Angels and demons
Identity politics, and other first world problems
The inhabitants of the West are today faced with a choice about how to navigate the increasingly hostile rhetoric surrounding persistent inequalities and social justice. The first and most aggressively promoted option is to adopt a puritanical, self-assured stance that sees all of society through the lens of inborn power and its abuse. This is the so-called ‘woke’, ‘intersectional’, ‘progressive’, ‘critical theoretic’ (etc.) paradigm — though it could fairly be reduced to just the ‘far-left’ view. The US professor of linguistics and author, John McWhorter, has been promoting the epithet: “the Elect”, in reference to the tendency of such people to believe themselves to see more clearly than the rest of society, and thus be somewhat duty-bound, elected by nature as it were, to educate us as to these supposed truths. Of all the options, “the Elect” shines the brightest light upon the superiority and illiberalism of this dogmatic, judgmental ideology.
The Hidden Tribes of America study, undertaken by More in Common in 2018, refers to this group as the Progressive Activists, constituting about 8% of Americans. Their summary profile is interesting and, I believe, familiar even for those outside the States:
Progressive Activists have strong ideological views, high levels of engagement with political issues, and the highest levels of education and socioeconomic status. Their own circumstances are secure. They feel safer than any group, which perhaps frees them to devote more attention to larger issues of social justice in their society. They have an outsized role in public debates, even though they comprise a small portion of the total population, about one in 12 Americans. They are highly sensitive to issues of fairness and equity in society, particularly regarding race, gender, and other minority group identities. Their emphasis on unjust power structures leads them to be very pessimistic about fairness in America. They are uncomfortable with nationalism and ambivalent about America’s role in the world.
Climate Change, Inequality, Poverty
Compared to the average American:
More than twice as likely to list politics as a hobby (73 percent v. 35 percent)
Three times more likely to say that people’s outcomes result from “luck and circumstance” (75 percent v. 25 percent)
Less likely to believe the world is becoming a “more and more dangerous place” (19 percent v. 38 percent)
More than twice as likely to say that they never pray (50 percent v. 19 percent)
Almost three times more likely to be “ashamed to be an American” (69 percent v. 24 percent)
More likely to say they are proud of their political ideology (64 percent v. 43 percent)
Eleven percent more likely to be white (80 percent v. 69 percent)
Seven percent more likely to be between the ages of 18 and 29 (28 percent v. 21 percent)
Twice as likely to have completed college (59 percent v. 29 percent)
Leaping out most to me are the markers of higher education and privilege among these types, who also skew slightly younger and slightly whiter. I find it darkly amusing that these are the people who so sagely and sombrely assume the moral high ground, who lecture the right-wing and the working class about unearned privilege and repentance. Bear this profile in mind, and it is well worth your time to check out the other tribes as well.
Within the Elect picture, all the ills of the modern world are laid at the feet of the ‘systems’, ‘institutions’, or ‘structures’. These are most often applied to loose concepts of intolerance, such as the various -isms and -phobias. They can be more specific manifestations, like white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. They can refer to the framework of our societies: businesses, governments, police, judiciaries, schools, universities, health services, and so on. In common, they are things outside of oneself, typically used to identify one’s problems as primarily, or entirely, external. To me, they sound quite familiar in their invocation to the scapegoats driving recent rises in right-wing nationalism throughout the West: foreigners, immigrants, the deep state, socialists and commies, benefits scroungers, diversity hires, etc.
The latest fashion across the Western political spectrum is having a good ol’ whine, with the object of our whining becoming something of a tribal stripe. The right-wing versions typically generate eye-rolling, unless the interlocutor is willing to have a real, good faith debate grounded in compassion. The left-wing versions, if not handled with similar humility and good faith, are truly disturbing, in the main for their tendency to paralyse otherwise well-meaning, well-thinking people. No-one wants to be accused of racism or transphobia, and so we just say nothing when the person in front of us commences their tirade against ‘whiteness’ or ‘cisgender people’.
