The structure of us and them

In my last post, I described three of the pitfalls of viewing oppression as part of a structure. These included conspiratorial thinking, where we suppose some entity is responsible for planning or coordinating the oppressive structure, learned helplessness when confronted with the overwhelming nature of this structure and, paradoxically, the view that anything that chips away at the structure, no matter how small, is a valid form of resistance. After I published that post, I realised that I had missed the greatest pitfall of all. When we assume a structure to oppression we create a binary – you are either upholding the structure or actively working to dismantle it. No other options are available.

As an example, take this blog post by Pran Patel, a UK based educator and activist. Patel writes in the context of racism and ostensibly, but in my view misleadingly, discusses a ‘spectrum’. He lists a number of different ‘incidents’ and asks his readers to place them in order of ‘least racist to racist’. They include, ‘I don’t see colour, I am colour blind’ and ‘genocide’. We may think the continuum is pretty clear with these two examples. However, Patel suggests, “All of the above incidents are racist. All of them including: ‘I don’t see colour’ and ‘staying silent while racist jokes are being said’ put you on that side of the spectrum.” If we are still unclear of what this means, Patel states explicitly that, “We should move away from individual acts and move towards dismantling the system as a whole.”

Although accepted as manifestly true by culture warriors, I don’t think it is universally understood by ordinary people that saying, ‘I don’t see colour, I am colour blind,’ is racist. Certainly, it could be a deeply insensitive thing to say, depending on the context, and it reminds me of the kind of protestation you may hear from someone caught in an overtly racist act. However, the sentiment it expresses would have been widely considered a pretty liberal one until about ten years ago.

To place this ‘on the same side of the spectrum’ with genocide seems crass. But it is necessary if you are setting up a binary. As Patel explains, “staying non-racist leaves us on the racist side of the spectrum”. You are either anti-racist or you are racist. You are either with us or against us. You either sign on the dotted line next to every single one of our doctrines or you are upholding structural oppression. All transgressions, real and imagined, put you on the wrong side.

Commenting on a previous post, Chester Draws drew my attention to something known as the ‘motte-and-bailey fallacy‘. A motte-and-bailey is a type of medieval castle. A wooden or stone keep sits atop a mound – the ‘motte’. In turn, the mound is then surrounded by a courtyard – the ‘bailey’ – enclosed by a palisade. In normal times, the inhabitants would live in the bailey but under attack, they could retreat into the keep.

A motte-and-bailey argument is a weak argument that surrounds a stronger one. This accurately describes the way that the culture warrior argument operates. The bailey is the unsubtle framing that a person who does not assent to a whole set of assumptions and beliefs, some of which are highly questionable, is a racist, a label few liberal-minded, university educated people would be comfortable with. When under pressure, the culture warrior may retreat up to the keep and claim that they are merely pointing to the structural racism of society that people who do not accept these beliefs are perhaps unwittingly upholding. One enlightening aspect of Patel’s blog is that he does not make this distinction at all clear.

This with-us-or-against-us property of structural oppression would seem to work against any diversity of opinion. I am reminded of reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and thinking his neat division of people into oppressors and the oppressed seemed far too simple.

This analogy has been made before, but I am struck by the likeness of the culture warrior belief system to a particular kind of church. I remember once discussing the concept of hell with a member of an evangelical Christian denomination. I pointed out that not all Christians share the same interpretation of the bible as she did. I also suggested there were others who were not Christian but whose actions would align with those advocated by her church. It was very sad, she explained, but all of these people would go to hell because they were not members of her church and did not accept her church’s doctrine. She went on to explain that she would do everything she could to spread the word and help these unwitting victims of bad theology learn the error of their ways. In other words, having similar views to those of her church or acting in similar ways were not enough. It was all or nothing.

If we bring this back to the public shaming of a history teacher from the UK over a lesson plan he posted online – where my recent journey started – we can see this at work. Below is an anonymous Twitter account ‘not defending the abuse’ but highlighting the teacher’s culpability in using the ‘abusive term’ Sioux, a term the teacher quickly abandoned after criticism:

That comment was made on May 7, 2020. Below, is a screen-grab from a BBC news report from May 11, 2020.

