Vinoth Ramachandra

Deconstructing Equality

Posted on: August 15, 2017

The real test of whether we or our governments understand the concept of human rights is whether we or they are willing to defend the rights of our enemies.

I believe that the near-hysterical denunciation of the white far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with numerous calls on Twitter and elsewhere for their sacking from their jobs and expulsion from universities, is evidence of a lack of understanding about human rights.

The marchers were protesting the demolition of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, one of the leaders of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Whatever Lee’s political views, no historian doubts his military genius. And if city mayors and state governors are going to expunge memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia. And, in Britain, the memorials to Churchill and a host of other statesmen, generals and scientists (including Darwin) should be demolished.

It seems to me that this is another instance of “political correctness” run amok. Dismantling statues rather than unjust structures. Suppression/Denunciation replaces moral argument- something on which I have written before: e.g. The New Intolerance and On Giving Offence. Paradoxically, tolerance is killed in the name of promoting tolerance, intellectual diversity suppressed in the name of valuing diversity. I am reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s quip that, in some strands of postmodernist rhetoric, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”)has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, is the new moral leader.

Another recent instance in the U.S of this new ethic is the sacking of an engineer at Google for suggesting that the reason there may be fewer women in the hi-tech sector is because of biological differences. Note: this was a suggestion, not a recommendation to exclude women applicants from any job. One can disagree with his view and present counter-arguments and empirical evidence, but to sack him as if he had committed an immoral act? Surely that is itself immoral- violating the basic right to be different, to hold contrary opinions.

Racism/sexism is about systemic injustice more than it is about attitudes. But attitudes also matter as they are what shape our everyday social relations. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

The arrogance of those left-leaning secular liberals who disdain or caricature viewpoints other than their own is a mirror-image of their right-wing conservative opponents. Both have created a global financial system and internet empire that perpetuate the most grotesque economic inequalities ever seen in the history of the world. Yet much of the talk of “equality” in the media focuses narrowly on issues of sexuality.

Why do we scarcely hear of protests against the exploitation of children in the mines of Congo, for instance- mines which are producing the cobalt and other metals that are used in electric cars and smart phones? Are we not complicit in this exploitation through our silence and never questioning where our technologies or food or clothing come from? And where were the liberal protesters on the streets of Washington DC when the Indian Prime Minister Modi visited a month ago (see my post India: A Failing State?)

This is why many of us believe that what most undermines “human rights” and “equality” is the hypocritical and one-sided way they are invoked by Western governments and liberal media.

Equality is a relative concept. Equality in relation to what? The worst female athlete in the Olympics is far superior to me in terms of physical fitness, just as I am superior in reasoning ability to a Downs Syndrome person. Empirically we are clearly unequal. The moral questions are whether a given inequality is enforced and whether inequality in one area justifies discrimination or exclusion in another, unrelated area. The intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds. It is why this deeper question is side-stepped (or, as Bauman’s quote implies, shouted out of view) in the polarized discourse about equality in contemporary politics.

But it was this sense of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons that motivated the Christian Church, throughout its history and all over the world, to care for the despised, degraded and forgotten members of society. Whatever their own culpable “blindspots” in relation to internal church politics, the best Western missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (often from under-privileged backgrounds themselves) sacrificed their own reputation and health in providing education and healthcare to women and the destitute classes (often in opposition to both local elites and colonial administrations). If helping women and dalits in India or Sri Lanka become nurses, doctors and teachers is labelled imperialistic, then I am happy to identify myself with that label.

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15 Responses to "Deconstructing Equality"

Is there ever a time where freedom of speech crosses the line? I do no think this question has been seriously considered in, for example, America.

What about the right of Jews to live in peace? What about the antisemitism and persecution of the same church that ‘cared’ for the despised members of society? There seems to be a double standard, one for Jews and one for the rest of the nations…

Yes, of course, provided they respect the same aspirations of non-Jews in Palestine.

I don’t see any “double standard” in this.

European Christianity should be careful not to project its guilty conscience over antisemitism on to the rest of the global Church; and not to relate to our Palestinian Christian brethren through spectacles shaped more by such guilt than by the New Testament and a broader study of twentieth-century Middle Eastern history.

