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Thursday, 12 January 2012

On not being a saint...

I was thinking of including this as a coda to the Diane Abbott piece last week, but that was already too long.  But a reference here to this rather silly piece by Miranda Sawyer made me think I should post it anyway.

The point I wanted to stress is that when I comment on issues like what will inevitably become known as Abbott-gate (or maybe there is a threshold of brouhaha to be crossed before something officially obtains 'gate' status) is that I am not setting myself up as some sort of model character.  When I am talking about how we ought to think/act/speak in accordance with some ethical demands, I am by no means claiming that that is what I do, or even what I have always tried to do in the past; just what I think I would like to thought of as now (and henceforth) trying my best to do.  It's as much a statement to myself: a commitment to take on the ethical burden.

And that applies as much to historical ethics and good practice as it does to attitudes to race, gender, sexuality, politics and so on.

Like many another of my sort of age and background (and this is what makes me think that Sawyer's argument is so silly) I grew up with all sorts of casually racist views, ones moreover (and this I guess is a telling point, relating to what I was saying before) that I didn't realise really were racist.  My parents, I am proud to say, did what they could to bring me up not to be racist - at least insofar as the attitudes considered to be racist in the '70s were concerned and often ones that went beyond that.  Like many another adolescent boy I was a pretty homophobic teenager too - in spite of my Mum's best attempts to stop me from being.  I've held ideas that I now see were wrong and indeed offensive at various points since; doubtless ten years on I'll think that views I hold now are wrong and offensive.  I've not always tried all that hard not to.
So Sawyer's argument that kids who use offensive terms without causing offence to each other prove that the terms are inoffensive is nonsense.  Take the word 'nigger'.  OK, so black kids refer to each other as 'nigger' and (according to Sawyer) even refer to their white friends as 'my nigger'.  Whoop-de-do.  There was a lot of that talk in the '70s as I recall.  Even some teachers I experienced used the words 'nig-nog' and 'sambo' and - hey - we were all right with that, and the black kids (both of them) went along with it, and many of us didn't even see it as racist, so everything was OK, right, Miranda?  The word nigger is inextricably linked to slavery and the oppression of black people.  It has been appropriated in black culture as a form of resistance and solidarity that - in some ways - acts to remove the force from the term.  But I know of black people who find their kids' use of the term deeply upsetting and offensive.  More to the point, the adoption of the word from black kids by white kids just reinstates it, more or less, in its original position.  But more insidiously.  All that quite apart from reinforcing as a natural state of affairs the contingent European skin-colour-based race-categorisation that really we ought to be doing away with.  No.  This won't do.  It won't do at all.

All that said, I think that prejudice is quite a normal part of socialisation.  I wouldn't say natural - would 'a natural part of socialisation be an oxymoron'?  If humans are social animals who use language, then it would be unnatural not to be socialised through language, I suppose, but I digress.  Categorisation, though, is surely part and parcel of linguistic acquisition, whether metaphoric or metonymic.  It is what helps you make sense of the world.  It is, in Lacanian terms, an essential component of the Big Other, the symbolic order.  Such categorisation precedes you; it precedes your establishment as an ethical subject (in Lacanian terms again).  This is where Derrida and Lacan were both right in (in one way or another) unhitching Saussurian linguistics' signifier from the signified and/or arguing that (in the reverse of Saussure's formula) the signifier precedes the signified.  From there it is but a small step to assigning (and no step at all to receiving the assignment) of particular characteristics, metaphorically, to particular categories.  But if all this is fairly normal and - in a general and specific way - 'natural' it is by no means a fixed state of affairs, any more than languages are fixed.  You can change them; you can rob a term or a category of some of its specific metaphoric content, you can deny that something really is a category.  The categories themselves are not natural though.  It's true, as the anti-racism posters say, that babies have no sense of skin-colour-based race; it's also true that they have no sense of Spanish or Scottish, Filipino or Frisian, Jewish or Jain. What seems to me (if this makes sense) to be 'more natural' (or more fundamental) than prejudice is a sense of shared humanity.  It takes, as I think endless examples would show, quite a lot of hard work to overcome, with prejudice, the basic desire to help a fellow human being in difficulty or distress.  The tragedy is that it is hard work that can often be done.  Christ's parable of the good Samaritan essentially only makes this point: do the right thing; do what is in fact the more natural thing.

So what I am saying - to myself as much as anyone else - is this.  Don't beat yourself up about having (or having had) prejudiced views; it's normal - it  might not be something to be proud of but it doesn't make you and everyone you know a bad person.  Therefore it makes no retrospective moral judgement on you, your family, your entire culture, to change your views and your categories. Why make it into a big deal?  You have nothing to lose and quite a lot (I should say) to gain by changing your views and, historically, that's pretty normal too.  It costs you nothing.  Believing in a shared humanity, I think, is rather simpler, easier than prejudice - it comes more naturally - so save yourself the effort.