The imagined evils of the fiction known as ‘Cultural Appropriation’ are back in the news thanks to a shot-from-the-hip, Trump-esque tweet sent by the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Dawn Butler:
My immediate thought was that her tweet was a joke. First, because she is an opposition front bench politician whose own political party is currently embroiled in a struggle against accusations of actual, serious racism. Second, because cuddly ‘sin-tax’-loving Jamie Oliver has said that Teresa May “doesn’t give a fuck” about childhood obesity and is, one assumes, a man of the Left. However, St Jamie conspicuously failed to endorse St Jeremy at the last election (drawing the condemnation of the pulchritudinous but now largely forgotten Bake Off contestant, Ruby Tandoh). Perhaps, then, this tweet is merely payback for failing to fall in behind the Absolute Boy?
The responses to Butler’s cretinous and embarrassing tweet are almost entirely critical, satirical and/or mocking, and yet at the time of writing she has not yet replied to any in order to point out that she was simply having a laugh. This suggests that she was in earnest; and that is far more problematic. It’s problematic because, in the event of a Corbyn victory, she may well end up being the government minister who will have significant influence over policy relating to equalities legislation.
It is clear, I hope, that Ms Butler’s outburst is so idiotic as to be unworthy of refutation. Instead, I want to look at what lies beneath the miserable and destructive business of identity politics itself. Or, rather, I want to suggest a solution.
Different Kinds of Liberalism
During a former life spent teaching in UK secondary schools, it amused me that teachers were expected to ‘celebrate’ both ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘community cohesion’. In a pluralist state like the UK, both are important, but my amusement was at the lack of reflection upon what either of these apparent goods really entail, or how they relate to one another. The former suggests that we are all different, the latter implies that we are all the same. Both are true, of course. We are all different (as cultural, racial, religious, socio-economic, etc. groups, as well as individuals), but at the same time we are all basically the same (i.e. we are human beings). If ‘cultural diversity’ is stressed too much, then ‘community cohesion’ will suffer, and vice versa.
When it comes to the political views of British people, at one extreme we find the devotees of nakedly racist movements like the BNP, the EDL and Britain First (and portions of all the main parties, too) who take the view that ethnic, religious and cultural differences in the UK are so radical that any sort of ‘community cohesion’ is impossible. The only possible solution is assimilation of the dominant culture by minority groups. In the middle we find those who would regard themselves as tolerant and ‘liberal’, but even here many have a blind-spot when it comes to Jews/Muslims/gays/Catholics/Tories/etc. In other words, few people are genuinely blind when it comes to diversity. A progressive liberal might think it disgusting to hate black people simply because they are black, yet proudly wear a t-shirt announcing that they hate Tories simply because they are Tories. (And yes, I realise this is not comparing like with like, but both are species of identity politics and identically irrational).
At the other extreme are the flag wavers for multiculturalism, who celebrate society as a melting pot of various cultures, faiths and ethnicities and are believers in ‘cohesion through diversity’. The problem is that their world view is just a hunch, and largely rests upon a paradox. That paradox is known by philosophers as ‘The Papadam Paradox’, which may be explained thus:
You believe that multiculturalism has improved British life. You remember the grey monotony of Britain in the past; the Britain of Mellow Birds, Wimpeys, and Nitrokeg beer. Now, your local high street is a vivid panorama of peoples and cultures — a Polish supermarket, a venerable Indian Restaurant, a coffee shop selling actual cappuccinos (not instant coffee with squirty cream on top), a Mexican place, a great Lebanese that make their own Labneh, a chicken joint founded in South Africa selling dishes from Mozambique, and plenty more besides. So one evening you go to your local Indian restaurant. Years ago, you came here for Chicken Tikka Masala, but now you know better. You know that ‘Indian’ restaurants are actually mostly run by Bangladeshis, and nowadays you want some authentic Fuchka to start and then Magur Macher Jhol, with Shandesh for afters. Multicultural Britain has broadened your horizons.
But something doesn’t feel quite right at the Prince of Bengal tonight. The efficient Maître D’ who shows you to your table is an elegant Danish woman called Elsebeth. The polite waiter who takes your order is a pale ginger bloke called Kevin, and when the chef comes to your table to reassure you that the Magur is indeed sustainably sourced, he turns out to be a Spaniard called Miguel Ángel. The food is delicious, the muzak is still Lata Mangeshkar and the owner is still Mr Yazuddin Ahmed, but you can’t help feeling that the whole experience is somehow less ‘authentic’ now. This is the paradox of multiculturalism. Your ability to enjoy the fruits of multiculturalism rests upon the monoculturalism of others. Moreover, it tends to require minority groups to remain monocultures so that the majority group (white middle-class people) can continue to enjoy a varied and exciting melting pot of flavours and cultures.