As a white evangelical who did not vote for Donald Trump, I find this post troubling. It’s easy to look at Germany’s descent into fascism in the 30s and say “that would never happen here,” yet we see troubling indications that it could very easily happen anywhere nationalism and racism are fueled by propaganda and appeals to strength and greatness. The outcry in Charlottesville was against young white men carrying machine guns, torches and clubs, wearing KKK hoods and waving swastikas. Perhaps you missed the video of four white men clubbing an African American just feet from the local police station- far too reminiscent of beatings in the south too many of us still remember. The ACLU vigorously defended the right of this group to march and protest, but in a state where open-carry of guns is permitted and lynching is not far in the past, where is the line between appropriate freedom and dangerous infringement on the safety of others? Statues of Lee represent glorification of the fight to preserve slavery, to descendants of slaves they are more like statues of Hitler than of Churchill. As one observer said, “History belongs in a museum, not on a pedestal.” To me the larger question is this: when would it have been the right time to cry out against the swagger of the Hitler youth? When the first synagogue (or mosque) was burned (or bombed)? The tenth? When there were thousands gathering on the Nuremberg parade grounds? Tens of thousands? Was it too late by Krystallnacht? Or would that have been too early? We are watching a power-hungry demagogue dismantling the rule of law and laughing at the balance of power we hope will safeguard our freedoms. Those who turned out across the country in response to the events in Charlottesville were not in the near-hysteria of political correctness but in the sober awareness that our nation is not immune from a slide into fascism, tyranny and divisive fury.

@Carol:

Thanks so much. You share what I was not able to put into words.

White supremacism in the US was not born last week. Black churches have been routinely burned in Mississippi, but this has scarcely drawn protest marches let alone judicial action against the KKK.

All marches attract a motley collection of people and groups, some more violent than others. Think of all the anti-globalization rallies in many cities all over the world in recent years. I was not defending the violence (I thought that would be obvious and didn’t need saying) but rather the right to free assembly and free speech (both guaranteed by the US Constitution).

By “near-hysterical denunciation” I referred to the calls to kick everybody who took part in the march out of their jobs/universities. I would have said the same if similar calls were made against all who took part in Occupying or anti-globalization rallies because of acts of violence that took place during the protests.

As for “political correctness”, I referred to the one-sided manner states are attempting to rewrite history. It is not only simplistic, it also breeds self-righteousness. Focusing on Confederate generals ignores the longer and wider history of black oppression in America. And it replaces political action with merely symbolic gestures.

Since you brought up Nazi Germany, surely the response of other European states and non-Nazis within Germany should have been not simply to “cry out” but to understand and acknowledge how their own policies (after Versailles) and intellectual fashions contributed to the rise of fascism and the popularity of men like Hitler.

I maintain that we cannot fight fascism by using fascist weapons.

Dear Vinoth,

Some good and cool observations and ideas have been offered in this blog. At the same time, I must say that I have been troubled on a number of fronts by this blog. The most troubling thing for me is how the blog gives unfettered and absolute rein to “human rights” and “freedom”, but then fails to consider that all rights and freedoms come with responsibilities and obligations. For me the recent events in Charlottetown Virginia opened up a nightmare that I lived through and survived some 40 years ago in a small border town on the Washington – Idaho border. I was a student on holiday who had decided to get on the bus and just go where it went, appreciating the great United States of America. I was sitting at a café counter when a man came and knocked me down and started hitting and kicking me and had me almost unconscious. He was shouting how niggers are not supposed be in the café and such things. Police came and told me that the man was known to them and was mentally unstable. I could stay in town and press charges, or I could leave town. I chose the latter. Any day, I would defend the right of the man who beat me up to believe what he liked to believe about me. However, beating, and even plotting with or inciting others to hurt or kill me or deny me a livelihood crosses a line. That is taking away my own rights.

