The End of Radical Change: Reflections on the Lost Art of Solidarity
By Christine Louis-Dit-Sully –
‘One man, one vote!’, ‘Votes for women!’, ‘I am a man!’, ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!’ ‘We want equal rights!’ ‘We want decent housing!’ ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’
We used to have political groups and social movements fighting to fulfil a positive vision of the future where women would have the same rights and opportunities that men have, where black people would have the same rights and opportunities as whites, where gay and lesbian people would have the same rights and opportunities as heterosexuals, and where we would create extra facilities to allow disabled people to participate fully in public life.
Behind this positive political vision of the future, there was a sense that people could get on with their own lives and make their own decisions. There was trust in the ability of individuals to be autonomous and lead their lives if they had the same rights, and if they had equality before the law. There was a belief that if we had political equality and faced equal opportunities in life, people could develop themselves the way they wanted to. They could assume responsibility for both their decisions and their lives within their own specific circumstances. Anti-racism was about promoting equality of opportunity so that black people could participate fully in society.
Today, the demand for equal opportunity has been replaced by the demand for equality of outcome. This reflects the change in how activists see people today, but also the acceptance of divisions between people. The demand for equal outcome accepts as eternal the divisions between people according to their race, gender, sexuality and religion. This demand accepts that accidents of birth determine who we are and how we should see each other. The equality of outcome perspective accepts these differences as important and inevitable in our relationship to public life, and the management of our social etiquette.
Its underlying idea is that each of us represents an identity group. All the identity groups have irreconcilable political and social interests. To live with each other, we supposedly need to accommodate these interests. Individuals, rather than groups, are now seen as representing the predetermined political and social interests of these identity groups. Thus, demand for equality of outcome does not challenge racism. It defines us through our racial characteristics and racialises our relationships. It denies both our individual autonomy and our moral responsibility.
We used to have hope for a better society and the willingness to fight and sacrifice to achieve that aim. We used to believe that, whether we were black, white, female, male, abled, disabled, homosexual or heterosexual, that if we had the same political aims, common goals and agreed with the same vision of the future, we could, together, fight against those who wanted to keep the status quo.
This meant we could fight against those who wanted to create divisions for their own interests. We were not ‘allies’, hiding as silent spectators of others, who happened to be fighting for a cause. We were partners in solidarity, fighting together for a common purpose. Today, we seem to believe that our innate characteristics will prevent us from fighting together for a common goal, or for the same positive vision of the future.
If we look around and compare today with what we had in the past, we can be proud because we have moved forward. Maybe slower than some of us expected or wanted, but we have moved forward. In many parts of our world, women can now vote, and have equal rights and opportunities for jobs. Racism in the west is no more a social force with laws and institutions protecting discriminations against black people. Homosexuals have equal rights too and physical attacks against them have greatly diminished. There is no denying there are still individuals with prejudices and bigotry but there is no comparison with what we had in the past. To be a racist, misogynist or homophobic person is seen as socially unacceptable today. Disabled people can increasingly participate fully in public life with social and technical progress, progress which allows them to periodically overcome their physical or mental limits.
In other parts of the world, women and other minority groups are still fighting to achieve what we have already achieved in most western countries. Many women are still fighting not be treated like children who need a male guardian to protect them. Equal political rights, civil liberties and freedom to live our life as we see fit are universal demands.
Although we have moved forward, we have not yet fully achieved all our aims and the fight is not finished. Unfortunately, the current ideas leading the fight have changed and we are moving in the wrong direction. Those demanding equality of outcome try to equate the differences in outcome with evidence of racism, sexism or homophobia. They are not challenging racism, sexism or homophobia anymore but accepting the idea that all whites are racist, all men are sexist, and most heterosexuals are homophobic. They are accepting the divisions we used to fight against, and they only want to accommodate our lives within these divisions.
Most strikingly, they accept the extremely problematic concept of race. ‘Race’ has been shown not to be a scientific category as it is not consistent and reproducible. What is the relationship between me, an Afro-Caribbean living in Europe, and an African-American living in the US? Sometimes we are put in the same identity box (as black) and other times we are defined in competing identity boxes. Another problem with demands for equal outcome or representation is they presuppose that women, black people, or homosexuals cannot possibly get on in life and succeed without the help of some patronising laws and regulations, boosting them up. Anti-discrimination laws are about giving us equal opportunity. Quotas and positive discrimination are patronising.
With the demand for equal rights and equal opportunity, there was an understanding that we, conscious and reasoning individuals, would use our own abilities and minds to reach our potentials. Of course, each of us does live in very specific circumstances that will partly define how we use our human abilities and freedom, but that is life. We wanted to be treated equally despite our differences in race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or religion.
