1 September 2018

Jonathan Haidt, Jordan Peterson and the 'social justice' institution

I just wanted to flag up this fascinating conversation between the public psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson on 'the perilous state of the university' and draw out some parallels with my work on diversity and institutions in The Tribe.

Jordan Peterson interviewing Jonathan Haidt on 'the perilous state of the university'

The video, which I was drawn to by an effusive tweet from David Goodhart, is more than an hour and a half long. However, unusually for such a thing, I found it didn't drag at all. In fact at the end of it I was left wanting more. 

Goodhart picked up on the point the two discussed about how "any good society must be open AND closed", but there is a lot more to chew over. I was perhaps most interested in Haidt's idea of the 'social justice' university that is dedicated to the promotion of social justice and opposing the Right above other considerations - notably the pursuit of truth.

This has a lot in common with the notion of 'the institution of diversity' which I expound in The Tribe. As I have written it in the book, institutions of diversity have adopted norms and increasingly rules and laws (in the case of government) that favour some identity groups over others and outsource authority to representatives of those groups as victimised groups. Among others, I talk about Channel 4 and the BBC as institutions of diversity which do this to a greater or lesser degree, and whose purposes have therefore shifted from what they used to be. 

They have become more explicitly political institutions, dedicated in their being - in the way that they are organised - to political objectives: to the promotion of some people and the suppression of others. This expresses itself in all sorts of ways. Channel 4 has gone especially far in this direction, an example being its regular podcast Ways to Change the World, promoting and showcasting explicitly political viewpoints, the overwhelming majority of which gather around the social justice and diversity narratives and promoting people who expound them. 

The latest of these features the Channel 4 presenter and model Jameela Jamil talking about the Kardashian family as "agents for the patriarchy", how "people have made me look white" in modelling assignments and blaming society for eating disorders she had when younger - despite by any standards being a beneficiary of society's rules and norms. There are clearly some elements of truth to what Jamil says, but it's notable the way she frames them in the characteristic language of progressive liberal-left politics: of universal victimhood for certain favoured identity groups at the hands of society.

As I have written it in The Tribe, the 'system of diversity' that is spreading around our society offers possibilities to favoured group members who promote these narratives of victimhood for themselves, even if, or perhaps especially if, they are privileged with privileged access to channels for promotion like through Channel 4.

Channel 4 and other institutions that are embracing these norms and messages are therefore appearing as what Haidt might refer to as 'social justice' institutions, just like the universities that they talk about appear as 'social justice universities'. 

They are are dedicated to the same objectives, which are political objectives. The politics comes first, above such things as pursuit of the truth.

My book 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' is available for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE at imprint.co.uk/tribe. It is also available via online retailers.

Comments so far include the following

“a wonderfully lucid and convincing book”
           ~ Professor Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History

 ‘searing’, ‘daring’ and ‘pioneering’ ~ Spiked

“a must read for anyone who is trying to make sense of the issues and fault lines in UK politics today.” ~ All in Britain

“superb, timely, well-written and excellently researched” ~ Amazon reviewer

one of the most important books of our time” ~ another Amazon reviewer

12 August 2018

On Boris, burkas and the quest for unity

One of my favourite lines is from the Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin:

“My voice gives the illusion of unity to what I say.”

I reckon you could write a book on that sentence alone. There is so much in it and so much it can be applied to.

It immediately makes me think of someone talking confidently, perhaps on TV, maybe with a presenter deferring to them as an expert. They feel comfortable, at ease, and this is reflected in their voice, which is clear, calm and authoritative. In order to get on to the sofa in the first place, their voice probably had to sound this way. In order to enter into the situation of being deferred to, to be treated as an authority in front of millions of people, they had to look and sound the part of someone who knows what’s going on. They had to fit in with this sort of situation of people who go on TV and talk confidently about things.

There is a sort of unity in this situation: of the authoritative voice matching up with the deference of the presenter on a platform where they can speak freely, without contest, to more people than they could ever hope to meet in a lifetime.

In the line that I like so much, Bakhtin refers to an ‘illusion’ of unity, but of ‘what I say’. In this situation, the person speaking confidently and being treated as an expert appears authoritative pretty much whatever they say. As long as they appear confident and don’t mix up their words and at least attempt to refer to the subject matter, it all hangs together somehow.