It is seriously scary to stand up to such a demagogue and say what should be benign: that there is nothing wrong with white people, nothing wrong with cisgender people. Sure, some of them are arseholes, but then so are some marginalised people. Since when do we generalise about people based upon their immutable characteristics? “All black people are…” would get me into quite a bit of trouble — it may yet, even though I am obviously making a reference and not a claim; even though I didn’t finish the sentence. The eggshells that I am neglecting to navigate whilst writing this are exactly the crux of the problem coming from the far-left: hypersensitivity to any sniff of offence; a thirst for heretical blood; a disdain for opposition, infecting every discourse and making honesty a dangerous game that you’re better off not playing.
No, I am not right-wing (not that there is anything wrong with being conservative) because I prefer to criticise the excesses of the left — rather I am watching my liberal house burn down, and feel the need to shout at those smug zealots in the corner with the petrol and matches. These social arsonists allege that white people, straight people, cisgender people, men, Christians, and Jews (though they’re sneaky about that one, preferring to lambast Israel and/or Zionists) are hell-bent — if not consciously then subconsciously — on the subjugation of black and brown people, gay and bi people, transgender and non-binary people, women, Muslims, and anyone else with an axe to grind.
It’s almost impressive that they can assert subconscious desires on the part of others whose experiences they do not share, without evidence, and with a straight face. They can even suggest that the subconscious, unique drive for dominance amongst these rapacious groups is the source of their own suffering — one does not have to look far to find arguments describing the disadvantages of poor whites, or of disenfranchised men, as direct consequences of white supremacy and patriarchy. Such contradictions are not really a problem for the Elect.
At the risk of inviting annihilation, I’ll share an obvious lesson that I am continually learning, and that I think would be useful for people of the Elect to hear: Most of the time, you are your own problem. Most of the time, no-one else is thinking about you — everyone, myself and yourself included, is too busy thinking about themselves.
Of course bigotry and discrimination are real things that cause a great deal of suffering in our societies. However, in fighting the scourge we cannot afford to unwind the progress that we have made as a culture, the gifts of our forebears, fought-for and hard-won. It is truly unbelievable that smart, well-meaning people are now happy to tar large swathes of the public, and their culture, with the actions of those few malevolent individuals whom we all denounce; with the actions of long-deceased ancestors; with responsibility and shame for any on-average advantages, not necessarily shared. What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’?
I have slogged through popular ‘critical theory’ literature, and made efforts to understand the arguments — forced myself to sit through hundreds of pages detailing positions that I cannot agree with. I’ll continue shopping, but I am not sold. Not all white people are racist. Not all men are sexist. Not all straight people are homophobic. Not all cisgender people are transphobic. Not all Judeo-Christians are Islamophobic. Not all Westerners are imperialists. Every person on this Earth has their own laundry-list of biases, and not one of us is an angel. The belief that experiences are equal to virtues — or a lack thereof — is an absurd delusion that must be discouraged.
Here’s an eye-watering cliché, but I bet you haven’t seen this quote for a while:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. — Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Are we still aiming for that North star? It seems to me that skin colour, and other immutable traits, have a lot of social currency these days.
The Elect faith provides a simple, attractive solution to the immensely complicated and interlocking set of questions aimed at explaining and redressing residual inequalities in the West. Despite various spanners in the works, various data that do not support such an oversimplification of the world, the proponents of Electism are supremely confident in their assertions. Such is their confidence that they often feel no need to defend their positions — they see their claims of causality, and normative claims, as self-evidently true.
As an academic, I have been treated to about a dozen equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) seminars, and counting. There is rarely anything new to be said; if you have seen one, you have seen them all. The presenters clearly mean well, but invariably end up (a) lamenting the intolerance and bias pervading our society, and (b) imploring everyone to “educate yourselves” and to “do the work”. These are injunctions for only the ‘oppressor’ groups, who are assumed to be lacking knowledge. “Doing the work” means reading the critical theory literature, which you may also disagree with — you are best-served not to vocalise such disagreements, because these opinions are taken as facts by the Elect. To have qualms is to be intolerant. Some of the most common EDI refrains are “I don’t have to explain how…; I don’t have to go into detail about…; As we all know…” — a curious habit for academics, to shun the need to justify assumptions.