Today, some are asking us to be treated differently because of our differences in race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or religion. To expect an equality of outcome in all areas of life is to define us all as objects, put in separate identity boxes, only following mathematical laws. Human social relations, human personal relations, human wishes and hopes, and human conscious purposes and emotions, get forgotten if you believe that life reduces to mathematical probabilities. Instead of trying to understand our current situation, the assumption is that inequality of outcome automatically entails racism, sexism and homophobia. All other factors that could explain the differences in outcome are ignored. All analyses are done under this assumption so that the interpretation of results and conclusions of the supposed ‘research’ are already known in advance. Instead of looking objectively at the world today to understand it and change it, activists assume their conclusions (racism, sexism, homophobia) are always right. For them, it’s as if western oppression has become an apriori assumption.
People who cling dearly to this assumption deny our moral autonomy and responsibility by claiming unconscious biases in our psychology. History shows that we have changed a lot over the centuries and that most of us have managed to overcome many of our previous prejudices. The current ‘unconscious bias’ idea is trying to tell us that we are not human anymore, that we are under the power of our unconscious brain and that we are not able to rationally discuss ideas of equality and act accordingly. The mistrust in people and the defeatist attitude towards people’s capacity to change and act morally are clearly evidenced in this politics.
In the western world, a strong hope for a better society and the willingness to fight and sacrifice for it are gone, replaced by a fatalistic acceptance of what we have today. Despite the awareness that society is not good enough for us, it seems that the only goal is to manage it with adhesive tape while dividing each other in smaller and smaller groups, scrambling over the crumbs. To accommodate and manage our differences, to accept our divisions, is seen as radical today.
The idea that we humans can create a mutually beneficial society of our own is gone, replaced with the idea that the current capitalist society is the end of our road and we can only fight over what this society can give us. The idea that we have the mental, emotional and physical capacity to create a world instead of just submitting to what is on offer today is gone. In that fight for survival with a perceived world of finite resources, everybody else is the enemy. But in a fight to create something better, others, of course, become your friends and partners in solidarity.
Social justice movements and groups are all about creating mistrust and fear with no alternative vision for the future. Corroding trust in all institutions, ways of life, norms and values without proposing a better alternative is seen as progressive these days when it only leads to more mistrust and hatred of each other, more divisions, more fear, as well as more cynicism and nihilism.
Framing any events involving black people and the police through the prism of racism leads to more degraded trust and difficult relations between the police and the black community. The main role of the police is to be the armed wing of the government, keeping law and order. The role has never been to protect ordinary people, but to assume all interactions between any police officer and a black individual are tinged with racism, is just wrong. This framing does not help us understand any particular event, as the conclusion (racist interaction) is already presupposed. The idea that all police officers are racist is just ridiculous. Each of these individuals makes their own particular moral decisions. As in all facets of life, there are good and bad individuals.
Racialised anti-police brutality activism also puts the blame on individual police officers without objectively analysing the institution and its role in society. Always claiming racism with no basis for this claim in each particular context, does not move us forward in understanding institutions or the barriers they represent in our hopes to change society. It just leads to lowered expectations and fear. It leads to a complete degradation of the relationship between the police and black individual, without providing a positive alternative relation. It makes us afraid of any individual police officer approaching us, fearing the worst, without giving us solutions on how we can deal with the perceived problems. We are told to beware of the bogeyman without the understanding and weapons to help deal with the bogeyman.
A black woman, in Princeton, Louisiana, broke down, hysterical and scared to death before even knowing the reason she was stopped by a police officer. She was driving under the speed limit and he wanted to make sure she was OK, not tired or drunk but she had already assumed the worse.
The woman, whose name was Ayanna Reid Cruver, admitted ‘“I told him, ‘I was so scared.’ I knew he felt awful that I was that scared.… I never thought that in that situation I would feel fearful, but I legitimately felt horrified.” She claimed that the videos showing irresponsible police officers made her afraid when she was stopped herself. Numerous clips showing parts of interactions with the police can be found online. Often with no possibility for us to understand the context, the clip is released to force us to draw the conclusion that black people in the US are under siege from the police. Racial inequalities do exist but to assume that the causes are only racism and prejudices (as if nothing has changed over the years) does not help us to know reality and change it. What kind of liberation is it when we all end up as isolated individuals, scared to death of the police, thinking of them as enemies without the capacity to help us?
