Like many progressive people, I am deeply concerned with issues of prejudice and structural disadvantage. We continue to live in a society in which women, brown people, gay people, old people – and many others – have a worse chance of living a happy and successful life than heterosexual white men. This is true in extremely oppressive states like those in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But it also remains true in so-called Western states.
The pernicious falsehood so prevalent in these freer countries is that the battle is won. Obama was President of the US; Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany; apartheid was defeated in South Africa. Everything is going great, right?
Of course, we know this isn’t true. Women are still paid less than men (in the US, for example, the AAUW says women were paid on average only 80% as much as men for the same job). Black people, where they are minorities, are killed more often, imprisoned more frequently and get worse jobs for less pay. Where they are in the majority, like in Africa, they lead societies that are disadvantaged in a global sense. They are treated, as so memorably captured by Donald Trump, as “shithole countries”.
While it is disingenuous to argue that the West has made no progress in terms of the rights of the “other”, it is equally so to believe that the problem is solved. This tendency to rush into declaring a society “free and fair” is as dangerous as any authoritarian regime. It silences voices just as effectively by delegitimising people’s case. “Why are you still complaining? You have the vote now.”
Freedom comes at a price. That price is, in part, that those with all the power have to give some of it up. And those who suffered disadvantage over years, decades, centuries and perhaps millennia, need to be supported to stand up and claim their rightful place. This push/pull action is what is required if we want to build a society that is truly free. It isn’t enough to just tell women or people of colour that they can apply for whatever job they want, or speak up when they feel oppressed. Those who hold the power need to make space, step back, shut up, so that these quieter voices can be heard.
White men (I speak in generalities here) already occupy the positions of power. They own the land, they run the companies, they dominate the conversation, they write the laws. It’s easy for them to open a dialogue because they know they can shut it down when and if they want to. There is a profound difference between letting someone else speak and letting someone else lead.
Ideally, we want to get away from identity politics altogether. We don’t want to have to consider someone’s skin colour or gender or sexual orientation when we hire or elect them. There is no specific reason why a white man can’t speak on behalf of a black woman; or a Muslim woman speak on behalf of a male Jew. We are all humans with more in common than differences. The day a bug-eyed green alien lands on earth with hostile intent, that will become abundantly clear.
But sadly, we have entrenched differences for so long that we can’t just flick a switch and become colour-blind. When black people say white people can’t understand their circumstances, or women say men can’t understand what they experience; I take that as a contingent fact. It is not true for all time, but it is true, in most cases, right now.
Which all means we have to shift the power consciously and vigorously. Every white man needs to take a step back and every previously disadvantaged person (for gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever reason) needs to be supported to take a step forward. Both of these moves are painful and hard; both feel awkward; and both may feel unfair.
On this last charge – unfairness – I say: tough shit. A world of equality is worth bruising some egos for. If men or white people feel like they’re being kicked off their pedestals, then so be it. Whatever individuals may think or experience, you’d still rather be born a white man if you want a life with the most baked-in advantages. The idea of change is far more advanced than the change itself.
And that’s to say nothing of countries that aren’t even trying or are actively still sailing in the wrong direction. We are far from our goal. With a malevolent man at the helm of the US, perhaps further than we have been in some time.
So let’s celebrate the uprisings where we see them. #MeToo and #TimesUp, whilst a little too obsessed with Hollywood, are powerful ideas that have ripple effects. I hear new and interesting voices in South African society every day. How can the corporate world embrace them not only by hiring them, but by letting their views reshape our companies, societies and culture?
Most of all, I hope we can bend in the direction of building up not breaking down. Anger is appropriate, but it should fuel growth not destruction. The best payback for centuries of inequality is not to claim ownership of a pile of rubble, but to build a new world that is better than one based on prejudice. And I honestly believe this is our collective problem to solve. DM