I am confident that I do not need to defend my position that the sky is blue. Were someone to disagree with my assertion there, I would be disinclined to take them seriously. If they pressed the matter and marshalled evidence against my position, I would still bullishly insist that the sky is blue, and be predisposed to doubt this so-called evidence. I cannot imagine any evidence or argument that would override my own experience of gazing into the blue sky, or the experiences of countless others, or the scientific knowledge explaining the hue as it evolves over the course of the day (Rayleigh scattering, for those who are interested). Whilst I will give the blue-sky-denier fair hearing, the overwhelming consensus and sheer weight of empiricism arrayed against them leave me supremely confident that they are, in fact, wrong.
This is how the Elect feel about their ideas of social justice, without the science, empiricism, and consensus, and with less and less of the fair hearing.
For so contentious a theory as the Theory of Social Justice, we have no such basis for confidence. The multifaceted facts of history do not map neatly onto the EDI discussion we find ourselves holding today. It is easy to infer that historical bigotry and bias have had lasting effects upon marginalised populations — how could they not contribute to residual inequalities? On the other hand, characterising the present-day operation of such forces — a few generations after discrimination was outlawed throughout the West — and attempting to erase those residual inequalities between numerous, heterogeneous groups, is anything but easy — especially when overt bigotry and bias have been largely eradicated, leading us to expand those definitions in scope and temporal reach, in order to explain as much of every deficit as possible. Considering any other descriptor is deeply uncomfortable, and radioactive to touch. Of course, any underperformance of historical oppressors requires no such mental contortion, and the boogey-words like ‘culture’ fly around with abandon.
An honest person knows that these topics are contentious, undecided, because sociology is hard — definitions of in/justice are not easily agreed upon; unbiased data are difficult to come by (especially when the researchers are not ideologically diverse); most sociological data can be creatively presented (or omitted; the abstract of this article chooses not to mention inconvenient numbers from Table 5) to favour partisan arguments; and disconfirming data are often discredited or ignored by detractors. Lacking the maturity and precision of the natural sciences, social science suffers crises of replicability in research, and is conducted with low statistical thresholds for significance in the first place. This is not necessarily wrong, speaking to the variability of human experience and the difficulties facing the discipline — but it should not be cause for surety and grandiose claims.
Popular interlocutors — nouveau riche charlatans like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who refuse to debate their critics, or ‘the Squad’ in US congress and celebrity progressives, who verge on the anti-Semitic in their brash critique of Israel — are often neglectful of research and history, instead conducting identitarian arguments that are subjective, emotional, or just deconstructive language games intended to bamboozle. Regardless, they will continually make normative claims and claims to objectivity (especially ironic for proponents of postmodern principles — see below). Many of the traditionally marginalised offer divergent experiences and interpretations, and majorities of them disagree with ‘woke’ positions. This has seemingly no effect on the Progressive Activist juggernaut. Overconfidence is rife at either political extreme, and as the psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes:
[overconfidence] is a direct consequence of features of System 1 that can be tamed — but not vanquished. The main obstacle is that subjective confidence is determined by the coherence of the story one has constructed, not by the quality and amount of the information that supports it — Thinking, Fast and Slow, p264.
“System 1” is Kahneman’s terminology for the “fast” mode of neural processing exhibited by humans in psychological experiments. The fast system is what produces our intuitions, and overcoming one’s intuition requires the activation of “System 2”, which is lazier, slower, and more deliberative. It is ‘lazier’ in that it requires a bit of a kick to get moving — if System 1 conjures up a sufficiently satisfying description of some phenomenon or situation, then System 2 will simply endorse that intuition. “Satisfying” does not mean ‘accurate’, but is something more like ‘useful for the task at hand’. Only when System 1 is stumped by new sensory data, or when one is encouraged or forced to activate System 2 (to think hard), will the intuition face internal critique. Intuition via System 1 is described as “nothing more and nothing less than recognition” — our intuitions are produced by a fast memory search, a recall of similar situations or data, and a reproduction of the course of action that last served us well.