Or to think of it another way, what would be your response to a BNP politician who complains about ‘Britishness’ being diluted through ethnically mixed relationships and ‘foreign’ culture? Is it different from your response to a Nigerian woman who complains that her children are losing touch with their own culture, listening to Western music, preferring McDonalds to yams and egusu soup?
The point is almost too obvious to labour. We are not as liberal as we think we are. We tend to regard cosmopolitan, white Anglo-Saxons as open-minded and refreshingly free from Little-Englander group-think. They are to be congratulated because they have broken out of, or risen above, the narrow confines of their tired native culture. At the same time, we are less comfortable about members of minority groups ‘breaking out’ of their own cultures. To talk about those cultures as ‘narrow’ or something that needs to be ‘risen above’ would strike us an condescending and offensive.
To suggest that one culture is superior to another is regarded as bigotry, but only if the culture being praised is Graeco-Latin, Judeo-Christian, (mostly) white, and predominantly European. Those who talk of ‘protecting’ a white culture are immediately suspected of harbouring views which are at least racist, if not white-supremacist; yet to talk of the need to protect Cornish culture, or ‘black’ culture, or Ghanaian culture is uncontroversial. One reason for this is that white (European, Judeo-Christian) culture is the dominant culture in the West and thus needs no special protection, while minority cultures do, by definition.
There is a strand of liberalism which many associate with enlightenment rationalism and which flourished in the civil rights, anti-racist and pro-feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, I would say that the liberal tradition reaches much further back through the human rights theorists and economists of the Salamanca School, the medieval scholastics, the Christian gospels and to Ancient philosophy. But whatever its life story, this liberalism was founded upon the equal dignity of each and every human being and was therefore opposed to any sort of double-standards or special pleading.
Then, by the 1980s, a subset of these liberals had embraced ‘identity politics’ — a postmodern worldview that owes a great deal to the ramblings of Foucauld, Derrida and, ultimately, like so much other poison in the world, Marx. This new liberalism is rather fond of double standards. What speech you may or may not use no longer depends upon the word uttered, but upon the utterer. Some words are permitted for some groups, forbidden for others. The struggle for sexual equality has largely abandoned any pretence of equal treatment, ditto for racial equality. It is now widely accepted that it is simply impossible to be racist toward white people. Much legitimate questioning or questioning of anything relating to a group or minority group is effectively forbidden on the grounds that it would constitute, for example, homophobia, misogyny or Islamophobia.
Yet, as with all systems which rest on shaky philosophical foundations, the new liberalism is beginning to eat itself. Because the transgender ‘community’ is a smaller minority than women or gays, it is worthy of greater protection. (I am well aware that women are not a numerical minority, but it makes sense to treat them as if they were due to the relative lack of power in society as a whole.) Male homosexuals lose their protected status when they dare to question transgender ‘rights’, as do feminists who are dismissed as TERFs.
This approach has Derrida written all over it. For Derrida, “the author of a text is not the authority on its meaning… the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.” Thus, if a speaker says something that a listener interprets as “offensive,” that “offensive” feeling is considered valid, even if it misconstrues what the speaker intended to communicate.
Derrida’s writings focused heavily on the supposedly oppressive nature of language. According to Derrida, meaning is constructed by oppositions, which always take the form of a positive and negative. For example ‘man’ is positive and ‘woman’ negative… and modern men and women have a duty “to deconstruct the opposition… to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” In other words, “man” must be turned into a negative term and “woman” into a positive term; they must be flip-flopped. It is no accident that so much contemporary outrage turns on the matter of speech.
It is hard to overstate quite how radical this new kind of liberalism is. For thousands of years, we have made moral judgements on the basis of human behaviour. Or, more accurately, we have judged a person’s character or virtue using his or her behaviour (or actions) as reliable evidence. The world is full of people who say one thing and do another. What matters is walking the walk, not talking the talk. There can hardly be a human being alive who has not at some time said to a parent “I wish you were dead!” and yet we do not judge these stroppy teenagers in the same way that judge patricidal or matricidal murders (in fact we might praise them for using the subjunctive). But now speech matters, perhaps even more than action in some cases. Derrida would be proud that ‘hate speech’ is now, de facto, a hate crime in the UK, and the test is entirely subjective. As the police guidance puts it, a hate crime is ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’ (my emphasis). As Derrida put it, “the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.”
