and writer, believed that true liberty would only come when people, black people, took full responsibility for their own fate. “There can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed,” he declared in his “Self-Made Men” speech. “It must be developed from within.”

A form of “liberation” that relies on denying the freedom of expression of others and demanding “reparations” and the removal of monuments is not worthy of the name.

We cannot let this racial essentialism become the “new normal” within our societies again. The hard-fought struggles for racial justice and equality will have been in vain if we allow the false saviours and ideologues to bind us to these constraining narratives.