I think enough time has passed now to be able to speak frankly and reflect soberly on some of the recent events surrounding the BLM-inspired protests and the associated social media furore, without devolving into an ad hominem spiral. I was disturbed by a lot of what I saw online on #blackouttuesday, and by a lot of what I’ve seen since then. Not more disturbed than when I saw the footage of George Floyd being killed. But disturbed nonetheless.
I saw many good friends of mine completely lose the run of themselves, peddling and paraphrasing insidious statements and slogans that masqueraded as innocent expressions of solidarity with a good cause. I saw many witlessly propagating thinly veiled collective accusations that were intentionally structured so as to make rebuttal literally impossible. It was a striking real-world social experiment in how quickly fallacies and moral panic can spread through the social media population. A case study in viral unreason.
The most conspicuous of these manifestations of unreason was a two-pronged Kafkatrap. The general claim of the movement, sometimes made explicitly, sometimes implicitly, was that all white people were to varying degrees complicit in systemic racism. And that all white people have an obligation to acknowledge this complicity and do more to publicly demonstrate their commitment to expunging their inherent racism and becoming good allies of the protest movement. This perspective was wedded to slogans like “white silence is violence”, “silence is consent”, “silence is white privilege”. The perspective and its slogans were then conveniently insulated from critical engagement via the two-pronged Kafkatrap. If one objects by maintaining their non-racism, the purveyors of this perspective will simply reply: “Well of course you, a privileged white person, would say that. That’s just proof of your white fragility. You can’t accept the possibility that you’re racist. But OF COURSE unconscious racists would object to being called racists! Your objecting is therefore just further proof of your racism”. This is the classic Kafkatrap, whereby any attempt to deny one’s guilt is necessarily taken as further proof of one’s guilt. But it wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill Kafkatrap. It was two-pronged in the sense that not only was denial to be taken as prima facie evidence of one’s guilt; but silence too was to be interpreted as evidence of one’s guilt! This made it literally impossible to be anything but racist unless you were a “person of colour”. Since silence was to be interpreted as happy complicity in the continued subjugation of black people; and any kind of pushback against the more hyperbolic statements was just one more manifestation of “white fragility”. Leaving only one option to the cowed white person on social media: pre-empt the accusation and suspicion by publicly “confessing” your original sin of white privilege and implicit/complicit racism. Publicly self-flagellate to pre-emptively appease the online mob.
The parallels with past moral panics were striking, and I couldn’t believe that more people didn’t recognise the dynamic as it was playing out and were just going along with all this bizarre hysteria. I saw several white friends tying themselves in knots trying to say the right things; trying not to say too much for fear of being perceived as presumptuous, or of taking up too much “space”, of trespassing into discursive territory that they should stay out of; but petrified of saying too little for fear of being seen as only paying lip service, of superficially virtue-signalling, etc etc.
The important point here isn’t whether or not it was all in the service of a good cause. It was for the most part well-intentioned, and inspired by a legitimate sense that something is badly wrong with policing and justice in the US. But if you think that’s a sufficient defense of this kind of behaviour, then you really need to go back and very, very carefully re-read Orwell (and I don’t care that Orwell has now become a hackneyed trope of critiques of excessive political correctness, I don’t give a f*ck about statues frankly). You have very likely missed the main lesson of 1984. A naive reading is that 1984 is simply a meditation on the evils of political totalitarianism. It’s not, or at least not primarily. It’s fundamentally about the psychological dynamics that prefigure and pave the way for totalitarianism, and how it is so insidious precisely because the objectives that are served by those dynamics are perceived all along the way as righteous and just by the very people who end up being subjugated by the system. It’s no accident that Orwell decided his dystopia would be nominally socialist. Ask yourself why he, a deeply committed socialist, didn’t choose to write instead about a right-wing form of totalitarianism? He could have just as easily done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about a socialist totalitarianism because he recognised that unreason was perhaps most dangerous when wedded to otherwise righteous goals. Because when you’re in the thick of it, so to speak, it becomes harder and harder to extricate yourself from collective unreason as it gains righteous momentum. You internalise fallacious forms of reasoning because they seem to serve your political ends and signal your loyalty to the movement. And you end up convincing yourself of patent untruths because they’re politically expedient — even if they ultimately entail your own dehumanisation.
The reason it’s become so difficult to talk about all this, or to call out this kind of behaviour, is because it’s immediately interpreted as: “Oh, so you think there’s no problem with racism? Oh, so you think police brutality against black people isn’t a problem? Oh, so you think these kinds of dubious tactics are more worthy of your engagement and concern than racism itself, and you spend more time complaining about this than about racism? Oh, so you’re saying we don’t need to fundamentally change the criminal justice system in the US and address economic inequities? Oh, so you don’t think you harbour ANY racial prejudices or couldn’t do more to fight against racism?” This is to miss the point completely. Clearly the problems within the movement are not bigger than the problems the movement is seeking to address. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth talking about, and attempting to eliminate. People who support BLM and calls for radical change should be most disturbed by these psychological dynamics and intellectually dishonest tactics, precisely because they may end up derailing the entire movement. I suspect there are large numbers of people out there who would otherwise be jumping right on board with the movement, but who are completely turned off by some of the cult-like red flags that keep cropping up. Not everyone, of course, is withholding support for that reason. Some are just genuinely insensitive or bigoted. But I suspect that’s a minority. Most, I imagine, are just silently baffled by the more hyperbolic statements coming out of the protest movement and genuinely can’t get on board with it all for that reason.
The movement may eventually run out of steam if it keeps peddling these ad hominem, accusatory, manipulative, pseudo-intellectual non-arguments, and end up whittled down to an irrelevant, radical core. On the other hand, I’m perhaps even more fearful that the tactics will actually work, and we end up with a large and powerful movement that is intellectually and morally volatile. Regardless of how righteous the causes such movements serve, I can’t help but worry about what they may end up being capable of doing in the name of a righteous cause. If they’re willing to indulge unreason in the name of justice, it’s a short step to being willing to indulge “lesser” injustices in the name of achieving capital-J Justice — the ever-receding utopia. And that’s something that should concern us all, regardless of our race, background or politics.