Moral judgements also work the other way around. Time was when hifalutin words would have been counted as empty if not accompanied by some corresponding behaviour. Now, virtue is not lived out, or (literally) ’embodied’, but merely ‘signalled’ (spoken, tweeted, memed, shared, liked, etc.). A politician shows that she cares about refugees by tweeting a photograph of herself holding a card saying #refugees welcome rather than, say, actually welcoming refugees.
It is unsurprising, then, that one of the battlegrounds of identity politics is culture. The Marxist critic Raymond Williams, in his polemical dictionary Keywords, suggested that ‘culture’ has three meanings. There is culture in the sense of cultural enrichment, the process of becoming ‘cultured’. Second, there is culture in the sense of a way of life (as in ‘Italian culture’ or, alas, ‘rape culture’) And third, there is culture as an activity — opera and visiting art galleries.
The only definition that remains socially acceptable is definition 2 — a way of life. To suggest that culture entails enrichment (definition 1), or that it is some kind of activity, is problematic to say the least. Or rather, post-Derrida, any culture can be enriching, just as long as it is not western, European culture. Jollof rice and Dangdut are enriching, whereas rice pudding and Vaughan Williams are seen as nostalgia for a dead culture. The third definition — culture as an activity — must be judged upon whether the culture practised or enjoyed is praiseworthy, or not.
There has long been a certain strand within liberalism that is wary of judging cultures one against another, and this has led to some appalling conclusions. If all cultures are equally praiseworthy, then it becomes impossible to compare, let alone criticise, any cultural phenomena at all. The problem with this position is that it leads ‘liberals’ tacitly to condone practices and customs that, as ‘liberals’, they would otherwise condemn — misogyny, child marriage, polygamy, genital mutilation, and so forth. The rather unpleasant history of white European efforts to ‘civilise’ benighted natives throughout colonial history is undoubtedly behind such multicultural permissiveness, but there are either practices which should be (universally) condemned, or there are not.
Moral judgements have become increasingly subjective, and relativism, both metaphysical and cultural, is in the ascendent. Some like to imagine that ‘morality’ is something which concerns only bigots, or religious nut-jobs, but morals (or its Greek-derived synonym ethics) is simply a system by which we live (from mors or ethos — “customs”). Anyone who has ever said of something, “that’s wrong” or praised or blamed a person for something they have done (or not done), has made a moral judgement. In fact, we all make countless moral judgements every day, it is only that it does not seem like it because we do not make moral decisions like the rational actors imagined by Enlightenment philosophers (rather we make most moral decisions through our habitual dispositions).
The Dehumanising Effect of Identity Politics
Although, ultimately, it is identity politics which leads to embarrassingly crass accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’, the problem is far more profound. Our moral schemata have not simply become more subjective and relative over time, but have rather deposed the idea of objectivity. We cannot judge a person (culture, practice, custom, etc.) using objective human criteria, because every person is politically ‘situated’ by their race, sex, gender, history, sexuality, culture, religion, class, and so forth. The subjectivist ethical framework of identity politics does not explicitly deny our shared ‘humanness’ but it no longer forms part of the moral calculation.
Yet, at the same time, concentrating upon the particular ‘situation’ of persons (rather than their humanity in general) allows for gross generalisation. Thus to assert that “all men are rapists” is deemed by many (including some men) to be an uncontroversial statement. The reply to those who dare suggest that not all men are rapists is, according to the journalist Kiri Rupiah, “When you use the phrase “not all men” — or invest in its mythology — you’re giving yourself a pass, leeway to continue performing socially acceptable toxic masculinity without consequence, whether or not that’s your intention.” That smack-down of reason and logic is from an article called Men are trash … end of discussion.
And that tells us what is at stake here — the end of discussion. It is demonstrably true that not all men are rapists, but if it becomes impossible to speak the truth, the discussion is not only ended, but impossible. Public discourse has never been more moralising and so quick to attack and condemn, and yet discussion — the calm and rational exchange of ideas and the desire to persuade and understand — is conspicuous by its absence. Those who hold a different point of view are not to be engaged with, or even ‘unfriended’ (how innocent the world of Facebook now seems!) but blocked, ‘reported’ and publicly shamed. Political opponents are ‘the enemy’, and anyone who disagrees with me must be a racist, a fascist or a bigot. Possibly all three.
