Are We Killing Each Other With Kindness and Harming One Another with Help?
For him, white guilt is a way of saying that other races have no responsibility for their past, their present or their future, and a way of paradoxically asserting a continuation of colonial power. It's a bit like the white saviour complex, where white people feel they need to go to other countries to sort out their problems and get great social media content while they do it, but the other way around: white people believe they are the architects of everything good AND BAD on the planet.
But Zizek's critique fails to take into account one of the horrors of colonialism, of taking away all the power for self determination from the people who were colonised. Colonialist nations DID take away the chance for indigenous people to fuck up their own country. They took away that power when they stole it for themselves.
Having said that, there is something in Zizek’s argument, and the argument of his (unnamed) black friend: many countries that were colonised were far from perfect before this violation, and particular tendencies that existed previously can be seen as coming to the fore again once independence is gained. And white historians have, arguably, sought to erase, or shown no interest in these kinds of internal politics in favour of focussing on the ways in which countries and cultures come into contact with the West. African fascism, for example, is rarely cited alongside its European counterparts; Robert Paxton just dismisses the idea of indigenous fascism and Roger Griffin finds details in each possible example that excludes them from being considered. Whilst ostensibly it’s a kind of a compliment to find a nation not guilty of fascism, it’s problematic for white history to fail to recognise the internal dynamics of former colonial nations and to dismiss their politics as cheap imitations of the forces at play in the West. There has to be a point when we accept the continent’s freedom from colonialism and consider its autonomy to be genuine.
And it’s always problematic to pick an origin point from which all subsequent history flows: what if the UK was forever seen as defined by a protestant-catholic divide? What if women were never allowed to be seen to be responsible for their own mistakes because of the power of patriarchy? Of course you can see traces of all kinds of histories in any country, but for that to overtake the possibility of individuals or governments there taking responsibility has infantilising consequences.
It seems like a different case to the Candace Owens vs liberal left issue with voter ID: denying former colonised nations can create their own problems doesn’t pave the way for socio-political change in the same way as acknowledging the data on who can and can’t afford photo ID does. But it still has to be balanced with recognising that colonialism didn’t end with a full stop the moment that governments handed over power and troops pulled out. We live in a colonially-inflected world, even if it is post-colonial, and are still struggling to create new reference points that define our era outside of that experience, whether we’re descendants of colonisers or the colonised. It seems like accepting or perhaps even foregrounding the possibility of autonomous indigenous culture and politics is more worthwhile, respectful and progressive (in the sense of moving towards a better future) than stressing the ways in which nations still struggle under the burden of having been colonised: so it’s a question of shifting the emphasis from the ways in which countries need to be helped to the ways in which they are helping or hurting themselves. It’s not so much the help that is the harm, though it might well be meddling sometimes, but the ways in which the relationship and autonomy or lack thereof is framed in the cultural imagination.
Camille Paglia fights back against protectionist social and political agendas that she claims police women’s sex lives and position them as vulnerable and incapable of looking after themselves.
‘Amazonian street smart feminism’ is what Camille Paglia advocates. Don’t moan about the fact that you feel unsafe walking at night and that you feel you have to hold your keys between your fingers to make a potential punch more painful, just make sure when you punch you punch hard, and move on. Yes, there are rapists out there, but take responsibility! Keep yourself safe, and if you can’t avoid an attack, be prepared to fight your way out of it. If someone insults you at work or tells a sexist joke, don’t let it make you feel uncomfortable, tell them to fuck off. It's a bitch eat dog world out there.
It’s not popular today. But its an interesting one to consider after Zizek’s critique of infantilising former colonies. In putting all the responsibility on the paternalistic state, or on actual men, women are arguably reinscribing their own status as helpless within society. Before we can walk safely out at night, you have to let us - isn't that what we're saying when we're demanding changes to how men act in public spaces, how much police presence there is, whether there is lighting in parks. We aren’t actually reclaiming the streets, we’re asking for you to give them to us, safely and manageably packaged. The idea that a curfew for men was trending in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, or that people fight against laws about gender self identification because they think men are going to pose as trans women and invade everywhere from changing rooms to women’s shelters seems to validate some of what Paglia is saying, taking protectionism to extremes and losing sight of the balance between freedom from and freedom to (though Paglia’s own attitude to transgender rights does not follow these lines).