A scene from my 1977 nightmare on the Washington – Idaho border was repackaged and re-acted in Charlottetown recently. There were essentially two groups. One group espouses a belief system of hate and inferiority of other people because of their race or religion, and has a consuming desire to return to slavery. The group also speaks admiringly of a murderous dictator who killed millions of Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. They do not only want to celebrate slavery and Jim Crow, they also in their unconcealed expressions, want to set back the clock to those times. The second group includes “those left-leaning liberals” (your words). They set out to protest what the former group stands for and name its evil intentions. A member of the hate group rammed a speeding car into the other group, killing one person and injuring a dozen.

The President of the country made a morally relativistic explanation about all sides being bad. He added that they were “some really good people” among those in the hate group – and implied that the people in the other group were really all bad guys. The President then got into a slippery slope argument that those who want to remove the statue of Robert Lee in Charlottetown would also go after the statue of George Washington. Congratulations to the President flow in from, among others, none other than David Duke, the most prominent white supremacist in the country. Duke tweets: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa (Black Live Matter/Anti Far Right).” I am not sure how Vinoth’s blog ended up following President Trump and David Duke up the slippery reasoning of comparing the first president of the United States with a Confederate general who led a rebellion against his country!

Like the man who beat me up 40 years ago, the white supremacists aka Alt-Right, and sadly the incumbent President of the US, are trying to sell a revisionist version of history. The statue in Charlottetown, like many other across the South and in some other parts of the US, are part of a campaign to re-brand a sad and despicable chapter of the history of the US. They were mostly built in the early to mid-1990s, and their aim was to perpetuate dishonest history, that claims that the Civil was about the preservation of State’s rights and freedom and that segregation and slavery were about a way of life that was especially holy and blessed by God. They obfuscate the root cause of the Civil War. The root cause of the Civil War was the perpetuation of white supremacy and entrenchment of an evil economic hegemony economic based on the abduction, enslavement and violent suppression of Africans. The white supremacists aka Alt-Right are engaged in a campaign to obscure and undermine gains that have been made by humanity for almost 200 years. They use terror and verbal propaganda to scare people, exploit fear, and sow divisions and hatred. The statues of Confederate generals are not just symbolic gestures; they are, psychologically and literally, concrete ways of falsely re-writing history and terrorizing people into accepting or accommodating the falsehoods.

We should not be seduced to commit harikari on the sword of the enemy – in the name of defending an unbridled version öf human rights that pays not attention to the countervailing responsibilities that are imperative to the harmonious existence and progress of a free society. I find it quite contrived to use the case of the Charlottetown confrontations to dovetail or draw parallels between the white supremacist insurgence and the “left leaning liberals”. Mitt Romney described the difference between the two very succinctly today: “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, and NAZI. The other side opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”

The anti-White Supremacists campaign in Charlottetown and elsewhere be ought to be spared the accusation of fighting Fascism with Fascist weapons! If we go up that section of the slippery slope we may even end up calling Dietrich Bonhoeffer a NAZI.

Sorry that I have replied with almost another blog.

Another comment: I sincerely doubt that James Damore’s GOOGLE Memo deserved the type mention made in the discourse at hand about the events in Charlottetown. Damore’s claim that he was fired “for speaking truth to power” (@Fired4Truth!) holds no water. His memo speaks against him. Far from speaking the truth, Damore’s memo is rant of cherry-picked scientific evidence to support a pre-existing point of view – that women cannot be equal to men in science. The Memo presents no rational scientific evidence, but is very high on rhetorical innuendo. At the end of the day, his stance against women was not very far from the white supremacists’ stance against Jews and Blacks. One could have been generous and said that Damore is politically naïve and scientifically uneducated. But, for no good reason, he created an atmosphere in his work place that was highly toxic. He did not balance his freedom of expression with the responsibility to speak the truth (and seems to not have cared about speaking the truth). Any responsible employer would have had to let Damore go.

Samm:

Thank you very much for sharing your personal story as well as your acute criticisms.

But I am surprised to find you aligning my comments with those of Trump, thinking that I was defending violence as a human right and accusing the anti-supremacist marchers of using fascist weapons! Not sure how you came to these judgments…

I agree with your comments re the “revisionist history” of the Civil War, but this has been around for a long time- since the 1880s. But there are other “revisionist histories” too that need to be confronted- not by expelling people from jobs and colleges (these are the “fascist weapons” I referred to in my comment to Carol) but by writing better histories, giving better arguments.

