Imagine a list of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ being published which included the instruction “Put white people’s feelings ahead of your own”. In what world might such an instruction be possible? In apartheid South Africa perhaps. Or plantation-era America, possibly. But in the 21st century?
The answer is nowhere, and obviously. Certainly it is impossible to imagine any document including such a demand of black people being passed around social media today by otherwise responsible and decent citizens. Yet throughout recent days — most especially Tuesday this week when users on Instagram had a ‘blackout’ day — instructions like this have been rife.
Lists on how to behave, what to think and what to say have been sent around. But of course the instructions are intended not for black people but for white people — instructions like ‘Check yourself’ and “Don’t expect black people to educate you. If you learn from a black educator, compensate them financially.”
All across the social media platforms these and many other not-so-passive lists of passive-aggressive demands have been issued. All rely on material that has been gestating for years. But this time — in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota — there seems to be an added push, with far greater pressure on people to accept and sign up to them.
This time, perfectly normal people seem to feel that they have to get in lock-step with the movement. To post what everyone is meant to post. To make sure they do nothing that will make them stand out from the herd. It is understandable. At this moment many people will be noticing there are actual as well as virtual mobs — of admirably diverse composition — stalking around looking for people who they can complain have looked at them funny. But personally I would resist the urge to prostrate myself at this point in time.
Many years ago I was introduced to one of the most helpful rules of logic: to never say or write anything the opposite of which would only be uttered by a madman. So for instance, if you are an aspiring politician do not say “We must go forwards into a new bright future” because no sane person would publicly declare “We must go backwards into a dark past”.
Likewise, among the lists of online demands and assertions of recent days there is only one test which can tell us whether they are diminishing racism or encouraging it — that is to try replacing the word ‘white’ with the word ‘black’ and vice-versa.
Doing so reveals the fact that most, if not all of these vogue-ish lists of instructions are profoundly racist. We would recognise this if they consisted of lists of assertions about black people, or instructions to black people on how to think or speak, or referred to ‘all black people’ as if they were a homogenous group.
This opens up a couple of possibilities about what is going on in this fractious moment. For some people it will be impossible to concede that instructions lists aimed at white people telling them how to behave is racist. They will reject the possibility at its roots, not least by asserting that racism is something that white people express but do not experience. Prejudice without power does not count. If anti-white racism exists these people will assert that it is not meaningful, or does not result in deaths, and for this or other reasons may be discounted.
More important is another category; the people of all races who recognise that there is something uncomfortable, perhaps even racist, in making such sweeping claims about people of any racial group, but who believe that at this moment white people in some way deserve it.
These people are fans of what I have previously identified as the temptation in rights issues towards ‘overcorrection’. This has been an exacerbating temptation in recent years. For instance, wrapped up in parts of the #MeToo movement were people who did not mind, or much care to know, what the specific details of any particular allegation were. They felt that the pendulum was swinging against sexism and that if that happened to take out a few innocent people in its path, well then too bad.
This view was expressed as such by one news anchor on CNN who said that our societies were due an over-correction. It has a logic of a kind, that there isn’t time to faff around with the whole tricky business of precise equality; that nobody has time for that, and that the swifter route for getting to equal is to overcorrect and then at some point later allow the pendulum to swing back naturally towards true equal.
For many people, that works right up to the point where somebody you know or care about happens to become a casualty of overcorrection. At that stage the realisation that perhaps you should have held on to some other priority (truth perhaps, or the process of the law, boring things like that) will kick in, albeit too late.
So it is in America — and now in Britain — with the response to the Floyd killing. The policeman responsible for Mr Floyd’s death has been arrested, charged and currently sits in jail — as do several of his colleagues. But for the activist on the streets in America’s cities and those online this is clearly not action enough: they have decided that the incident is revealing of some deeper issue and that to stop at the culprits is to stop too early.
They may well be right on some aspects of this. Because of the number of unarmed black people killed by American police in recent years it seems fair to ask where some wider culpability might lie. As with the argument on terrorism, we might well ask where the ‘mood music’ is that creates the environment in which a policeman feels able to squeeze the life out of a man lying on the ground.
But working out where the sphere of culpability might lie is an exacting and finely balanced thing. Making sure that America, or any country, achieves actual equality in racial issues is an exacting and time-consuming process. We know that because of the number of people who have given their time and energies to making that outcome as likely as possible.
But in the heat of the moment there will be those who will say “to hell with that” and “Who has the time?” and more. We are in the midst of such a moment — and it has produced some very odd sights.
I would imagine that very few people will look back at this week and think that we witnessed was in any way normal: crowds of white people kneeling in front of their black compatriots, or feeling the need to go through other acts of public self-abasement. Perhaps the photograph which has been going around online, of a little girl made by her parents to hold a piece of paper with an arrow pointing towards her saying ‘privileged’, might become emblematic of a moment which is very far from normal.
The current moment of over-correction appears to consist of an attempt to make all white people confess to some culpability in racist murder. Many people looking for a quiet life — or just to be allowed to continue in their jobs without being hassled — will go along with this. But they are making a mistake.
Because the problem of overcorrection is that it leaves several pregnant questions in its wake, not least among them “Who will tell you when you have over-corrected for long enough?” and “How would you know that you have?” Perhaps most pertinently for the present moment is the question “How would you be sure that this overswing of the pendulum in one direction does not lead to its overswing in the other direction when it starts to head back?”
The instructions going around online in recent days may have done a number of things. But one of them is to normalise the idea that ordinary, decent people can make sweeping claims about people based along racial lines. In recent years such behaviour was widely recognised to be abhorrent, and even where it was not illegal had become utterly socially unacceptable. That taboo seems to have lasted for a surprisingly short period of time.
As I write this, footage is coming in of young white people in London and Washington DC being upbraided for having the temerity to try to remove BLM graffiti from historical national monuments in their capital cities. People who are certain that after this episode the pendulum swings comfortably into the equal position may have many things on their side. But in among them are a good amount of guesswork and a disturbing amount of unwarranted optimism.