Paglia argues that women pushed the law out of the bedroom only to invite it back in again: in her day, she claims that women were constantly advocating for the right to have risky sexual encounters, for co-education in colleges, arguing that women and men could be around one another without the constant threat of unwise or unwanted sexual events occurring. Now, she says, women want safe spaces, engineered to remove the spontaneity, frisson and even enjoyable danger of encounters with strangers. Although there's a line that shouldn't be crossed, I can see validity in Paglia's argument that we might be moving the line too far towards the cautious end of the spectrum. And with all the failures of complaints procedures and the justice system widely catalogued, would it be so bad to suggest that there are some who have found they have been treated unfairly or unkindly, some who have even been victims of crimes, who would be capable of getting both satisfaction and a kind of personal justice by taking revenge rather than calling the police, or the students’ union or any other governing body to intervene. Obviously, there is a scale of the seriousness of the offence, but are we too quick to ask for someone to be banned when we could just boo them off stage, or to ask for someone to be removed from class because they belittled us when we could rally our friends and make life uncomfortable for them in return? Have we all become the 'tell tales' that we didn't like at school who go running to teacher at the first sign of an altercation? And have we therefore lost the art of sticking up for ourselves? To an extent the answer does seem to be yes.
There's no denying we need social change - and Paglia does lose sight of what that means in my opinion - but taking matters into our own hands sounds like a better idea than waiting, and repeatedly asking, for someone else to do it for us.
Paglia also raises really interesting questions about what we lose in terms of excitement and a kind of edginess to life when we demand absolute safety: that’s not to say that we enjoy the danger of being possibly raped, but we do enjoy tense encounters up to a certain point, in her view, and don’t actually thrive as humans when we are treated with too much care and courtesy. Push and pull is a part of development, being exposed to difficult people and scenarios, up to a point, is even fun as well as good for us. In being protected from harm, we are also being protected from the kind of triumph that can come from a level of adversity, or the kind of lessons and paradoxical pleasure that can come from the adversity itself, whether we triumph or not.
Being helped, looked after, and protected certainly does have elements reminiscent of being locked away in a tower with a load of thorns and legislative frameworks keeping others at bay. Living like the Princess who saves herself rather than waiting for Prince Charming is tough: she'll get more hurt, more damaged, along the way than her patient counterpart, but there's no doubt she's the stronger character.
Jordan Peterson and the intellectual dark web strike out against trigger warnings and the idea that students need to be protected from certain topics and speakers.
I’ll treat this one briefly because it builds on Paglia’s position that being uncomfortable is part of being human, and encountering those we disagree with, even hate, is not necessarily dangerous. It’s tough to discuss this one, because I can’t tell if I just have a really high threshold for not minding being upset, disgusted or even depressed by a point of view I hear being expressed. As is the case for most people, there are things that I find it hard to be faced with, or even feel traumatised by, but I don’t feel the need to remove those topics from my life or the lives of those around me in the communities I’m part of. My perspective would always be that as long as an idea is being challenged rather than presented as the one correct view point with nothing to hold it in check, I am in favour of letting the debate play out. We can’t avoid what we are frightened of, and we aren’t going to eradicate it from the world just by eradicating it from our university debate forums. Somewhere, it’s going to come out, and we can control it better and formulate stronger responses against it if we come out of our circles and face it head on. And would it be the end of the world if we did, on the odd occasion, feel we wanted to stay home rather than attend an event or see a specific speaker? Yes, in a way we’ve been excluded from that space, but life just isn’t perfect and there are always spaces where there is something going on that we don’t want to or can’t feel part of.
What’s difficult is when people with privileged platforms, for example lecturers at universities rather than invited guests, have viewpoints that are oppressive to members of the student body, or encourage oppressive behaviour from certain groups that affects others. But who gets to decide the ethos of an organisation? And is education about presenting people with the things they find acceptable, or with a whole range of personalities and perspectives that they may or may not agree with?
The question of how robust people are, and how robust they should strive to be comes up again with an issue like this, which is very different from the question of whether we should help everybody to have access to voting. Helping someone to do something is different to helping someone by trying to protect them from something. Making sure people have the tools to participate fully in society on as even a footing as possible is different to assuming a nation or a whole continent isn’t in charge of its own future because it was once colonised. There’s no easy answer to whether help is really helpful or if it’s harmful: but we have lost any sense that you can kill someone with kindness and that you might have to be cruel to be kind sometimes.