The typical Elect parishioner has strong intuitions that racism, sexism and misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and all other dimensions of intolerance, are operating under the surface of any interaction (they do not seem to worry about reawakening such tendencies by insisting on the worship of identity at all times). If a marginalised person comes off worse in an interaction, the intuition is bolstered; the parishioner can share their intuition with confidence. Should the marginalised person come off better, there is no suggestion of intolerance in the other direction, but rather System 1 provides a compatible intuition: this person has somehow overcome their ever-present power deficit. To challenge the default intuition requires more work. In Jonathan Haidt’s schematic “rider and elephant” [The Righteous Mind, p52], the elephant (System 1) has leaned towards the intuitive answer for either outcome: discrimination at play, or else the triumph over discrimination. If challenged, the rider will first move to justify the leaning of the elephant (endorsement by System 2), but she requires a strong challenge, a pause, and an effort to grab the elephant’s reins and consider a change in direction.
Image credit: Veracity Solutions
Often today, a challenge to the bias-first intuition is met by the Elect with opprobrium and doubts cast upon one’s character. It is reflexively ‘wrong’ to challenge, or to question, the assertions either of a marginalised person or of a person fighting their corner — unless, of course, their assertions are anti-Elect, anti-bias-first, or even anti-left, in which cases their marginalised and/or Elect status is liable to be revoked. The oft-repeated line in these situations is that one is “invalidating the experiences” of others by disagreeing with their interpretations of events. Once you are accused of that, you had better cease and desist; you are in the realm of the bigot, a greasy downward slope from which recovery is not guaranteed, and there be unemployment and exile lurking in the depths.
System 2 is less likely to be called upon again in a similar situation, now that System 1 can recall the consequences. Thus the environment is too high-stakes, too dangerous, for honest people to disagree with the Elect minority (one in 12, remember) — and many would like to. The tacit agreement amongst the Elect is that people promoting the bias-first narrative are not to be challenged. This is the greatest failure of a supposedly progressive ideology, which seeks to redress the maltreatment of marginalised people by exempting them from scrutiny. This is infantilisation. This is a sickening paternalism, the suggestion that marginalised people cannot handle being disagreed with. It is profoundly illiberal that one’s belonging (or not belonging) to a marginalised group has become (once more) a basis for judging the worth of their ideas. To those who suggest that this has always been — will always be — the case: speak for your damn self. You are not inside mine or anyone else’s head, and if you judge people based upon things they cannot control, then that is on you.
In Kahneman’s estimation, overconfidence is cemented not by hard evidence but by the coherence of the story, and the Elect paradigm exhibits an elegant — but false — coherence. It boils down to: The disadvantage (inequity, underrepresentation, exclusion) experienced by any group of people, united by some superficial trait (e.g. gender or skin colour), is caused purely by the systemic, oppressive exercise of power in ubiquitous hierarchical social structures. Further, a crusade to level all such structures would result in greater equity — ‘equity’ is now the goal, ‘equality’ no longer, and there is a difference; a focus on outcomes over opportunities.
The elegance and attraction derive from the call to adventure, the establishment of an enemy outside of oneself, the romantic story of externally-imposed strife and struggle, overcome by righteous fury. Unfortunately, despite the snap and resonance, it is an overly simplistic description of a very complex world, and it is clearly creating far more division than unity in the face of life’s hardships. These ideas get a great run and few challenges in any academic circle, but most among the working class reject them outright — just look at the shift of the working class over to the right, and consider what might be contributing to it. Consider that the bourgeoisie running the left-wing parties (running tech, running business, running universities, running media) keep telling them that they’re all bigots with unearned privilege, even those significant numbers who are struggling to make ends meet. Consider that the champagne socialists working at hedge funds, or in the academy, are sneering at the Trump/Brexit-voter bricklayers, truck drivers, and nurses, telling them that their political concerns are unfounded, under-educated, and prejudicial.
