Among the small library of books, articles, and podcasts nowadays critiquing the excesses of progressivism, it is virtually a requisite that the fundamental facts of racism and other forms of discrimination are first acknowledged. “This is not to deny the reality of race-based intolerance”; “Of course, we all know the terrible legacies of slavery and segregation”; “All people deserve equal treatment, regardless of color, religion, sex, or sexual orientation”; “Of course, we all know the terrible records of rape and harrassment of women by men over the centuries”; “This is not to deny the ugly truth of oppression by whites of non-whites across time.” These and similar disclaimers invariably precede the apologetic “Nevertheless…” that goes on to suggest the current responses to proven bigotry and prejudice have grown overzealous, unworkable, or illiberal.
But what if these initial concessions are left out? What if anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-homophobic platitudes are themselves interrogated and rejected? Might historic beliefs and policies now held to be indefensible ever be, in any way, defended? Can we justify the supposed evils of the past, without seeking to revive them? Was there, or is there, a moral logic to inequality and exclusion? Or rather, does today’s widespread reckoning against whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality – the project of scholars, journalists, and activists to sternly re-evaluate the sweep of the Western narrative by the light of latter-day politics – contain a moral illogic that has gone unnoticed and unchallenged?
Take colonialism. The conquest of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and swaths of Asia and Oceania by Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English powers between 1500 and 1900 certainly decimated indigenous populations and promoted a cross-continental slave trade; millions of human beings perished under subjugation by European empires. Yet what is routinely (and anachronistically) denounced as genocide now was, at the time, only a global expansion of something all cultures had always practiced regionally. It was Europeans’ unique opportunity to explore and exploit distant lands whose native inhabitants were in no position to reverse the process – their seafaring and other practices were just not sophisticated enough. To colonizing nations, the “inferiority” of local peoples was simply self-evident, since they succumbed so readily to European technology, social organization, and disease. If the Incas had landed in Spain, or if the Bantus had swept through Belgium, the world would be very different, of course. But that isn’t what happened, and that truth must be reckoned with, along with the devastations wrought by Cortés and the ivory trade. As much as the heirs of the colonizers may be shamed for the often brutal dominance they exerted over four centuries, the heirs of the suppressed, the enslaved, and the colonized must equally bear the humiliation of their failure to counter it.
White supremacy is also held as an obvious, irredeemable bias enjoyed by one group over all others, especially in the supposed melting pots and mosaics of North America. White supremacy, goes the indictment, has rigged the game to permanently handicap Black, Aboriginal, and Asian people in the US and Canada, from the 1600s to the present. But the waves of emigration from the Old World to the New, and the newcomers’ eventual westward settlement of the continent, suggest less unfair advantage than demographic default. By the time of the US Civil War the non-white population of the northern land mass (including free and enslaved African-Americans, Native persons, and handfuls of Chinese and Japanese) was no higher than twenty percent of the total, gradually shrinking as yet more arrivals came from Ireland, Italy, Russia and elsewhere in subsequent decades. Whatever’s happened in Canada and the United States since then, good or bad, most of it’s happened to white people. That’s not supremacy, that’s proportionality. Unlike the Raj of British India or the apartheid-era South Africa, the young democracies were not sites where tiny, transplanted elites ruled a great underclass of dark-skinned unfortunates. To assert, as some commentators have, that the entire North American success story – the railways and the Wright brothers, the breadbasket and the Baby Boom, Hollywood and Henry Ford, the Constitution and Confederation – was no more than a grand scheme to lord it over the BIPOC cohort, is to hugely overstate the relative significance of the cohort itself.
Women have another argument. For most of recorded history, half the members of the species have been relegated to secondary status: without legal or economic rights, objectified by the male gaze and targeted by male appetites, burned as witches, abused as wives, and disenfranchised as citizens. Not until very recently, we’re told, have we begun to acknowledge the long conspiracy to exclude, degrade, and dismiss women in every sphere of human activity. Still, the blunt rejoinder to such grievances generally boils down to: biology. Women’s smaller average size next to men, their shorter terms of fertility, and particularly their vulnerability in childbirth led to a segregation of the sexes that prized and protected women’s reproductive function – and, for millennia, controlled it. Humans deduced early that males could theoretically generate many more offspring than females, and so men were expendable in warfare and other dangerous pursuits, while women were deemed critical to the preservation of the line, the tribe, or the nation. Females of childbearing age were the special focus of males’ genetic drive. Treating them differently was a matter of collective survival. As long as civilizations were built on physical strength, and as long as laws were enforced by it, few women were allowed to have authority they could seldom exercise effectively. Men denied women many things, not least of all the freedom to participate in social exchanges they were always likely to lose.