A lot of us want to make positive changes in our communities, in society and in the world. We want to help. But increasingly that word is receiving criticism from all sides; to the left, ‘helping’ can be a manifestation of the white saviour complex, while the right see those seeking to ‘help’ as disempoweringly entrenching the victim status of particular individuals and groups. So, can you kill someone with kindness? Are there good and bad ways of trying to lend a hand? Or should everyone just be a bit more appreciative of best intentions?
Let’s go through some case studies of actions and critiques to untangle the knot.
Candace Owens and the Right call Democrats patronising for saying African Americans are less likely to have ID for voting.
The US state of Georgia’s introduction of new voter ID laws prompted Joe Biden to label its actions as “Jim Crow in the 21st century”. It’s an issue that has rumbled on for years in America: do laws requiring that voters show particular, recognised forms of photo ID in order to vote disproportionately affect Black Americans’ ability to cast a ballot?
In response to Biden’s remarks, and the consternation of other Democrats and leftists online, Candace Owens recently tweeted that “Any corporation telling you that Voter ID laws are racist is run by white supremacists. Black people know how to get ID. Pretending we are too stupid to figure out how to get to the DMV is an insult and speaks volumes about what Democrats truly think about us.”
And if you think about it, I can see that any individual being told they are incapable of getting hold of photo ID might well be offended. Like, if we assume any white person is capable of getting photo ID, why would we automatically assume that a black person just isn’t going to be able to do this? That kind of rhetoric, that perpetuates the image of Black Americans as incapable for whatever reason, or poor (if you dig into the reasons that leftists think Black Americans won’t be able to access the right kind of ID, poverty is the main reason behind it) doesn’t paint a positive picture.
But describing the economic, and therefore in some ways political, realities for a particular demographic needn’t be disempowering if you are doing so in order to make sure policy affords all groups equally opportunities to participate in society and improve their situation. You have to be real, rather than polite, to pave the way for political change.
There is no denying that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which frequently intersects with those who define themselves as black, are less likely to hold ID in the US. Although the exact figures are a source of contention, the Brennan Centre for Justice goes through a catalogue of research into the disparities and picks out figures like 81.4% of all white eligible adults having access to a driver’s license, whereas only 55.2% of black eligible adults enjoying the same access. They also note that ‘study after study has similarly concluded that burdens to voting have a large and disparate impact on individuals with fewer resources, less education, smaller social networks, and those who are institutionally isolated’ linking these realities to race and painting an intersectional picture. A number of analysts point to the fact that black Americans may not have as much money and therefore may not own a car, or may not have had enough money to learn and take a test, they are more likely to live in urban areas with public transport networks, and, strangely, maybe even more likely to have a lost or stolen licence at the time of any election, for example.
To put a figure on it, it costs $145 dollars to get a new US passport. That’s not a sum that everyone is going to pay, and the likelihood of having that amount spare is not equally spread across different racial segments in American society.
The poverty rate for Black Americans was 18.8% in the latest survey (2020), and Black Americans are over-represented in terms of the proportion who live in poverty compared to the rest of the population. So, whilst Candace may have a theoretical point that, for those who are black and well off, already holding ID or with no financial constraints in their way to holding it, it’s diminishing to be told that, because of your race you wouldn’t have access to ID. But the balance of how much harm that does vs how harmful it is to put a policy in place that, according to statistics, will disproportionately affect black Americans would certainly point to the benefits in risking causing that offence.
It's a tricky issue, though, because it shows up the fault lines between two aspects of socio-political empowerment: the real, material conditions of a person’s existence vs the image portrayed of that kind of person in society and therefore the expectations and opportunities that tend to come their way. If we stopped being told that Black Americans were victims of the system would conviction rates go down, employment rise, health improve, and turnout increase for that demographic? To some extent, the answer would be yes: if social biases could be removed the hurdle of prejudice would be taken out of the way. Even the police shootings that have gained global attention over the last few years might decrease if there was greater respect from White Americans for Black Americans. But if nobody raised their voice to say that Black Americans are being pushed out of being able to vote, are being murdered by the police, are more likely to face a sentence at all, and a longer tougher one as well, are less likely to be steadily employed or to live above the poverty line, the kind of concrete policy changes needed to promote genuine meritocracy might be missed even more frequently.
The personal or culture and the political are at odds in this debate, without a neat way of resolving the issue.
Slavoj Zizek calls the liberal left racist for taking colonial blame rather than seeing African nations as capable of fucking up their own countries.