What kind of liberation do we get when end up isolated and afraid? What kind of liberation do we have when we are told not to trust anything around us so we end up trying to put ourselves in a tight individual cocoon, desperate to be protected from the scary world? What kind of black liberation is it when we tell the young black generations that all non-black people are out to get them? What kind of women’s liberation is it when we tell young women that all men are there to rape them or abuse them? What kind of purpose do we give to the new generations of idealists, hoping to take their turn and make their mark on our world? Today, we tell them that the world will always be as it is, with a certain amount of money, wealth, resources, fixed human characteristics, and fixed human relations. We tell them that society itself is fixed and that they have to limit their aspirations for the sake of society as a whole. We tell them that they are part of the problem because the rising number of people living on this planet of finite resources is itself a problem.
The solution resulting from this view of life is to manage these perceived limitations. How can we play around with taxes? Where can we build just a few extra houses? Who should get this particular amount of money? Which groups are more important than others so that we can give them a bigger part of our limited resources? The idea that the new generations are not just hands and mouths to feed, but new minds that could create a new organisation of society (with new opportunities for humanity) has been abandoned.
Instead, we tell people to deny reality (most of us are either men or women) and to ignore the apparently scary world to concentrate on one’s own belly button while making sure nothing can touch people in their developing cocoon of safe spaces. All will be well apparently if people feel good and beautiful. Social problems are now seen as psychological problems where experts can intervene and tell us how to live, denying our capacity for autonomy. Our psychology and behaviour are problematic apparently, so we now need a battery of experts directing us in all aspects of our life, private and public. We cannot brush our own teeth without experts competing to barrage us with contradictory instructions. Exercising our own ability and common sense to make decisions for our own life is seen as idiotic today. We are no more allowed to make our own mistakes, or our own choices, because a minority of individuals, especially the self-proclaimed leaders within our restricted and assigned identity groups, seem to always have the right answers.
From a past when we were fighting to create a world where we would want to live, today we ask the younger generation to accept the old one, the one created by others, while demanding they themselves live in illusions and denial. It is no more ‘the world is your oyster, be part of this world and be one of the creators of this world’, fighting to realise a better society. Today, we tell the new generation to be afraid and hide from this world, to ignore it or deny it, so that they can concentrate on their own little self; a self we tell them is only a tiny insignificant speck, a stain in the universe.
We tell them self-esteem is important while simultaneously telling them that the humanity they are a part of is destructive and a plague on earth. We tell them that acting upon the world and their environment is wrong or scary. We tell them that both their only control and opportunity in the world is to act upon their own biology and psychology and control their behaviour. Instead of telling them to go out into the world and make their mark, we tell them to look inward and forget about the world outside. Or we tell them to police and restrict others.
We can only be united again and create real solidarity between us if we believe we can discuss and argue with each other, find a common vision through debates, battling together to decide on a vision for society. We can only end the current divisions if we believe that we humans can have a say in how we organise each other, that our current society is not the last possible creation, and that we can create something better. What kind of society will be better for us? We can only decide this together if we discuss and debate ALL ideas and options. Yet this decision can only exist if we already believe we can change what we have today.
If we do not believe in the possibility of transforming our organisation into something better, then the only discussions we will carry on having are about managing each other, controlling others so that one group can get more of the pie than another, or controlling others so that we can all stay within self-imposed limits. Restricting debates, discussions and groups become useful weapons a fight for survival in this world of supposedly finite resources.
If you are too tired and cynical today, if the project of transforming society is too big and scary for you, do not prevent the younger generations from the possibility of making their own mark. Do not prevent those of us older people who still think that life is too important to give up on it. I, for one, would like a world where my skin colour, my gender, my ethnicity, my religion, or my sexuality, do not define me. If we act, we can make it or fail to make it. We can only fail if we admit defeat without trying. This current acceptance of defeat needs to be challenged. In a fight to create a different society where all of us can have a better life, in a fight to organise ourselves better, others become friends and partners in real solidarity. Let’s recognise our friends. Whether we are black, white, female, male, abled, disabled, homosexual, heterosexual, Trans, Christian, Jew, Muslim or in any other religious denominations, we can fight together for a bigger future.
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Brilliant article, in its inclusions, too. The cameos of black parents trying to protect their children from the police violence they have suffered and know their children will is gut-wrenching, especially as the children absorb the awful message. The slightly funnier video on delightful anticipation of prospective”mixed-race” children counterpoised to interviews of the actual lives of many such persons really exposes the moral bankruptcy of the racialized and exoticized categories involved, though at the purely biological and genetic level mixing and hybridization are indeed natural and often beneficial processes.