Being Oppressed vs. Being Offended: Why A Real Dialogue About Racism is Still Far Away.
Let me begin with two assertions, and an important distinction.
The first assertion is that every human animal possessing a set of undamaged minimal capacities for consciousness, self-consciousness, cognizing, caring and feeling, choosing and acting freely, and rationality, even if they don’t always use those capacities properly or well, is a human person with absolute, non-instrumental, and non-denumerable value, or dignity, and the second assertion is that everyone has a strict moral obligation to treat everyone (including themselves) with sufficient respect for their dignity.
In what follows, I am going to assume that these two (broadly Kantian) assertions are true, or at least arguably plausible.
Correspondingly, the important distinction I want to make is between (i) anyone’s being treated in such a way that this mode of treatment either fails to have sufficient respect for their dignity or outright violates their dignity, which is being oppressed, and (ii) anyone’s merely being greatly annoyed by something that someone else says or writes, or by some other person’s attitudes or beliefs, even though it does not involve actual oppression, which is being offended.
Being oppressed, therefore, is of real moral significance, whereas being offended is morally insignificant, even if it is of real psychological significance for the person who is offended by someone else’s speech, attitudes, or beliefs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic slowly but surely devolving into a state of being persistent background noise in the global news (except in the USA, where the rate of infections and deaths is alarmingly on the rise, and therefore there is a blaring Trumpet of national catastrophe, societal disintegrations, and governmental failure), the recent demonstrations in many American cities following the brutal killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police—a particular act of oppression that, for many, has epitomized the long and violent history of oppressing Black people in the USA, beginning with the “original sin” of slavery[i]—have occupied center stage in the Western media. The long chain of events that led up to these demonstrations has been exhaustively documented, and it is clear that fundamental societal change is required. But change in what direction: and who will decide what the right direction is?
Whatever the answer to these questions will turn out to be, it seems certain to me that a well-informed, well-structured, and well-conducted process of real dialogue is most urgently required in order to be morally and politically adequate to the very real demands posed, as well as to any counter-responses. My worry, however, is that such a real dialogue is still a long way off, despite claims to the contrary. It is possible to identify many reasons for this sad prediction, but one of them has received ample attention here at APP, and therefore I would like to address it once more by means of a few examples, followed by some argumentation and further elaboration.
Before doing so, however, I will put this forward, as a thesis I want to demonstrate as this essay unfolds, that it seems to me that advocates of sufficient respect for dignity and/or of a new dignitarian political vision in general, all too often ally themselves with people who in the end will contribute only to a deadening, regressive stagnation of the public conversation, rather than to its vital, progressive continuation, or even simply to solutions that enjoy a society-wide (or at least majority) support. The faction principally responsible for the deadening, regressive stagnation of civic dialogue is what the APP circle has repeatedly referred to as “multiculturalist[ii] coercive moralists,” aka “social justice warriors”; and their basic moral and political error is sanctimoniously, self-servingly, and systematically to confuse being offended with being oppressed.
In recent years, multiculturalist coercive moralists have staged protests, occupied campuses and verbally abused academic staff, publishers, students, and the general public within earshot. However, their main ideology can be best described as an attack on dissent, the very existence of which offends them. Notwithstanding the fact that terms like “multiculturalism,” “inclusivity,” “plurality,” “under-representation,” or “diversity” mark their language, what we can actually observe is the formation of a simple ingroup/outgroup mentality, paired with a vicious animosity towards any voice that questions the very zeal with which their so-called “social justice” is enforced. At the same time, the coercive moralists who shout the loudest claim to represent an amalgam of under-represented groups and factions, who, in the absence of their activism would suffer continual maginalization. The zealots of multiculturalist social justice claim to fight for the rights of ethnic, cultural and/or sexual minorities, usually neatly catalogued with appropriate labels and descriptions–the taxonomy of diversity.
What we see in full swing in this proliferation of identities and labels is the postmodern, obsessive-compulsive disorder with uncovering “hidden biases,” “ideological, phallocentric constructions,” or “power structures,” coupled with the injunction to be the author of one’s own identity, unhindered by those cumbersome categories from the past.
The idea behind “uncovering hidden biases” seems to be that very core of our being is rotten and tainted, and that the humanities are uniquely equipped to lay this vile infestation bare for everyone to see, thereby unleashing the great revolution that will lead to a Socially Just world. The very idea that some people might not be homophobes, racists, misogynists, anti-nonbinary, xenophobes, etc. (to use a selection of fashionable slurs) does not occur to the multiculturalist coercive moralist mind. Neither does the idea that every human being is capable of morally bad actions, a predicament known as “the human condition.”
