In this short essay, Isobel Marston, a student of philosophy, considers some problems with current understandings of social justice and appeals for a more universalistic approach:
Following the death of George Floyd, social media exploded with cries of indignation and frustration and the streets of Britain filled with protesters in solidarity with America. Political divisions were cemented. Many of us were bombarded with headlines and sensationalism, telling us that we live in a society that is primarily defined by racism, sexism and any other ‘ism’ you can think of. Others were bombarded with headlines citing a neo-Marxist organisation, an insidious and all-consuming attack on free speech and the victimisation of the white male. Nuance and objectivity have all but deserted mainstream media.
Figuring out whether you should be in support of or in opposition to identity politics has become difficult in its own right. Why? Because we have stepped through the looking glass. In the age of powerful tech industries, surveillance capitalism and chaotic political polarisation, reality is becoming increasingly elusive and hard to grasp. Ideas and ideologies, truths and falsehoods, perceptions of the political left and the political right swirl around us in the digital world; content is selectively drip fed to us through our screens. Fake news, clickbait and hyperbole have become the new norm, and it’s as if everyone is viewing the same phenomena through a different lens. Differing perspectives are an inevitable – and beneficial – part of what it means to be human. The problem arises when part of the perspective being utilised to view the world involves the demonisation of all other perspectives, creating an unbridgeable divide between identity groups and political allegiances.
This communicative chasm makes it harder to identify, and work to ameliorate, the social problems that still exist within our society. To counter the destructive ideologies that masquerade under the guise of virtue we should stick to facts, utilise reason, evidence and objectivity. To do this, we must resist seeing all social and personal issues through the prism of identity politics. Take for example, the recent trend of focusing on “micro-aggressions”, which refer to tiny behaviours in social interactions that are supposed to constitute some kind of implicit or explicit bias and prejudice. Some examples could be touching someone’s hair or not giving enough eye-contact. Encouraging people to interpret innocuous behaviours as having a malicious and oppressive undercurrent can hardly be expected to make life better. In fact, viewing situations in these ways makes racism appear everywhere, encourages victim-mentalities and allows subjective experiences to be taken as concrete evidence of oppression. Further, blaming implicit bias or microaggressions for unequal outcomes, on the basis of the unsubstantiated claim that such phenomena has a significant real world effect on disempowering and holding back groups, diverts attention from real world material gains we could be working on like improving schooling and access to resources for those in economically disadvantaged areas.
The worrying trend of trying to ‘combat racism’ – without first attempting to understand the underlying causes of unequal outcomes – is destined for failure and is likely to make the situation worse. Groups have unequal outcomes, in all different directions, according to any criteria you may wish to judge them on. If we wanted to play the ‘unequal outcome = discrimination game’ – “the disparity fallacy” – we might consider that only 13%of white working-class boys go into higher education, which means they are 10% less likely to go to university than any other ethnic group from the working-class. We might point out that none of the three ethnicity groups with the highest average wages in Britain are white. We might point out that men are disproportionately represented in prison when compared with women. Do we conclude therefore, that we live in a country that is systemically racist and sexist towards white men and men in general? No. Because that would be absurd.
The point is not that racism doesn’t exist nor that racism is never a factor that contributes to unequal outcomes. The problem is that claims that unequal outcomes are due solely to racism or hidden biases are often proven wrong when subjected to scientific testing and analysis. Pointing these things out has become tantamount to admitting your own suspicious racist and bigoted motivations, so that a high proportion of media outlets sidestep the whole issue, or actively contribute to the unscientific interpretation of fact with sensationalist headlines and suggestions to “check your privilege”.
Wherever we find instances of genuine racism we should do our utmost to challenge and fight them. If individuals are experiencing explicit discrimination – such as derogatory comments about their skin colour – in workplaces, schools or universities it is that institution’s duty to have a zero-tolerance policy toward any such behaviour. It is also our duty as human beings in a diverse and progressive society to speak out against racism if we are confronted with it. Holding this perspective does not entail that any action someone interprets as racist is genuinely racist. Allowing anything and everything to be interpreted as racism merely discriminates against – and disempowers – more people. We cannot have a functioning society if we are taught that the tiniest behaviours oppress us, and that differing perspectives on social issues must only be caused by bigotry and therefore be supressed.
Our conception of morality has moved beyond the play school notion that two wrongs make a right; accordingly, we must avoid the mistake of accepting and validating destructive ideas on the basis that the systems we live in are imperfect. Throughout history, revolutionary action has often been sparked by social injustice.
This does not, however, mean that revolutionary reactions to injustice are automatically good. They have often replaced an imperfect society with something significantly worse.
We must fight to keep the values that underpin all the progress we have already achieved within our societies, regardless of which side of the political spectrum is threatening them. Most of us want the same things: freedom and truth, unification over division. To achieve this, we must endeavour to see things as they really are, if we are to have any chance of improving them. We stand at a pivotal point in our history, a fire is rippling across our culture, that — if harnessed and brought back to reality — would surely have the capability to bring about genuine and positive change. It’s time for conversations, so let’s have the right ones.
Photo credit: Clay Banks, Unsplash