In a sense this is an ‘illusion’. But in another there is a real form of unity here – an existential unity. There is an alignment between the person speaking and the environment around him or her. There may also be a unity between what they are saying and what they are talking about, i.e. a truthful relation, but this isn’t necessary to the existential sort of unity.

How does this relate to Boris Johnson and his comments about the burka, on how “Muslim head-gear that obscures the female face… looking like letterboxes… like a bank robber…is absolutely ridiculous”, you might ask?

My interest is more in the reaction to Boris’ comments. I substantially agree with Claire Fox, who calls his comments “crass” and says “I am no fan of BoJo-style private school wit”, but laments the hysterical reaction as highly damaging for the cause of free speech, not least in how it stops us from speaking about important things that concern us if that might involve criticising Muslims. As an example of that reaction, you only need to read the words of Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the government quango the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who said, “Boris Johnson’s use of language in this instance, which risks dehumanising and vilifying Muslim women, is inflammatory and divisive.” (Notice the strong words there: ‘dehumanising’, ‘vilifying’, ‘inflammatory’, ‘divisive’, words that we might justifiably apply to the burka itself in the way it serves in public space.)

Much of the political liberal-left, representatives of Muslims and anti-Brexit Tories jumped in with similarly strong language. Accusations of ‘racism’ and ‘fascism’ were thrown around with abandon, and senior people including Theresa May have demanded he apologise for the offence caused.

All of this noise achieved a sort of unity which transcended the meaning of the words of the accusations themselves. The classic accusation that Boris was being ‘racist’ for example is absurd. Boris was talking about a specific garment worn under a particular – and particularly strict – strain of a religion. However his accusers said this didn’t matter and there was a higher truth, that he was blowing a ‘dog-whistle’ for racists and fascists, that he was a racist beforehand so that must mean his comments here were racist too.

And here we start that familiar and depressing descent from the actual truth to an ideological truth – a higher truth that may not match the actual truth but which gives a much more unified view of the world.

It all felt right: the politicians, the EHRC chief and Muslim ‘community leaders’ made their assertions and others took on their messages, passed them on to others as truthful, and so the whole thing built up into a crescendo of crashing rhetoric with virtually no interest in or relation to Boris’ own words.

This is a classic example of what I have called in my book, ‘the system of diversity’ in action. It aligns with a progressive story of history, of things improving over time as people who say things that do not fit into the system are removed from public life. Everything that gets in the way must be removed one way or another: by stopping people from speaking, by denying them employment and potentially in other ways too.

This is the path we are on. Hopefully my book The Tribe helps to explain it in more detail.

The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity is available for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE at imprint.co.uk/tribe. It is also available via online retailers.

Comments so far include the following

“a wonderfully lucid and convincing book”
                         ~ Professor Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History

 ‘searing’, ‘daring’ and ‘pioneering’ ~ Spiked

“a must read for anyone who is trying to make sense of the issues and fault lines in UK politics today.” ~ All in Britain

“superb, timely, well-written and excellently researched” ~ Amazon reviewer

one of the most important books of our time” ~ another Amazon reviewer

22 July 2018

The role of identity politics in the Remainer Revolt

There is a new piece of mine up on the Briefings for Brexit website: 'The role of identity politics in the Remainer Revolt'.

Click here to read.

UPDATE, 24th July 2018: The same article, edited slightly and with a different title, is also up on the Brexit Central website. See here.

19 July 2018

On mass immigration as a phenomenon

While writing The Tribe I found two of my main interests, in the existential background to life and in mass immigration as a phenomenon, fusing and coming together in ways that I am still exploring and finding interesting.

I think this coming-together has helped me to address one of the fundamental questions of our time in the book, namely,

Why is mass immigration such a troubling phenomenon for ‘host’ communities or people?
Even using this word ‘phenomenon’, which I know annoys some people in its vagueness, helps to guide us towards the sort of answers I have been coming up with.

It helps because it does not limit how we address what is going on in the act of describing it. For one thing, it helps us to avoid locating the source of trouble in immigrants themselves, as if there is something wrong with them. But it also avoids locating the troubles in what I am calling here, for want of a better word, ‘host’ communities or people – as if there is something wrong with them.