For the multiculturalist coercive moralist, the postmodern mindset functions as a toolbox, stacked to the brim with instruments to pry into the deepest recesses of the unconscious, shining the light of social justice into the foul depths you didn’t know you possessed. This invasive operation is more widely known as “critical thought” nowadays—but don’t let this label this fool you. There is nothing “critical” about it, and neither does it bear any resemblance to the mental operation more commonly described by philosophers as “thought.” As such, it cannot even claim to be a contribution to knowledge, save perhaps as a terrible example of what happens when actual thinking for oneself is abandoned in favour of adhering to a coercive-populist mob rule of the nauseating-conformist kind.
We must, after all, be critical. However, and by the same token, the ways of so-called thinking that are utilized by the legions of multiculturalist coercive moralists patrolling physical space and cyberspace alike should be closely scrutinized by some genuinely critical thought (of the more-or-less Kantian kind) as well. And this is where the conflict starts. The postmodern toolbox departs from the (broadly poststructuralist) assumption that the Enlightenment was a project of privileging one set of notions over another. To a degree, this is true. Reason was emphasized over madness; rationality over irrationality; man over woman; and yes, white people were often seen as the pinnacle of human development. However, the postmodern toolkit assumes that therefore, the other, suppressed set of notions did not have a fair chance over and against contemporary Western civilization. Moreover—and this is the most problematic part—the postmodernist presupposition is that irrationality is the true king of the castle, often in the guise of the “unconscious” or “bias.” Or, alternatively, the assumption is that the disregard of Enlightenment thinkers for women and non-white people alike directly contributes to the evils of modern society: such are the premises of third-wave feminism and modern race theory.
Thus, despite its claim to being “critical,” postmodernists operate with a set of premises that themselves fully deserve close critical examination, and that pre-structure the answers that today’s multiculturalist coercive moralists dutifully recite. This leads to a strange kind of dichotomous thinking, even despite the late Jacques Derrida’s insistence that in this type of thought, one term is always privileged over the other. We can observe this in the viciousness of the current debate regarding (systemic) racism: If you are one of us, then you are against systemic racism, but if you offend us, then you are for systemic racism, and against us, no matter how “systemic racism” is being defined, and no matter how outrageous the measures proposed to combat it actually are. Similarly, if you are one of us, the thought goes, you are for diversity, but if you offend us, then you are against diversity and against us.
Adding a new subgroup (of which one is preferably a representative) is always allowed, as is the forceful claim that this particular subgroup is marginalized, oppressed, misunderstood or otherwise mistreated and/or underrepresented. The LHBTQI+ acronym is getting longer by the minute, and this proliferation of new identities seems to me exactly a symptom of the multiculturalist coercive moralistic mindset. We can raise the same point with reference to ethnic minorities. There are Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc., etc., but not yet European Americans defined as an identity group, except perhaps under the label White—as in White privilege, or White supremacists—although Americans having European ethnic and national origins in fact constitute a sizable portion of the US population.
If you are one of us, then—the list could go on and on, but I assume that my point is clear. The people or groups stipulating what is means to be for or against us thereby hijack the format and scope of the discussion, and dissent is not allowed. Worse still, if you question the scope or terms of the debate, this is a sure sign that you are part of the problem. Without their even thinking twice, you are branded as a heretic or racist; a fascist or a reactionary; a relic of an old order, the very existence of which is an impediment to the promises of progress itself. All of the statements above are equations: if you are one of us, you are for or against A, B, or C. What you are or who you are is determined by your moral and political views, which in turn are determined by whether or not they offend “us.” If they fall in line with the group forcefully making such assertions, the “us,” then you belong to us. If not, then you are relegated to a special circle of hell that is specially reserved for enemies like you: you are an evil Other.
The focus on “being offended” has an ultimately narcissistic character: in fact, the demand not to be offended is also presented as something that one is entitled to. One has–according to the twisted reasoning of political correctness–a right not to be offended. Earlier on, we pointed out that being offended is morally insignificant, although it may be experienced as psychologically significant. The problem of coercive moralist culture resides in the fact that any fact that is psychologically significant for a given person or group is immediately and aggressively moralized. If I offend this or that minority or subgroup, then their experience of being offended is a moral fault on my part. In a stupendous feat of moral solipsism, the burden of caring for the psychological welfare of others is one-sidedly and unconditionally projected on everybody else.