Even science, the sparkling jewel of the Enlightenment, is not safe. Students protesting against a lecture by the political scientist Charles Murray chanted:
Science has always been used to legitimise racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’
When the organisers of the anti-Trump March for Science tweeted:
colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,”
actual scientists were forced to defend their disciplines against unwarranted politicisation, fearing derailment of the focus on preservation of science to an intersectional ideology. In South Africa, the #ScienceMustFall and #DecolonizeScience progressive student movement announced that science was ‘only one way of knowing’ that people had been taught to accept. They suggested witchcraft as one alternative. But if things look bleak for the sciences, the outlook for the humanities in terrifying.
Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto
This line of Terence — “I am human, and thus nothing human is alien to me” — is all the more remarkable and generous considering Terence’s own life story. From North Africa (Maya Angelou considers him the first poet of the African diaspora), he came to Rome as a slave, eventually being freed by his owner. Unsurprisingly, the plays of Terence show a highly attuned understanding of human nature. More surprisingly, his portrait of human beings is free of rancour. Terence has his audience laugh at moral degenerates. If we are to recover some sense of equilibrium in public discourse, we must somehow rediscover a sense of what it is to be human.
Aristotle, as is so often the case, can perhaps be helpful to us here. In asking what a human being is, Aristotle suggests that there is something which is essential, namely being a member of a particular species. It might be difficult to put one’s finger upon exactly what that essence is, and we may disagree on the precise answer. The theologian may say that it is being ‘made in the image of God’, the scientist might talk of belonging to a particular genus, the philosopher thinks of an animal ordinarily capable of rational thought — Descartes’ thinking thing. The point is that there is something shared by each and every human being that makes a human being a human being and not a rhinoceros or a tea-pot.
To understand what this essence is, we need also to understand what Aristotle is talking about when he refers to the the accidental properties of human beings. Having a large nose is an accidental property, as is being left-handed or more than six feet tall. But race, gender, beliefs and cultural identities are also accidental. That is not to say that such properties are random or unimportant, simply that they are superimposed upon the shared fact of humanness. Nor is it the case that these accidental properties are never a matter for ethical judgement — there may be many reasons why, in some cases, women should be treated differently from men, or adults from children, etc — but the basis for moral reasoning (i.e. thinking about what is the right thing to do) is what makes us alike (humanness), not what makes us different (race, gender, culture, etc.).
By reflecting upon the essence of human beings, Aristotle concluded that the (morally) good life is one which leads to the flourishing, or fulfilment, of a human being. This means acquiring virtues, which make living a good life easier or ‘second nature’. The four cardinal virtues are, of course, Prudence, Temperateness, Courage, and Justice. It is with respect to the fourth — Justice — that accidental properties begin to play a role. Aristotle’s famous example concerns the distribution of flutes: it should not be the ‘high born’ or wealthy who receive the flutes, but the most skilled flute players (because they will better actualise the proper end of the flute itself, which is to make beautiful music). Thus, a poor person (or a sick person, or a child) will need more help from his family, neighbours and friends than would a wealthy (healthy, or adult) person. The help is given, however, to the same end: human flourishing, or the good life.
Therefore, virtue ethics would not have us treat human beings as if each individual were exactly the same, but crucially it does not lose sight of what is essential, and what is accidental. (To repeat, ‘accidental properties’ are not unimportant or unworthy of celebration, but simply features that do not define the essence — they are, you might say, at best aspects of our identity, but not the deepest reality of our identity.) Nonetheless, beginning always with what is essential, not marginal, can help us avoid two especially poisonous concepts of identity politics. The first is group essentialism: the view that group identities are given and have historically unchanging essences (i.e. culturally and historically determined). Though there is some truth in this, the problem here is the essentialist presumption: identity is given as an objective fact, based on ascriptive features. Another facet of identity politics is the veneration of difference, which also emphasises the group belongings of individuals to ethnic, religious, sexual (etc.) groups. Human beings, then, are defined in contradistinction to some other. Women are not men, black people are not white, and so forth.
While the ethical schema of Aristotle does not prevent consideration of the history, culture and stories of groups, or the realities of difference between groups, and between individuals, it keeps our feet firmly on the ground when it comes to our shared humanity. It does so by never letting us assume that some feature is essential when in fact it is accidental, but also by reminding us that, however different we may be from one another, we are alike (nay, identical) in the most fundamental way. If we lose sight of that truth (and we largely have) then we lose our humanity with it. #Jerk may not be “a word you put in front of stuff to sell it”, but neither is it any way to characterise an entire group of human beings.