Treating mass immigration as a phenomenon allows us to avoid committing ourselves to the fray on one side or another simply in the act of describing it. It may appear too broad and wide-ranging. But in being so, it allows us to include the full range of aspects which others do not consider; indeed how they seek to describe it can feature as part of what we are looking to describe.

This points towards one of the underlying themes of my book: that the way we interpret the world is part of the world we are looking to interpret – and must be taken into account if we are to see things accurately. The phenomenon of mass immigration includes how we interpret mass immigration and different aspects of it. It allows us to consider immigrants themselves as a block but also as individual people who have decided to move countries. It allows us to consider those who feel uncomfortable about immigration, but who do not convert that discomfort into hostility towards immigrants – and also those who do. It allows us to consider the role of pro-immigration activists and politicians. It allows us to consider how tabloids treat immigration in an often crude way, at least in their front pages – and how other news media have made it an issue in different ways, indeed sometimes primarily as a reaction to the tabloid treatment.

To allow all these considerations to exist is what addressing mass immigration as a phenomenon means in practice. It means seeing the world not as an object to be described in the same way we would describe objects, with fixed properties and easily-reached conclusions, but as a dynamic whole in which we are all participants and our participation is crucial to what is going on. It brings us towards the nature of social and political power, in which some participants are more important than others, and in which we can grab a piece of that power by aligning to it.

In The Tribe, I have written extensively about mass immigration in this way, as a phenomenon which is much wider and more interesting than our judgemental, rationalistic political discourse allows. Of course I’ve written about it principally in relation to liberal-left politics, because that’s what the book is all about. In doing so I’ve drawn out how these politics are often dubious and even dishonest, but also how they have been successful and looking at some of the consequences of this success – not least on working class people in the Unfavoured Groups chapter.

Sometimes looking over the book I’ve thought that maybe I’ve talked about immigration too much – at the expense of other issues. On the other hand though, I think it deserves this level of treatment. As one of the defining issues of our times, immigration remains little understood in public life. Hopefully, my book will help to change that a little bit.

The Tribe is now available for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE at imprint.co.uk/tribe.

For more about the book, see my previous blogpost here.

15 June 2018

My book: what's it all about?

My book, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, is being published on 1st of July, so not long to go now.

Last week a courier dropped off my copies - showing this thing that has been dominating my life for the past few years in physical form for the first time.

THE BOOK: it exists
I have already posted the backcover blurb and some of the theoretical background.

But what is it about, really? How would I sum it up?

At the most basic level, The Tribe is an attempt to explain what  on earth is going on with the politics of identity and diversity. How has it come to dominate our public sphere? And what is the role of the progressive liberal-left in this? It obviously has a major role, but how does this work? Why is this combination so powerful? And what are the consequences of it, not least on our public life?

It is not a history book. It does not attempt to find 'root causes' for what it going on or to track back in time to find a few individuals and say, 'These guys are to blame', 'They started all this'. Such a project would be very interesting no doubt, but I think would detract from what is going on in the here and now, which is what I wanted to address.

The Tribe: Contents page
Instead, The Tribe seeks to describe and explain how the politics of diversity and identity works: how it fits in with our lives and especially our public life; how it pulls us into adopting its ways, or at least not resisting them. The book also seeks to explore the limits to that success. This has a lot to do with the problems that follow from it, in the taboos that arise from identity group favouritism and the institutionalisation of these taboos - and their sometimes disastrous effects, as found in some cases of mass child sexual exploitation.

Nowadays, there seem to be several media storms bubbling away every day with these forms of identity politics at their heart - from attempts to stop Brexit to the politicisation of the Grenfell Tower disaster as a racist act and the attempts of the trans lobby to control how people speak about them.

The sheer political power on display is remarkable. If anything I think I have underplayed this power in the The Tribe. However, hopefully it will help readers to understand what is going on: how this politics works - and especially how and why it has become so powerful in our world.

The Tribe is available now for pre-order via the publisher Imprint Academic's website here. Enter 'TRIBE' to get a nice discount on the RRP. It is also available via Amazon here.

26 May 2018

The power of identity politics

“The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”
                                                              Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

One of the core themes of my forthcoming book The Tribe is the remarkable power that certain kinds of identity politics have attained in our public life.

