Moving toward a Way Forward
I seem to remember a line in one of the Godfather films in which a character advises “Don’t get angry. It blurs your judgement.” That’s sound advice. Actually, when dealing with controversy, getting angry not only blurs judgement, causing us to say unhelpful things, but makes us sound shriller, less reasoned, and therefore less convincing. For those trying to advance reason over emotionalism, it also undermines our basic point.
In my recent review of Joanna Williams’ book, How Woke Won I suggested there is a way through “which could enable us to throw off both the Wokeist yoke and some of the unthinking prejudices against which they protest” but I did not elaborate what that might be. That’s because I see only a glimpse of it and am unclear exactly what we must do. I think what I have in mind is a feeling that angry confrontation is not the best way to deal with the situation. Perhaps we need to identify and consider Wokeists’ concerns and consider some of the ways reason might have been used unreasonably in order to set an alternative vision to capture the moral high ground.
For instance, if we look at British history, there’s little doubt that first slavery and later empire played a huge part, not only in what we did, but in the basis on which our society was built. We do not need to be ashamed of our history, but we do need to recognise it wasn’t all good. Indeed, it was something of a mixed blessing for most people in this country too, and likewise for the people in other parts of the world. Recognising the whole picture needn’t mean losing sight of the good among the bad, but helping people to learn to assess information in an open and honest way.
Some of our original colonies in the Americas, if we include the Caribbean under that basic heading, were used to grow produce we could not grow at home. Three crops stand out: tobacco, sugar, and cotton. These needed huge amounts of labour to tend and process them and labour was available in Africa in the form of slaves for sale. The Royal African Company was set up under a royal charter to administer that trade and given a monopoly to ensure a good return for its investors. The Duke of York was a major shareholder and went on to become King for a short time. This, then, was not a few maverick merchants with poor morals seeing an opportunity for a quick fortune, but a policy of the English government for the enrichment of the nation. The result was the notorious Triangle Trade: manufactured products sold in Africa, slaves bought and transported to be sold in America, and American produce travelling home to England. The English people, of course, knew only of the sugar and tobacco which came into our ports as a result.
The Middle Passage was notoriously cruel, both directly and indirectly, for beside the suffering on the voyage and after arrival, it obviously created a demand for African merchants to increase their incursions into the interior to capture more unfortunate victims to sell.
In 1776 the colonies on the American mainland rebelled and although the trade continued there was no longer the same goodwill between the two governments. Escaped slaves who could make it to a British naval ship would be able to work their passage to England and could step onto the quay as free people, bringing news of the conditions they’d endured to the English population. This increased the momentum of the abolitionist movement which culminated in 1807 in the end of the trade.
One effect of this was to increase British imperial activities as the nation now perceived a moral purpose in the Empire. Wherever the British hoisted our flag we would abolish slavery, which gave another justification to our efforts, at least, in our own eyes. Whether those conquered would have agreed is a different matter. Like the American colonies, the Empire also became a source of materials to feed British industry and a market for its products.
Two implications follow from this brief overview. The first is that our historical wealth which made the UK a major world economy is largely derived from these two activities. They powered the Industrial Revolution. The second is that it is simplistic to regard Race as the major driver or racism as the motivation. Although there will doubtless be an element of superiority in the way the British and other European powers regarded their entitlement to empires, the real imperative was economic, and racial differences were incidental. Indeed, exploiting people was what powerful players did. The Lancashire mill workers were also overworked and underpaid with very few rights in the workplace. the rural poor had always been exploited. Until the Black Death mediæval peasants had to work for nothing on their lords’ lands. Only the resulting shortage of labour requiring more work than they were duty-bound to put in led to the work becoming waged.
Empire and slavery were both ancient institutions which no one questioned at the time. The cruelty of the Transatlantic trade was what changed attitudes and empires only came into question in the mid 20th century as the need for independent nations secure within their borders became apparent after the horrors of the 2nd World War. It is easy in the light of that to question why stronger powers could think it legitimate to march into other countries and claim them for themselves, but no one thought it odd at the time.
