What is the opposite of equality? It is inequality, surely. And what does inequality look like? Well that’s any time in which an outcome varied solely due to the nature of a person’s inherited characteristics.
So if two people have precisely the same qualifications and fitness for a role, but one of them has a racial or sexual difference and is either advanced or held back because of it, you could legitimately say that the subjects had been treated unequally.
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Even in a country as tolerant and open as Britain, it is undeniable that historically people have been disadvantaged because of their sex, sexuality or skin colour. Roles for which they have been eminently fit and suited have been closed to them because of a characteristic over which they have no say. Not all the bad blood from this has gone away.
Of course the way to dissipate any remaining bad blood would be to visibly and consistently strive to appoint people to positions based on their merit, confident that in the course of time people of ability will rise to the positions which they deserve. But what would be the most divisive way in which to go about trying to address such inequalities? Well, that would be to very visibly and obviously create and institute a mirror version of the old system: to attempt to carve out special privileges for people who look like those who suffered discrimination in the past, and to treat with a special disdain and contempt the people who look like they might have once benefited from discrimination.
There have been a number of fine examples of this emerging catastrophe in recent days. There has, for instance, been the exceptionally light-touch policing which allowed early Black Lives Matter protests to descend into violence and disorder in London. And the very heavy-handed policing (justified, as it happens, but which could have been used at the previous protests) when groups of predominantly white and often violent protestors turned up to ‘defend’ statues which were under attack from some BLM protestors.
Then there was the sacking of the 24-year old who arranged the “White Lives Matter Burnley” stunt, after a month of hearing politicians, media, corporations and street protestors repeatedly citing the slogan of BLM.
Of course, you might for a time say that ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be a promotional matter and ‘White Lives Matter’ a sackable one. But it begs the question of how long you want to keep that standard up for? A month? A year? Indefinitely? If indefinitely isn’t achievable we get back to that issue I have raised here before, which is how you would know when you have ‘over-corrected’ for long enough.
The question hovers over institution after institution, even at places that used to be our major seats of learning.
Most people in the UK will never have heard of Priyamvada Gopal. A scholar of ‘post-colonial studies’, she holds a fellowship at Cambridge University and lectures in the English faculty there, despite not being especially distinguished even in her own field. A small body of work sits behind her — but a greater body of grievance clearly sits within her. Two years ago she made headlines after berating the college porters at Kings College, Cambridge, accusing them of calling her “Madam” instead of “Dr Gopal”. And this act of “racism” caused Dr Gopal to not only berate the lower-order porters, but to threaten to withhold her talents from the inhabitants of King’s.
That mixture of haughtiness and incendiarism appears to be Gopal’s preferred register. On Twitter she regularly produces content which is so unbecoming of an academic at any institutions — let alone at our second-greatest university — that I confess that for a while, after first coming across her, I assumed that she was a spoof. Surely nobody who acts in such a deranged and deliberately provocative manner could possibly have any role at an institution of higher learning?
But she does, and this week Cambridge reaped their latest reward from her presence. On Wednesday Gopal chose to send out a message on Twitter saying:
“I’ll say it again. White Lives
As white lives.”
Quite how this racist little rant adds to the store of Cambridge University’s reputation in the world would be a matter for that university’s authorities. If it had any. As though to prove that her intentions were honourable and sane, Gopal followed this up with a Tweet simply saying, “Abolish whiteness”.
Which is of course totally normal behaviour, and definitely the way that academics at publicly-funded institutions are meant to pass their time. But what was most interesting on this occasion was once again not the ugly and divisive rhetoric of one undistinguished academic, but rather the reaction of the University’s authorities.
Amazingly enough, Gopal’s statement that the lives of white people do not matter did not land with universal acclaim. Surprisingly — which must have come as a great grief to her — some members of the public objected to her use of her platform and time to spread racism. Some complained to the university. And on Wednesday evening Cambridge University issued its own statement:
The University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial and deplores in the strongest terms abuse and personal attacks. These attacks are totally unacceptable and must cease.
— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) June 24, 2020
Of course that statement is a flat-out lie. Cambridge has been deeply unwilling to stand by its academics in recent years. Last year the University dismissed the young researcher Noah Carl after a mob that was totally ignorant of Carl’s areas of research decided that he was guilty of racism. A most cursory investigation was performed, and then they revoked the contract they had already given him.
Also in the past year came the case of Jordan Peterson. The Canadian academic and professor was meant to take up a visiting position at Cambridge University, only for the institition to rescind their offer after it was brought to their attention that one fan at a meet-and-greet had once had his picture taken beside Dr Peterson while wearing a t-shirt saying “I’m a proud Islamophobe”.
Both Peterson and Carl are white men. Both were dismissed by Cambridge University for racism ‘adjacency’ (to use one of the weasel words of the time). Neither was remotely guilty of the charge of racism because neither man is a racist. But I suspect that if either of them had ever tweeted out a statement saying, “Black lives don’t matter”, or “Indian lives don’t matter” or similar racist garbage, then I strongly suspect that Cambridge University would have dismissed them even more swiftly than they did. If that were possible.
So what is the difference? The only variable that explains Cambridge’s prejudicial standards is that Gopal is not white. Cambridge University has carved out a racism-allowance for Gopal where she can act in a manner in which others would not. She is literally priviliged.
And it is not just an allowance, but a positive ladder. After her Twitter rant, Gopal started to point to abusive messages which her racist tweets had garnered and pointed to these as evidence that she must be right — a renowned cry-bully move. But on Thursday she announced how well this had all worked for her, because the evening before “Cambridge promoted me to a full Professorship”. Was there some sudden surge in quality in Gopal’s work? A sudden swell of academic material which suddenly opened the University’s eyes to the gem that was sitting in their midsts? Clearly not.
Like all really successful 21st-century privilege-wielders, Gopal knows how to play the game. You pretend that you are in a position of weakness and vulnerability, when you are actually in a position of power. You present yourself as a victim as soon as people call you out as an aggressor. And you pretend to be the offended party after going out of your way to cause maximum offence yourself.
I don’t know how long these new racist standards will be allowed to run. Perhaps longer than they did before. But what should be clear by now is that anything less likely to foster harmony or tolerance than these current inverted standards could hardly be imagined.