Thus, the rest of us have to tiptoe ever so carefully around the loudly proclaimed sensitivities of the multiculturalist coercive moralists, or even better, around those of whom they claim to represent. In one all-encompassing gesture, the responsibility for the psychological well-being of an individual is projected onto society. Should the broader society fail to live up to the (continuously adjusted) standards, or even have any second thoughts about this state of affairs, a campaign of bullying, intimidation, passive and active aggression, and shaming is forcefully initiated. Only a narcissist mind could dream up such an absurd notion – without the prior assumption that one is the center of the world and therefore entitled to push everyone else around, the entire contemporary cancel-culture does not make sense.
Coercive moralism turns on this single claim: to be offended is to be oppressed. So, if you offend someone, you are an oppressor. At the beginning of the essay, I pointed out that this amounts to confusing two importantly distinct notions. However, for the coercive moralist mind, the entire world is responsible for their psychological and emotional well-being. Heaven forbid that one’s psychological harmony is disturbed by such a nasty thing as someone else’s speech, attitudes, or opinions. This very disturbance already counts as an act of oppression. And here again, we encounter not only the moral solipsism of the multiculturalist coercive moralists, but also their deep and thoroughgoing egoism. The psychological and emotional well-being of the multiculturalist coercive moralist must be seen like silence in the library, after the librarian has ssshhhed us: it is a “safe space” only when everyone else shuts up.
So, with an attitude that hovers between shameless whining and arrogant entitlement, these tender, coddled minds demand what they see as the ultimate social justice: the fulfillment of their every whim. Is it possible to disturb someone’s psychological state? Certainly, and many great artworks testify to this fact. But why is that so bad? Why is a little disturbance seen as a personal, vindictive attack, a purposeful attempt to oppress someone else? The answer circles back again to the limitless narcissism that drives the contemporary cancel-culture. Those loudly demanding “social justice” automatically believe that they deserve it– that they are on the good side of the divide. All the rest assume the status of moral inferiors, as obstacles on the Way Towards Progresstm, and therefore as morally expendable. One must follow this train of thought in order to release such a disgusting torrent of smears, slurs, and cancellations directed at other people, simply because they disagree. How else would one be able to sleep at night, if not assured by a deep and thoroughgoing self-righteousness?
However, even expressing some support and sympathy for the broader goals of social-justice-oriented movements like BLM is not enough. Conceding the moral and political rightness of their general goals does not get you off the hook! Once you express any degree of support and sympathy for such groups, a new set of demands is posed. You cannot be a “White ally,” but you are surely complicit in a phenomenon called “White silence.” Neither can you ever, under whatever circumstances, disavow what a Black person says. You must forcefully and publicly renounce your former views on race, personal experience, group allegiance, prejudice and/or justice, because obviously, they are wrong views. You must be re-schooled and re-educated in ways that the partisans of multiculturalist coercive moralism, in their unending wisdom, have determined as the best and only Way Forwardtm: societal progress as a commodity and marketable just cause, enthusiastically cheered on by brands that seek to brush up their image, shit-scared managers who like to avoid scandals, CEOs, and directors of social institutions who lie awake at night, haunted by the thought that they have not been politically correct enough.
More than anything, The Way Towards Progresstm is clearly demarcated, and spelled out for all those who wish to join, and it is held up as The Message of Salvationtm for those that are clearly prisoners of their own hopelessly outdated and wicked worldviews. With an arsenal of tricks made up of incomprehensible jargon, crude and unreasonable demands, serious group pressure, a veritable pseudoscience of invented concepts, theatrical posing, and social media campaigns, together with all the politically-correct professional academic back-up you could wish for, those claiming to be the defenders of social justice play on guilt and collectivize it. Bluntly, they demand compliance. Combining this attitude with the continuous threat of smears, slurs, and “cancellations,” the multiculturalist coercive moralists, driven by their being offended by other people’s speech, attitudes, or beliefs, have descended on civil society, ready to re-educate and brainwash all who stand in their way. After all, those who are standing in their way must do so out of ignorance, hostile conservatism, or sheer wickedness, as anyone in his right mind would uncritically agree with what is demanded. And so, in the early 21st century, those with the sorely needed degrees in Multicultural Studies, Gender Studies, and Race Studies, joined by those with a slavish allegiance to poststructuralist thinking of the deconstructionist type, have finally arrived in force to tell us how the world functions and how to make it better.