The body of the BBC article goes on to discuss the views of groups known as the Oglala Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribesIf you Google the latter, the first hit is the website which describes itself as the ‘Official Website of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’.

I am prepared to accept that the term, Sioux, may be becoming anachronistic. There is perhaps a growing awareness among the communities it is meant to describe and the wider public that this term is inaccurate or outdated. However, you can hardly fault a history teacher from the UK for initially using it in a lesson plan and then replacing it with a different term when asked to do so.

And this is the point, of course, where the warriors retreat to the keep. Nobody is faulting the teacher, they claim. Instead, he is unwittingly upholding structural oppression. By temporarily using this one troublesome term, he has placed himself on the side of the structure rather than against it, and those are the only two places anyone can be.

Which is why, presumably, he was monstered on Twitter for several days before he locked his account.

There is an inversion underlying all of this. The culture warriors appear to have emerged out of the postmodernist relativism popular in academia – there is no one truth, it’s all constructed by humans etc. It is easy to understand why. When presented with a neatly packaged Eurocentric view of history and the world, they sought to make clear that other perspectives are available – that a simplistic, triumphalist history of Western struggle and progress that brushed aside the atrocities of imperialism needed to be supplemented by the perspectives of those it ignored. Yet now, certain alternative perspectives have become total and the need to acknowledge a diversity of positions has faded.

We may believe in an objective reality while also accepting that the truth is hard to establish. It is therefore up to those of us who do believe in objective truth to continue to assert our skepticism about any individual or group that claims to know it in its entirety.

On this blog over the years, I have debated the nature of critical thinking. My view is that it is not a generic skill that, once you have it, can be applied to anything, but that it is the result of gaining a sophisticated body of knowledge relevant to the matter you wish to think critically about. And yet everyone involved in the arguments on my blog would, I hope, agree that critical thinking is a vital part of what we are trying to achieve through education – that the ability to coolly evaluate sources, understand different perspectives and analyse problems from different angles is a central aim of a rich education, whether for the purely functional reasons of making people more employable or for the higher purpose of nurturing human flourishing.

No doubt the culture warriors would also mouth their support for the abstract concept of critical thinking. Yet their actions give lie to this. In asserting one ever widening worldview of structural oppression as the only valid stance, while relentlessly hounding those who miss a nuance or make a misstep, they are imposing one perspective and one perspective only. This represents an existential threat to our schools, universities and liberal institutions. As educators, it is our duty to oppose this totalising ideology because it stands against education itself.


2 thoughts on “The structure of us and them

  1. kesheck says:

    “We should move away from individual acts and move towards dismantling the system as a whole.”

    In my opinion, ending, or perpetuating, any evil is the the accumulated result of individual acts. There is nothing else but individual acts.

    Tell me to dismantle the system and I’m overwhelmed – I don’t know where to start. Tell me that the people referred to by a term consider it offensive, and I will stop using that term. Tell me that students who grow up in impoverished homes tend to struggle to read, and, as a teacher, I can help them learn to read. Tell me . . . well, you get the point.

    Perhaps I’m just cynical, but decrying structural racism seems, in a way, like the easy way out. Doing so makes good tweets that lots of folks can “like” and echo. I want to know what individual acts I, an individual, can do to eradicate the problem. I think I’m doing what I can. If there are individual acts I’ve overlooked, I will certainly listen.

    But to tell me to dismantle the system is a bit like telling a youth who wants to be a professional footballer that, well, they just need to become really good at football.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    I can see an issue with ‘I don’t see colour, I am colour blind,’ because it removes your possibility of being wrong. (You do see it sometimes with children. My daughter once when asked to identify a boy said “the one in the blue shorts”, to describe a boy that was the only black kid on the field. You won’t catch adults doing that.)

    However, apparently, ‘I try not to see colour, and I try to treat everyone the same’ is also racist to some.

    Sometimes I think it is a ploy where a strong ideological position is advanced by making people not disagree with statements that seem untrue out of fear or wanting to be seen to be good. Once they have signed on, then they will agree with pretty much anything after that.

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