A protest in Dam Square, Amsterdam

Round up the ordinary subjects

A free society cannot remain free if it implements the social justice movement’s bizarre ideology of vilifying ordinary people

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The social justice movement needs the repressive capitalist state it professes to oppose. Without the power of governments to enact punitive laws, and of corporations to compel workers to change or pretend to change their behaviour, it will fail. Like the early Christians, social justice warriors win by capturing power rather than persuading pagans through argument to see the light of their gospel.

The appeal to traditional sources of repression is easy to miss. Whatever you think of Donald Trump when he intimidates Republicans, or of the modern left when it attacks anyone breaking one of its many taboos, cancel culture began with a democratic element. Public shaming relies on tens or hundreds of thousands of social media users following their leaders’ instructions. Mob raisers need mobs. If they declare a pile-on and no one turns up, their authority vanishes. Difficult though I find it to give them credit, cancel culture’s defenders have the right to say that social media gives large numbers of people the power to hold elite individuals and institutions to account.

Less evident is the ability to direct power from above against ordinary people. For the social justice movement, if I can use the label to capture the whirling confusion of middle-class leftish protest, is not concerned with challenging the elite. It wants to be the elite. As befits a movement staffed by the educated children of the bourgeoisie, its main concern is to control the masses. Average people get abused as regularly as the famous. The socialist concept of oppressive power pressing down from above has been replaced by the Foucauldian notion of oppressive power circulating at all levels via problematic discourses that need to be corrected. Needless to add, those with the time and education to address thought crime are drawn from the ranks of the privileged. 

Because the fight is impossible to win by argument, social justice warriors, like all utopians, must resort to duress

While I was working on this article, the following stories appeared. A poll by Survation found a quarter of British students self-censor because they fear their views will clash with the “woke” values promoted by their university. Further education, which ought to emancipate the mind, had become an intellectual prison where students bite their tongues for fear of offending the guards. The wellness website Healthline was so impressed by or frightened of trans activists it removed all references to women from its advice columns. It headlined a report on women’s sexuality, “‘Do Vulva Owners Like Sex?” The BBC suspended a freelance football journalist working for tiny Radio Lincolnshire for calling a clash between players “handbags” — a description of a mock fight no one had regarded as sexist. In no sense are students, women looking for sex advice and part-time journalists making a few pounds from a match report members of the elite.

They are targets because the social justice movement wants a revolution in manners of the masses that is beyond the ability of normal democratic politics to achieve. Because the fight is impossible to win by argument, social justice warriors, like all utopians, must resort to duress. The explanation for their authoritarianism is not hard to find if you study their ideology. It could never convince anyone beyond a zealous minority because its ideas are strange beyond measure.

To give you a taste of the strangeness, suppose you are a liberal white person. You have your faults, but you do not endorse racial murder, or work to stop ethnic minority candidates getting jobs, or say the government should leave refugees to drown in the sea. Whatever else you are, you are not a racist. But you remain not just an enemy, but the prime villain whose defeat is the movement’s first concern. At the start of White Fragility, which the racial conspiracy theories of the Trump administration and the global outrage after the killing of George Floyd turned into a bestseller, Robin DiAngelo says her target is her fellow liberals. They say they are colour blind, but “so often — despite our conscious intentions — make life so difficult for people of colour. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour.” Why? Because they think they are good or at least vaguely moral, they do not devote their lives to “engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building and actual anti-racist practice”.

The socialist concept of oppressive power pressing down from above has been replaced by the Foucauldian notion of oppressive power circulating

The fragility of progressive whites lies in their inability to accept they are the beneficiaries of a racist system. They rage and cry when DiAngelo and her fellow diversity trainers confront them. They should know that they will improve only when they accept they are racists and make an enormous effort to educate themselves. Whether they can ever be fully anti-racist is an open question. Reading critical race theorists is like reading St Augustine. They make whiteness appear an original sin that no amount of good works or “continuing education” can erase.

Ibram X. Kendi, a better writer to my mind, is equally explicit in his equally popular How To Be an Anti-Racist. If people believe problems are rooted in groups of people, they are racist. If they believe they are rooted problems in power and policies, they are anti-racists. However much you may kid yourself, you are either one or the other. You cannot just be “not a racist”.