LGBTQ communities, too, complain that they have been marginalized out of the books, that an arbitrary orthodoxy of straightness has long been imposed on a rainbow of inclinations at last being revealed in all its diversity. Here again, though, experience would have taught our ancestors something else: among the countless impulses of human desire felt and expressed over the ages, the vast majority have been between adult men and adult women. Sexual taboos have varied across societies (against incest and adultery more consistently than homosexuality, perhaps), but same-sex eroticism, two-spiritedness, and other variants would have always been negligible fringes of the far more common procreative instinct. Some individuals may have had to behave, marry, or dress contrary to their innermost wants, yet for the greater number of people who have ever lived, the familiar rites of courtship and domesticity easily aligned with their physiological reflexes. In statistical terms, any tendency besides heterosexuality was, literally, deviance. Enshrining and accommodating such tendencies, rare as they apparently were, was both impractical and unnecessary.
Now, to outline all this background is not to endorse it. These traditions were greatly entrenched by the circular reasoning of religion (“It’s in the Bible, so it must be true”) and last word of legal codes (“Sorry, but those are the rules”), and what might once have seemed like common sense became more and more convoluted, and self-serving, over many generations. It took epic campaigns of social and political philosophizing – basically the entire complex of Western liberalism – to convince us that all people had the same worth, no matter their origins, identities, or innate attributes. Colonialism, white supremacy, sexism and homophobia are not essential to progress; indeed they impede it, by artificially limiting the pool of ability available for the realization of any human objective (to say nothing of the human miseries inflicted in their service). But the point is that they were not empty excuses made up on a whim by otherwise peripheral classes in order to gain from what they privately knew to be sheer fiction. The point is that they were not a pretext, a plot, false consciousness, or a fraud. To expose the deepest roots of injustice may be to discomfort its self-defined victims no less than its disgraced perpetrators: there’s more than one Lost Cause mythologized by more than one losing side. Navigation, numbers, and nature – the evidence informing the outlooks whose inheritance is now in such dispute – were real. Notwithstanding the purported revelations of our contemporary reckoning, nor the mild-mannered efforts to contest them, it turns out that the Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative versions of history are, in fact, the most accurate ones.
The preamble examples you reference are pretty omnipresent. No one wants to be labelled a racist or homophobe obviously. I do worry sometimes about the intellectual area we are now inhabiting in which honest discourse by even the most erudite and diverse publications must fret over stepping outside of the approved positions, not just on big issues like those discussed here but in everyday ones as well. I’ve thought a lot recently about how the arc of history with its egregious examples of racism, sexism, and homophobia existed simply because such things were “good” (or at least inoffensive) for the majority of people (at least economically, ethically it’s another story) but horrendous for minority populations. But today philosophies and practices drawn on the principles of Anti-Racism and such (not non-racist, mind you, I’m referring to capital “A” Anti-Racist style advocacy and practices) are likely ultimately very good for society but bad for some individuals on a local scale in the interim. It’s obvious that something like affirmative action in the US benefited the whole of our society by diversifying our workplaces, giving access to leadership positions in industries and education to marginalized communities, etc.—but obviously at some points along the way sometimes the on the surface most qualified candidate for a job or school admission was passed over because they were homogeneous/majority population. Thinking of the whole of history, I think progressive philosophies today sometimes refuse to consider the fact that there is nothing particularly and uniquely evil about the white Europeans in their identity itself that prompted genocide, enslavement, etc.—they just happened to be the majority population and that if the roles were reversed at that time it is likely indigenous people and those of color would likely have behaved in similar fashions had white Europeans been the minority. Doesn’t mean we have to perpetually recreate such atrocities now that we hopefully know more. I think in trying to correct past mistakes we tend to swing so far opposite in the other direction we forget that there can be some middle ground some of the time.
I’m rambling, but your piece sparked a lot of considerations for me. I’m committed to equity and believe society should strive for justice (via its citizens) but am equally committed to open discourse, free speech, and argumentation based on facts. We can never achieve the former without the latter, but it seems to me that, at least in the western world, a bulk of the right wants to keep the former in check while now the left wants to keep the latter in check (but that’s again a power issue, possibly because censorship and stifling of debate has long been the province of “conservatives”. I’ve got a few pieces of been working on in stops and starts and have had it come to me, (for example) “what if I’m perceived as misogynistic” if in at least some individual cases I don’t “believe women (the victim)” in that you know sometimes there are such a thing as false claims or grey areas exploited for various reasons? I know that if I, an anonymous blogger with a very low to modest readership worries about such perceptions for simply exploring possible “other sides” to specific stories, so do large publications with articles written by journalists hoping for long careers in the public eye.
Thanks for reading and commenting; my readership is pretty modest too. In the words of Led Zeppelin, Ramble On! Seriously, I’ve tried very hard here and in other posts to take on sensitive topics in a non-inflammatory way. This piece was my way of acknowledging some of the elephant-in-the-room backgrounds to current critiques of white supremacy, misogyny, etc. Yes, we now recognize that there has been a lot of injustice over the centuries, but, as you say, if the roles of oppressors and victims were reversed, there likely would not have been any less. Have a good weekend.