I shall elaborate on this, as well as respond more fully, in a fresh Blog post next week.

This is a very troubling article by Vinoth. It is based on rather selective popular media representations on recent events relating to racism rather than an informed understanding on the ground level realities relating to anti-racist struggles at the current moment. This type of analysis, while exposes, certain contradictions of those involved in anti-racist struggles, severs more to undermine those genuinely involved in those struggles. That is why I think this article will be much liked by those left leaning liberals that Vinoth is critical of and those outright racist. Perhaps, Vinoth’s rantings about “political correctness” may be construed by some as no different to Trump’s anti-politically correct stand. I am not disagreeing with all Vinoth’s claims. But I am concerned about the half backed and rather simplistic claims in the article giving more ammunitions to those forces that tries to undermine the anti-racist struggles that I have been a part of as a privileged person of color.

First, this is not a free speech issue–the government abridged nobody’s speech. Freedom to speak does not mean you are free from the consequences of your speech–you are just free from government persecution/censorship.

Second, this is not about “destroying” or hiding history. The Republicans are destroying and hiding history when they take the slavery explanation for the Civil War out of U.S. history text books. But those who want the statues to come down want to replace the false (and recent) revisionist history of “honoring” traitors to the nation, with real history, that portrays these murderers and slavers honestly.

Third — saying you are going to kill people and then killing them is not speech. Nazis & white supremacists and violent misogynists don’t just talk; they kill. Pretending there are “two sides” to the issue supports hate, and is just what trump did.

Fourth, Vinoth’s entire analysis is based on drawing simplistic and problematic, hence counterproductive moral equivalences. It is about “level playing field” myth, that is widely used strategy by many white liberals who pretend to be anti-racist.

Fifth, Jefferson is in the camp because he owned a lot of slaves, regularly raped Hemenway, and talked out of the side of his mouth about “freedom.” Black people don’t have much patience with that anymore, and they shouldn’t. The alt-right loves (their version) of T Jefferson for a reason. We need to acknowledge what a bastard he was and contextualize him differently from other racists. Jefferson wasn’t a traitor to the nation like the Confederates were. He was simply a racist forefather. One should have his statues torn down. The other should have his statues contextualized and his reputation diminished.
I am also concerned about people losing their jobs because of opinion, but it’s interesting folks didn’t care when it was purple of color being silenced. That has been the status quo. But, now that white men might lose their jobs for political beliefs…. now they feel it necessary to speak out. I call BS.

Sixth, Vinoth seems to not understand why people are asking for the removal of the statue. “people are not asking that statues come down because folks were pro-slavery. That was most of them. They’re being asked to be taken down because it represents people treasonous to America that were willing to kill brother and neighbor to maintain white supremacy. And, these statutes were primarily erected for terrorizing people of color, not preserving tradition.

So, while I agree that even white supremacists need to have the freedom to speak, people should own articles like this are about protecting white privileges that people of color have not, and do not get to experience.”

Finally, it is unfair put all left learning people in one camp. It is important understand the ideas and practices of those involved in daily struggles against racism who continue to sacrifice their reputation and privileges. There are many examples I can give.

Either you fight against white supremacy, or you support it — not too many moments in life when I’ll embrace a binary, but this is one.

Correction. In the previous article delete “drawing”.

I just had a few meetings with those organized protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have also organized similar protests in the past. In addition, I have taken so many students for various protests in DC. I am certain that cannot brand all these protests as “another instance of “political correctness” run amok.’ These are really people with an honest commitment for justice. They take plenty of risks. They too recognize the contradictions of their own positions. They have serious discussions about their ‘White privilege’ and seek ways to ensure that their struggles against injustice are not a means of maintaining their privilege position.
The way you have frame your argument could easily be exploited by those seek to undermine these genuine struggles and the spirit of those involve in them. Many of those involved in protests are well aware of their own contradictions. That is no excuse for them not to involve in anti-racist struggles.

Please respect those you criticise by reading more carefully what they write. I never called anti-racist protests “political correctness”. I am afraid that attacks on “straw men” is found among both left and right-wing groups and it is what makes genuine dialogue difficult.

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