As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay identify in Cynical Theories, the ideas underlying this worldview originated with the French postmodernists — Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, and others — who posited that all ‘objective’ knowledge is in fact culturally constructed, and that what constitutes ‘knowledge’ is determined by the tyrannical power structures present in a given culture, and geared towards their own perpetuation. The call to arms, to level structures, is what Pluckrose and Lindsay call “applied postmodernism”, which is the basis for today’s Elect ‘activism’ — as anyone sceptical of these lectures can attest, it is less activism and more navel-gazing.
The refined, implicit story becomes: Your problems are not yours individually, but are imposed upon those of your culture by the dominant culture; you can find salvation by dismantling that culture, and bringing it into parity with all other cultures. The methods by which this can be achieved are further elucidated by Pluckrose and Lindsay:
Boundaries between categories have been placed by the dominant culture in order to maintain dominance, and so these must be blurred into non-existence.
Discourses and language itself must be modified, because current discourse and terminology favour the dominant culture, and diminish the subdominants.
All subdominant cultures, and their methods and fruits of knowledge production, must be equally respected as ‘truth’, and elevated above the dominant culture whenever possible.
One must abandon human individualism and human universality, as these are impediments to the advancement of minority groups.
These methods are rarely outlined explicitly, though they are readily adopted by any committed member of the Elect. As examples (by no means exhaustive):
Boundaries: support for the traditional gender boundary is increasingly untenable in any left-dominated space, and seen by many as a genuinely hateful position. This is resulting in a gradual slippage of progress in women’s rights, lamented by prominent women such as J. K. Rowling, who are then blasted by the online mob.
Language: linguistic political correctness has for decades been evolving, satirised and parodied, but today seems to be accelerating — see ‘Latinx’ as a deeply unpopular ‘correction’ to Latino/a, and the explosion of pronoun-declaration primarily by those with entirely guessable pronouns. This has been accompanied by a growing culture of censorship of unorthodox views, particularly within universities, big tech, news and social media, and other left-dominated institutions.
Knowledge: scientific knowledge is being recast as ‘culturally constructed’, and no more valuable than other forms of knowledge; much to the detriment of obese people who can now read that being fat is less about health and more about politics, or of sportswomen who are forced to compete physically — and lose, often — against transgender women, because there is apparently no longer such a thing as biological sex. It should not need to be stated that science belongs to humanity, and that it has great worth, but here we are.
Lastly, and perhaps of greatest impediment to our maximising equal opportunities in society, is the recently meteoric rise of so-called identity politics — a person’s groupish identity is now considered highly salient to their value, credibility, and successes or failures:
The CEO is immensely successful in her field, and all the more impressive given that she is a black woman.
The CEO is immensely successful in his field, but then again he is a white man.
It’s true that he participated in the looting and burning of the store, but consider his disadvantages as a black man.
The criminal has had a difficult life and upbringing, but he still holds advantages as a white man.
A routine traffic stop ended in tragedy, as a white police officer shot and killed a black man.
The white woman was talking over him during the meeting, in which he was the only black person.
For the purpose of sharing information, none of these made-up statements require the identity modifiers. And yet the modifier is automatically salient, ranging in effect from infantilisation (though the Elect would call it ‘affirmation’), to dismissal (‘checking privilege’), to emotional provocation (‘highlighting bias’) — the latter being a principal tool of today’s news media, who fetishise the suffering of the historically marginalised because it’s damn good for business. And we duly lap it up, without ever questioning why we rarely hear about the majority of victims of police brutality who are, of course, white (in the USA, naturally, though the news from across the pond tends to reverberate throughout the West). “But the proportions-” — sorry, no. When two white people are killed by US police for every one black person killed, the lack of coverage makes sense because whites are underrepresented among the deceased? Police brutality is newsworthy only under certain circumstances pertaining to statistical analysis, apparently. We should be truly afraid of a burgeoning white identity, prowling reluctantly through the minds of impoverished whites who are sick of rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge their suffering, focusing only on their alleged privilege.