 Let us be clear about the type of racism DiAngelo and the thousands who agree with her are fighting. They are not fighting racists who kill. The Chinese Communist Party does not act as if the racial differences of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians do not exist. It subjects every non-Han Chinese minority to surveillance and active repression. Modi’s Hindu nationalists do not turn their eyes away from India’s Muslims, they build elaborate fantasies about the threat they pose, the better to bind their frightened supporters to the state, as does every government and movement that exploits sectarianism. When police officers stop and search black suspects because they are black, they are being many things — “not racist” is not one of them.

At the start of his career as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke said: “Our clear goal must be the advancement of the white race and separation of the white and black races. This goal must include freeing of the American media and government from subservient Jewish interests.” No one could accuse the KKK of being colour-blind.

The social justice movement appears to be concerned about racism but it does not understand that true racists work hard at being racists. White supremacists notice every black and brown face. Antisemites compile lists of Jews in politics and the media. Racists are like snobs: they are always on duty, always finding reasons to justify their superiority and contempt. You can only believe that the unconscious biases of “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour” if you choose to minimise actual racists.

What applies to vicious racist movements applies to everyday racism. After considering the possibility that unconscious bias might explain the disproportionate number of ethnic minority people caught up in the UK criminal justice system the Labour MP David Lammy’s inquiry (commissioned by a Conservative government) concluded: “BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system. Prejudice has declined but still exists in wider society — it would be a surprise if it was entirely absent from criminal justice settings.”

A study by the Centre for Social Investigation at the University of Oxford, found applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80 per cent more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white Briton. Dr Zubaida Haque of the race equality think tank Runnymede, said, “It’s not just covert racism or unconscious bias that we need to worry about. It’s overt and conscious racism, where applicants are getting shortlisted on the basis of their ethnicity and/or name.”

A human resources department is not being colour blind when it rejects applicants with Asian or African names. A job interviewer is unlikely to think of himself as a “progressive” as he ensures senior positions go to men who look and sound like him. If you want to tackle him, tackle him; don’t waste time telling his employees to engage “in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building and anti-racist practice”.

Every reputable study has found that if you test someone with the IAT twice, you are likely to get wildly varying scores

Yet it is the employees who are instructed to undergo tests and training to challenge their unconscious biases. Keir Starmer announced that all Labour staff members would take compulsory unconscious bias training. Corporations, students and even schoolchildren are made to sit “implicit association tests” (IATs), even though it is an open secret that they are worthless. The test measures whether people find it easier to assign positive words (“happy”, “wise”, “beautiful”) to pictures of white faces and negative words (“pain”, “angry”, “stupid”) to black faces, or vice versa, by measuring their reaction times. 

Every reputable study has found that if you test someone with the IAT twice, you are likely to get wildly varying scores. “If you measure my height on Monday and then again on Tuesday, you’ll get almost the same result both times,” said the science writer Tom Chivers. “But if you do the same with the IAT, it’s very possible that it’ll say I’m strongly prejudiced one day and not at all the next.” The success rates of other diversity training techniques in reducing prejudice is hardly more impressive.

It is not news that unconscious biases exist. But why the resort to pseudo-science? Employers want to show they have trained their staff in diversity awareness as a defence against discrimination claims. They may also have their own subconscious bias towards an ideology that blames rather than empowers workers. 

But why would leftists like DiAngelo take money from managers to hector workers who have no choice to submit to a demonstration of executive power? She and others who provide diversity training for businesses take the hostility they receive as a sign of “white fragility”. Might it not be a sign of employee resentment? Would it not be better to allow trade unions to take up cases of discrimination? Or create a culture where minority employees feel free to speak out without fear of retribution?

If you dismiss the possibility of finding truth, every statement becomes ideological and the only questions that remain are whether you are on the “right” side

In 1961, Martin Luther King wrote from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, to clergymen who tut-tutted that the civil rights movement was breaking the law as it fought segregation and the denial of the franchise. “The shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” he said. You can think today’s theorists are merely echoing him until you look at what they want, which is miles away from the concrete demands of radical politics.

Indeed, they treat concrete improvements with intense suspicion. Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay’s history of 50 years of intellectual history, is essential reading because it shows how apparently reasonable demands for a more just society can take an authoritarian turn. From the postmodernists of the late twentieth century, social justice theorists took the denial of the possibility of finding truth and politicised relativism. The powerful have organised society, language, codes of behaviour, and the very patterns of thought to perpetuate their power, the argument runs. Supposedly universal ideas — the scientific method, human rights, the rule of law — are frauds to advance the interests of Western white supremacists. The result is an illiberalism as striking as anything found in fundamentalist religion. If you dismiss the possibility of finding truth, every statement becomes ideological and the only questions that remain are whether you are on the “right” side and what measures you can take to ensure the “right” side’s triumph.