While not justifying the harm done, and much harm was done, it is also reasonable to recognise the complexity of good and bad which resulted. The best we can really say is that the world we live in now is largely the result of the past. The dislocated slaves met and married different people from those they would have known otherwise. The same could be said for soldiers moved around to maintain Imperial positions. As a result they had different descendants and generations have been born who otherwise would not have been. In the same way, there are the unseen victims; the people who might have been but were never conceived because their parents never met. We cannot know who they would have been. The world is what it is, and there is little to be done to remedy it. Some have gained existence. Others have never been, but we cannot know what that means, for we cannot know any other present from the one we have. Those most in need of an apology have never existed to receive one. Those hurt in the past have descendants who benefit now by existing, and yet might suffer because of the knowledge of what happened and its legacy in social attitudes. Consequences are mixed.
One place where that social legacy remains powerful is the Southern United States, where racial attitudes have become so embedded in the culture past generations sought to enforce them through law and the existing institutions and society is still likely to be influenced by the disproportionate opportunities that created in the past. It follows that the idea society remains inherently biased towards one group of people, easily distinguished as white, against a second group of black people, would be an obvious analysis of the situation there. The basic premise of Critical Race Theory might well hold true in that context. Racism was institutionalised in those States. The laws were only repealed in living memory. The culture there may well, and I suspect probably does, divide people into black and white and see everyone through that lens.
The problem arises when that analysis is universalised, as if being not just a peculiarity of a local culture, but an inherent fact of life throughout the world. Now, I would not wish to deny people are, to some extent tribal in nature. Wherever we go there is a tendency to see the world as inhabited by two groups: them and us. That might be characterised as British and foreign, Jew and Gentile, any other nationality and those who are not. The divide might be on the basis of any in-group versus the rest of the world, not necessarily national or ethnic. Yes, people do tend to identify most with those they see as similar in some way and have a lesser loyalty to others, and that can be expressed in racial prejudice. However, that’s generally a lesser matter than the murderous passion of the American South. Most people I meet would recognise the need to be fair when dealing with people in an official capacity and would think it wrong if citizens were treated differently on the basis of some arbitrary characteristic. They would see it as corrupt if an official worked according to a hierarchy such as family first, then townsfolk followed by regional and national identities, even if they might behave like that socially. My experience is mainly limited to the UK. Other parts of the world with different cultures might well have different expectations.
Britain has not had laws to institutionalise racism for over 350 years. Until the 1960s we had no laws banning it either. This does not mean there were no British racists or that racist cultures might not develop in certain institutions, but that there was no general policy in that direction in the UK as there was in the US. It is clear various forms of racial prejudice did develop in the British population as evidenced by comments people made or the reaction to immigration from the former colonies, but this was not official policy in the way it was in some other countries. There were no laws to privilege one section of the population over others.
The purpose of this rather detailed consideration of history is to highlight the value of a fuller consideration of issues than can be contained in a few simple slogans or in the unquestioning acceptance of one single viewpoint. Issues are complex and can only be done justice through complexity. Indeed, historians could probably see many shortcomings or errors in my simplistic view, and make improvements to it. Any simplistic approach will be unfair and unreasonable, is likely to cause offence and occasion an equally simplistic opposing response. Such opposition is not the way to promote either understanding or social harmony, since it will always leave one side feeling misrepresented and resentful.
The way forward then, might appear to be to encourage acceptance of a wider range of sources of information, to accept no single source is likely to be fully authoritative, and to take evidence from several quarters. Nor should a true perspective be assumed to lie at the midpoint between different opinions, for the information should be assessed and weighed as to its credibility and quantity, and it should be recognised different people will come to different conclusions when doing that.
Engaging in such multi-sourced study would be the way to approach issues and develop values, accepting it is fine for opinions to differ within the understanding that a reasoned assessment is the best approach to knowledge. The problem will be in persuading campaigners to abandon partisan positions for honest enquiry so they will allow such enquiry to resume without constraint. The challenge is not how to oppose Wokeists. It will be how to persuade those currently exercising authority from a Wokeist viewpoint to abandon their presumed certainties and engage in open enquiry, when strident voices urge them to continue in their authoritarian ways and economic pressures discourage schools buying more than one set of textbooks to teach a subject impartially.
Yet not doing so simply isn’t education.