Currently, Edutwitter is ablaze with the latest schism. Tempers are high and camps are forming. What can even exist in middle ground between racism and antiracism?
A bunch of people I follow are decrying another group of people I follow, and depending on what you believe, there’s either a group of profiteering conspiracy mongers launching career-ending character attacks, or a group of dedicated equality campaigners are being intentionally mischaracterised by those seeking to stifle progress and protect the status quo for their own racial benefit.
Social media is a tool that has an incredible power to bring people together and help each other find their way. Unfortunately it can also highlight differences in opinion and miscommunication. It can make us despair at the differences between our views. How has this happened? I hope to offer an explanation.
My place is this is somewhat circumspect. I’m not a blind backer of any narrative and think the crux of the argument is shrouded in miscommunication.
But I’ve never been a (white, straight, middle class) man to say in ten words what could be said in a hundred, so before I comment on current affairs, I want to explore the mindset of “deniers.”
Whether it is Holocaust, climate or covid denial, the game plan of the denier is always the same: reframe the narrative, establish the “true victims,” and shut down avenues for progressive change.
Holocaust deniers proclaim the innocence of “insisting immaculate historical accuracy” in the first step of their fight to reframe the true victims of the Holocaust from the Jewish people, to literally anyone else. They do this by suggesting that the numbers are less than certain, so the overstatement of the narrative is being manipulated by Jews to get more than they should be owed (this making non Jews the victim). They say that faultless historians are the victims, being fired for anti-Semitism for simply asking historical questions. They claim those seeking to find and assert the truth of other victims of the Holocaust are the victims, as “political correctness gone mad” stops them from promoting narratives of hate.
These narratives all seek to accomplish the same thing, cast the Jewish people as dishonest and over-rewarded, and retreating to another, more complex argument whenever the racism involved is called out. Luckily, having dealt with this for long enough, and having more than enough evidence to know beyond reasonable doubt the horrors of the historical events, many recognise the performance of Holocaust denialism for what it is – thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
Climate and covid deniers operate in a similar way. They pick straw man targets in small areas of heavily vetted academia, take them out of context, and attempt to use them to disrupt established narratives. They reframe the victims of climate change and covid (in almost every way of measuring, the least privileged in society) as the everyday man and woman who must make any form of sacrifice (like the horrific suffering of a bit of cloth,) in order to profoundly benefit others.
Instead of having a level debate on the inertial orthodoxy of established scientific narratives (a great debate, especially with regard to funding and regulation), they seek just to end important conversations, change the subject, move people on.
These are rightly identified and lambasted by sensible people. And yet when the historical facts of colonialism and slavery are brought up, suddenly sharing established history is portrayed as rewriting historical narratives. When the actions of people directly responsible for unimaginable levels of human suffering are denounced, people will rush to say “we must not judge them by the morals of our times”
Suffering is suffering. To minimise it because those involved chose not to recognise the humanity of their fellow humans is intellectually dishonest and morally wrong.
Meanwhile on edutwitter
And so we come to the current Twitter furore: one side see the denialism, obfuscation and reframing of victimisation as blatant racism, and the other side sees it as a rabid witch hunt unable to provide proof of their accusations (with varying degrees of honesty).
In titling this piece, I wasn’t sure whether to use insidious or sorrowful as an adjective. But I think sorrowful is more accurate. If we imagine a spectrum of racism to antitacism, with those leading the lynch mobs on one end, and leaders of the civil rights movements on the other, there is an awful lot of middle ground.
Many of those in the middle believe that being a racist means that the person is at lynch mob level. Many of the most ardent antitacists believe that our inescapable unconscious biases mean that we all have a level of racism unavoidably ingrained into us.
When those fighting for equality want to level an accusation of racial bias, suggest someone is asserting that racism is overrepresented, changing the subject, or just trying to shut down discussion by attacking someone’s character, the label of racism comes naturally.
But this accusation loses much of the middle and all of those less aware. They just see the accusations of racism as outlandish slander. They don’t engage and cement opinions the culture war propagators want them to form. I understand the campaigners who say it isn’t their responsibility to ensure others educate themselves, but I can’t help feeling that is counterproductive.
Changing the language is a way to fix this.
Racism denier is a much harder charge to avoid, and what it implies is a much more accurate summation to those who can’t get their head around the nuance of the situation. I hope it will catch on.
I don’t think those recoiling from racism denial accusations understand or intend to steer discourse away from equality, just disagree with how we get there, and don’t fully understand how their comments undermine other people’s lives experience. The more entrenched our positions become, the less likely we will all be able to work towards a solution.
I’m sure many will think that even offering my opinion on this is presumptuous. Some will lambast my sanctimony, some will think I’m contributing to the noise drowning out those better placed to comment. I live in optimistic hope that the majority of those on either side of this are good people, who only want the best for all students, and through better communication we can, together, steer a better course.