The obvious, multiculturalist coercive moralist reply to the critical diagnosis in the preceding paragraphs is that I must be a part of the much-despised, privileged old order, hellbent on blocking progress; unwilling to give up my unjustly inherited privileges and advantages; and that I must have suspect right-wing leanings or otherwise covert racist ideas. I don’t. And that seems to me, in a nutshell, to be the core problem of the current debate surrounding race, racism, inequality, liberal ideas about equality, and social justice.
The choice is presented as a simple dichotomy: if you are for us, then—followed by a prescription of political views one must dogmatically and unquestioningly adhere to, or a pre-concocted description of what you really are for or against if you dare to disagree. If you do not accept the dogmatic political position, you are an enemy, knowingly or unknowingly, because the offended Anti-Racists can read your mind. They are armed with the best that deconstruction and psychoanalysis have to offer. Behind each preference, of course, hides a suppressed drive or prejudice. Do you have people of colour as friends? Even if you actually do, that’s not good enough, for you are merely feeling guilty about your hidden racism, and now you are trying to compensate for it! Do you disagree with any of the demands made by anti-racism groups, even though you agree with many others? Then you are unwilling to give up your White privilege, but you merely pretend to be participating in the debate! Do you dislike, or are you indifferent to, the work of this or that Black artist? Ah, Eurocentric xenophobic beauty standards: we knew you kept them hidden somewhere!
Do you see how deep the rabbit hole goes? You were not aware of it, but your soul must be turned inside out. Psychologizing undergraduate students, or even further psychologistically-developed postgraduates (they have mastered Butler and Lacan, after all), will review your every decision, thought, preference, or opinion and dissect it under the merciless light of The Almighty Deconstruction, laying bare the rotten core that motivates your twisted mind. Making the feeble excuse that you were not aware of it will not help, as you must atone, atone, and atone in the knowledge that it never will be enough.
If you think that I am making this up, then read some recent postgraduate dissertations or theses in the humanities or social sciences. Not even an Absurdist play could truthfully depict the scope of the madness that is sold as genuine insight or even as a contribution to the collective knowledge of humankind. And even if it could be adapted as a Netflix series, I doubt it would be very entertaining, simply because subverting the subverters is not a permissible tactic nowadays. Those who claim to “dismantle,” “overthrow,” or “uproot” the old order do not tolerate humour: no, they have their eyes fixed on the goal, i.e., The Socially Just World, moulded strictly according to the demands of the professionally offended, humourless, and ever-vigilant censors and “cancellers” who make up the global tribe of multiculturalist coercive moralists. Even reading this essay all the way to the end means that You Are Part of The Problem.
But in reply, I say that we need to distinguish carefully between being oppressed and being offended, and get on with the real and truly difficult work of ending and reversing oppression for the sake of sufficiently respecting universal human dignity. As long as multiculturalist coercive moralists cannot cope with this demand, their position is callous, feeble, and ridiculous, but above all hypocritical. And this, in turn, disqualifies them from being the self-appointed Wizard Warriors of Social Justice who will, by themselves and by coercive moralist fiat, reshape and transform our societies for the better. But now having demoted the Wizards to the rank-and-file of ordinary “human, all-too-human” humanity, an inescapable condition under which and within which the rest of us all live, move, and have our being, how could this reshaping and transformation actually occur? The first step would be to have a real and truly democratic[iv] dialogue about racism.
[i] See, e.g., C. Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2017). James Madison–himself a slave owner!–rightly called chattel slavery the USA’s “original sin” (White Rage, p. 7).
[ii] See also, e.g., R. Rorty, “The Unpatriotic Academy,” New York Times (13 February 1994), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/13/opinion/the-unpatriotic-academy.html>.
[iii] In retrospect and with 20-20 hindsight in 2020, it is clear that Rorty’s term “Unpatriotic”–see note [ii] above–was a misnomer. A much more accurate term would have been “Undemocratic,” if by democracy we mean, not coercive authoritarian majority rule by means of elected representative elites, but instead dignitarian universal participatory decision-making. In such processes, no one is ever censored, coerced, or oppressed, and (at least ideally) everyone has their say, even if it offends some other people. Thus Rorty’s cogent point would have been simply that multiculturalist coercive moralists inside the professional academy are thoroughly undemocratic in that sense. Back in 1994 we were then, just as we are now, very far away from a real and truly democratic dialogue about racism.
[iv] What would such a real and truly democratic dialogue look like? And could philosophers play a significant role in forwarding this? For some ideas, see R. Hanna, “What Can Philosophy Do For Humanity? Phildialogues, Kialo, and Meta-Kialo” (November 2019 version), available online HERE.