‘Intersectionality’, which began as a legal argument making the very reasonable case that the intersections of identity can result in unique applications of discrimination (e.g. black women facing distinct discrimination to that faced by either black men or non-black women), has morphed into a key for how to treat and value people. The greater the number of intersections of one’s marginalisation, the more valuable their thoughts and experiences, the more morally righteous they are assumed to be, the more deference they should be accorded. The fewer, the less worthy of our attention and sympathy, the more wary they should be of sharing their opinions or experiences.
I have experienced this phenomenon directly, when Elect people are flustered to discover that I am of mixed race — they assume that I am white; a cardinal sin, often followed by an apology. The bitter irony is that they have become what they hate: blasé and racist. “Oh sorry, I didn’t realise you weren’t white; I shall treat you differently.” If it were not so sad it would be comical, this parade of self-hating, self-flagellating white people, stripped of their own dignity by a maelstrom of guilt.
We have been very successfully re-racialised as a society — from something we recently strived not to care about in the absence of discriminatory acts, now it is foremost on the agenda, omnipresent, omnidivisive.
I am less impressed by the success of the white man than I am by that of the black woman, but why? The reflexive answer is that she has faced greater trials and tribulations in life, on account of her identity. That might be true, but it also might not. It is an assumption, given that I have only these two (race, gender) data points for each individual. More data could soften or reverse the intuition; perhaps she was born rich and he poor. More data could strengthen my admiration for non-identitarian reasons; perhaps she lost her mother to illness at a young age, or had to battle her own poor health. Perhaps she is a genius, and he is just bright, or vice-versa. Perhaps she dealt in illicit favours, and he in blackmail, or vice-versa.
There are literally a million other things that could sway my reading of their relative admirability. I do not know the set of challenges faced by either person, only that some few of their challenges are less likely to be shared; in particular, those faced by men more or less than women, and by white people more or less than black people. Are those so much more salient than the fully aggregated set? Are they so deterministic? The postmodern, Elect ideals demand them to be so; your unimaginably complex, unique, individual experience must be subjugated to your involuntary group membership and the experiences assumed to follow.
At what point does it become offensive that a person is assumed to be a victim because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexual orientation?
From a human universal standpoint, we could celebrate the successes and admonish the failures of individuals, because we know that the universal human experience is one of struggle against life’s innumerable difficulties. For the ‘woke’ person, the (unknowable, assumed) relative levels of difficulty matter as much as, or more than, the outcome of the struggle (even despite the focus on equity). I argue not that one’s identity is never relevant. I argue that singular events are not taken at face-value, not taken as a demonstration of the upbringing, talent, or tenacity — or the impropriety, carelessness, or foolishness — of an individual. They are instead taken as unbiased data confirming the previously established worldview: discrimination at play, or the triumph over discrimination. All axes of personality and history are collapsed onto these very few, over-salient variables of identity.
People are thus assumed to share little in the way of experience, and to be dominated by the circumstances affecting the average, or even the lowliest member of their group. Such is required to maintain this worldview, because the broad variation among individuals — far larger than on-average variation between groups — disconfirms the notion of monolithic, subordinated groups being buffeted about by the monolithic, dominant group. To see the details, and to incorporate them into one’s worldview, requires the activation of System 2.
The result ought to be a new world-model of increased complexity, accompanied by a reduction in confidence as the model becomes less coherent — which is good, because sociology is hard. If we had a working model for society then we wouldn’t be having these discussions. Is it really so difficult to admit to uncertainty? We do not know how our own struggles compare to those of others, or how they interact with our different skillsets and inclinations, or how things will end up for an individual in the future. We can make guesses, but life is too complicated for certainty; we should not be confident in sweeping declarations about any single-variable group of people, and we should always question our assumptions.
The coherence offered by System 1 is a glittering falsehood, disconnected from reality, and not an optimal basis for improving society (whether this is truly the goal of some Elect ideologues, as opposed to personal salvation and/or signalling of virtue, is another concern).