The knowledge base of this politics is the universal victimhood of its favoured identity groups.

As the United Nations’ ‘Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ Tendayi Achiume put it in her report on how awful and racist Britain is, “The harsh reality is that race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability status and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and in many cases unlawful.”

For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.

Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”

Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.

However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.

My book explores how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ (the ‘tribe’ of the title) and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.

As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky News, The Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.

Achiume’s statements drew fierce criticism as soon as they appeared. However, the way similar statements and reports keep on appearing – for example just recently with accusations that Oxbridge admissions are biased against black people (when they are not) and attacks on the Canadian psychiatrist and identity politics critic Jordan Peterson, tells us something significant about where power lies in our society.

The critics are constantly mobilising just to respond to the tide of assertion and accusation and demands for favourable treatment for the favoured groups. They are not setting the agenda. They are barely holding back the tide.

For the rest of us, this agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.

The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.

The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, will be published on 1st July by Imprint Academic (for order details, click here). For more on the theoretical background to the book, click here.

3 May 2018

The end of Britain/the end of democracy?

In 1999, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens published a book called 'The Abolition of Britain' that described the constitutional changes taking place under Tony Blair's first government as a 'slow motion coup d'├ętat'. 

I haven't read the book myself, but the theme and title come to mind now that it seems clear that Brexit will only happen in name only, if at all. The Establishment forces have been organising for two years now, and they have just about made it. When the Irish government and the EU in concert work to exercise a veto over British constitutional arrangements and the British Establishment shrugs its shoulders or eggs them on as they have been, the game would seem to be up. 

The idea that a 'hard border' on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit will somehow 'cause' violence to break out is a political device invented by politicians and spin doctors. It is an assertion which serves a crucial political purpose (as well as stamping all over any serious notions of causality and agency). 

Sinn Fein is certainly using the issue to stir up trouble, with Leo Varadkar's government a happy accomplice, but from what I have seen and heard there is no desire from the ex-IRA to go back to shooting and bombing people. Rather, the EU together with the Irish government and anti-Brexit campaigners have been using the IRA as a silent threat to influence public - and political - opinion in Britain. You might say they have been employing the IRA as their armed wing - in the name of peace.

(We might even call this the first instance of an EU Army being used, even if it is an old terrorist army that doesn't officially exist anymore.)

I don't see much point in getting too angry about this. This is political power in operation. Everything about the anti-Brexit movement, from their concerted and successful efforts to dominate the airwaves to their work in Parliament and Whitehall - has screamed political power. The winners get to describe what is happening and what happened and what will happen, and that is the case now. It only goes to show how much they want to keep Britain in the EU and unable to control its own destiny as a sovereign democracy.

The question is: what next? Things will never be the same again, that is for sure. I certainly have no crystal ball, but a few thoughts have been leaping to mind (with the emphasis on 'leaping'), including the following:

  1. This is the end of British democracy; 
  2. This is the end of the United Kingdom as a notionally independent state; and
  3. This will give a big push to renewed independence efforts, c.f. what has happened with the SNP in Scotland.

I wouldn't say any of those things with any certainty, but I think they are worth reflecting on.

On the first question, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, and the United Kingdom has never been that. What the anti-Brexit efforts have shown is that our elites are alive and well and aren't willing to let democracy prevail if it doesn't match their own wishes and interests. On one level you could say, 'fair enough' to them - though it'd be nice if they didn't disguise their own will and preference behind ideas of absolute, rational good for everyone. 

When I was thinking about this the other day, it brought to mind an essay by a Bulgarian political scientist called Ivan Krastev. In this essay, written well before Brexit, Krastev wrote "Elites approach elections as opportunities for manipulating the people rather than listening to them (Big Data makes voting marginal as a source of feedback)."

But with the EU referendum vote, they struggled to do that. The question asked, Leave or Remain, went beyond our normal 'managed democracy' into the realm of existentials, asking us a fundamental question about who we are and where we see our destiny. The likes of David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg did their best to manage us, but we got away from them, just.

Not for long though. It looks as though will have to get back in our box again. But how long until we pop out again? What organisations will appear looking to renew this democratic revolution of sorts?

We will have to wait and see (and get busy).