Illiberal obscurantism leads to a state of paranoid pessimism. Nothing can be dismissed as trivial in cultures ordered by oppression from top to bottom. By necessity, any word or gesture can be suspect and everyday life must be politicised. The smallest slip is neither small nor a slip but a tearing away of the mask to reveal the oppressive assumptions of the speaker and the oppressive system that created him or her. 

Only an authoritarian state would have the power to root out all pervasive prejudice

By necessity, too, although few have the intellectual honesty to say it, only an authoritarian state would have the power to root out all pervasive prejudice. The legacy of the twentieth-century postmodernists, most notably Michel Foucault, is seen here at its strongest. White supremacy, ableism, fattism, LGBTQ oppression — whatever bigotry you are fighting is in largely invisible systems of supremacy that need to be dug up and exposed.

In an extraordinary passage, DiAngelo shows how she wants people to live in a state of permanent guilt and fear when she condemns “white women’s tears”. On no account must white women start crying in the presence of men of colour, she explains. Tears evoke a “long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman’s distress”. A woman who cries should not be comforted but told she should be ashamed of raising fears of a Jim Crow-era lynching.

The level of obsessiveness needed to think that, let alone publish it, encapsulates a neuroticism that can never be appeased. All societies have taboos, and most people go along with them. But no one could conform to the multitude of prohibitions that come out of the social justice movement for the sake of a quiet life. Its intersectionality provides a plethora of identities, each with its own claims and often in conflict with other identities, as the clash between trans activists and radical feminists illustrates. 

The paranoid analysis of society means that conformity can never be enough. Indeed, a willingness to conform may itself be suspect: a ruse to hide your prejudices. After all, white progressives “cause the most daily damage to people of colour” precisely because they appear to be good people.

To this mentality, the insistence on denouncing micro- aggressions and the emphasis on unconscious biases is not petty minded. It is an attempt to reveal the snarling face of oppression behind the mask. In fairness, you might say that some people remember insults for the rest of their lives that others would dismiss as insignificant. If an employer, a doctor, a police officer, a Home Office official delivers the sneers, they are indeed likely to be signs of a coming abuse of power. But the remedies for abuse come from the liberal world of union reps, civil rights, human rights acts, employment protections and judicial review that critical theorists dismiss as a charade.

You might not care what academics and students think. But ideas seep out of the lecture hall and students join the elite

As is becoming clear, a free society cannot remain free if it attempts to implement this ideology. Everywhere employers are told they must not only educate staff but they must fire real and imagined wrongdoers. The old principle of trade unionism that employees should be protected from the boss has been forgotten. Indeed, the least discussed aspect of the social justice movement is that it can flourish because trade unions appear in terminal decline in the US and UK. Rather than being contested, the dictatorial power of the employer to dismiss is embraced, most notably in liberal-left institutions.

So is the power of the state. It is the largest employer, of course, and often more than willing to be co-opted. Meanwhile its legislative powers can supplement authoritarianism with new hate speech laws that go beyond traditional restraints. A model can be found in the Scottish government’s attempt to redefine hate crime on the grounds of disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity — but not sex, for no one wants to defend tearful white women. 

Scottish nationalists want to add the vague and subjective crime of “insulting behaviour” to existing laws against threatening behaviour. They ignored lawyers’ warnings that all sorts of people are capable of being insulted by all sorts of things whereas words are either threatening or they are not. I would expect a future Labour government in Westminster and centre-left governments in Europe to come up with imitations of such dangerously sweeping laws.

A few years ago, you would hear people say that political correctness was just modern politeness. Now the arts, liberal press, publishing and academia are being torn apart by demands to blacklist and ban. Movements that once had emancipatory potential have degenerated. They wanted to recognise queer identities or to stop governments from trying to persuade people with disabilities to adapt themselves to society and work a little harder on persuading society to adapt itself to them. Now they have been taken over by heresy hunters scouring social media to find and punish unbelievers. 

Pluckrose and Lindsay quote academic after academic denouncing anything other than deference to their views as “white fragility” or “wilful ignorance”. “Resistance will not be allowed to derail the class discussions,” said one. “Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities,” said a second.

You might not care what academics and students think. But ideas seep out of the lecture hall and students join the elite. There is nothing new in today’s radicals becoming tomorrow’s establishment. Their willingness to reject the core principle of Enlightenment liberalism and the scientific method that arguing without constraint is the best way to advance humanity, however, remains novel and well worth fighting.

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