It is much easier, and more comforting, to default to System 1, and to arrive at the foregone conclusion: that the suffering-privileged and the successful-marginalised are exceptions to the rule, and irrelevant in practice (threatening even, when they disagree with the Elect party line). At the opposite political extreme, System 1 will easily arrive at different, equally comfortable, equally simplistic conclusions: that privilege and subordination are myths, and that each individual has absolute control over their destiny in our purely meritocratic society.
The third choice for the Westerner, having dismissed those overconfident, oversimple intuitions, is less rewarding and more difficult to pursue. It is to activate System 2, and to delve into the nuance describing each singular event: what qualities, practices, and external factors enabled these people to succeed, and to overcome the various difficulties that they faced? Why did these other people fail to behave in a socially valuable manner, and what can be done to help others in similar positions to succeed in the future?
Identity is a second-order concern within this approach, subordinate to individual behaviour and the outcome of the behaviour. It may well be that the successful black woman has useful advice for other black women who face unique challenges in the world. But one can bet that most of her advice will be more broadly applicable. The foregrounding of her female, black struggle does a disservice to her success, which is rare in the space of all people. It is a more fundamental disservice, a profound “other-ing”, to cast her success not as that of a human being, but primarily as that of a black woman. She is more than her sex or her race, and she deserves to be seen in all of her glory, to share her wisdom with as wide an audience as possible, and thus to contribute not just to the advancement of black women, but to the advancement of all who are suffering — and whose suffering is equally important.
This is the essence of classical liberalism: discrimination on immutable grounds is intolerable and unlawful; men and women of any background are to have equal rights and equal access to opportunity; and we are to see one another as unique individuals of equal value, nonetheless sharing uniquely human experiences, and each with the potential for greatness. It is a luxury of the Western privileged to muse over subverting these founding premises of our culture, being so far removed from the brutality and horrors of history — we are bloody lucky to be here, now, and it did not come for free. The hypocrisy of our slave-owning, patriarchal forebears does not invalidate the ideals that have created some of the most prosperous societies in human history.
It pains me to find that conservatives seem to be better at maintaining a classical liberal mindset, these days. My discomfort is not for partisan reasons, but merely because most in my circles are politically and socially progressive — either classically, or in the Elect sense — making for those eggshells underfoot whenever discussion turns to identity politics. Those of us who would oppose the blanket intuitions offered by System 1, favouring instead some nuance and debate, are too often squirming in fear of our illiberal compatriots — myself included. Even more painfully, this is for good reason. The move towards censure on the left is foil for another piece, but suffice it to say that the fear of excommunication, of abandonment, is well-founded.
That said, maintaining one’s intellectual honesty is more important than retaining the admiration of those engaged in producing panaceas, dealing in emotive absolutism. As such, I will continue to fumble my way towards a sufficiently nuanced worldview even if I lose some friends along the way — though I wish it were not so. We are sorely in need of a narrative in the West, and the Elect are seeking to fill the vacuum with quasi-religious societal self-hatred and an obsessive, unsophisticated focus upon identity.
They cannot hold the mount forever though, as they are opposed by too many on the left, let alone the right — the pendulum is going to swing back, and we want it to stop in the middle. How does one construct a meta-narrative with sufficient pull to unite our balkanising societies? Must we choose between paralytic stagnation and reckless pursuit of some false equitopia? Surely we can do better than this ludicrous blame game, this revival of unchecked stereotyping, this abandonment of thought. We can care about inequalities without infantilising minorities or demonising majorities.
With the commons losing any agreed-upon version of reality, we desperately need to find our way back to the same page. It has to start with honest conversations and with the courage to hold them; in universities, in parliaments, in homes, in workplaces and social spaces, in groups and one-to-one. Honesty and bravery; refusal to self-censor before the punitive mob. A critical mass of people must stand up to the illiberalism invading our culture from both of the political wings. The data say that these people exist. For all of our sakes, stand up!