I wrote recently about holy segregationist Giles Fraser’s low expectations of minority communities. But look closely at identity politics and you’ll find this kind of fatalism is deeply ingrained everywhere. I noticed it the other night when I went out for a drink and narrowly avoided, as Mrs Merton used to say, a heated debate.
In Shinjuku’s eastern district—a do-as-you-like, all-night corner of Tokyo—I found myself in a tiny, crowded basement bar sipping lager from a can and listening to Depeche Mode. Assimilation indeed.
An American couple included me in their conversation, and soon began lamenting the election of Donald Trump. They became quite fraught as they went along, and after a while seemed bothered that my responses weren’t chiming with their feelings.
“What do you think about Trump?” One of them eventually asked, a touch of accusation in her tone.
“I guess to me he’s kind of a…”
Personal Jesus came on in the background.
“…I don’t think he’s going to be quite the disaster you’re making out.” I said, and then her reply put an end to any hope of a reasonable exchange:
“You would say that, because you’re a white man.”
And there it was, the same blunt delusion as has manifested so stubbornly around both social and traditional media: an improper knockout combination of battering ram prejudice and those recurring low expectations. I considered telling her that I’m gender fluid and she’d committed a hate crime, but resigned myself to a sarcastic “right, okay”, and ordered another can instead.
There’s nothing new in this kind of prejudice, other than who’s directing it, and who’s on the receiving end. The in-your-face bigotry of dismissing someone’s opinions on the basis of race or gender is as invalid and meaningless now as ever.
And the low expectations implicit in this recently common dismissal? They’re embedded in a rock bottom judgment on the critical thinking of all-who-disagree. The message is that vast swathes of people, incapable of objectivity, are barricaded in to their own ideologies without even realising it. Our ideas determined entirely by our physiology, we look in the mirror each morning, grunt, and set off out the house down a pre-determined behavioral path to—do what exactly?—further our own racial interests? Exclude and oppress? Commit general acts of self-serving cruelty?
This prison-cell view is horribly reductive, diminishing everybody by dictating that nobody is capable of thinking creatively. Nobody can choose their own intellectual route. And the scope of our reasoning is determined largely by our skin tone. Fall into this intellectual trap and you’ve subscribed to a grim worldview, in which we’re nothing more than shuffling dimwits, enslaved to primitive groupthink.
It also contains a low expectation of humanity’s underlying moral codes. The suggestion is that we can’t act on anything other than our own basic wants, and only make decisions—such as who to vote for—based on what will be of the most immediate, selfish benefit. It’s a way of branding everyone in the out-group as brazenly self-interested, with no concern for the wider community.
In the world of identity politics this becomes the norm, and we’re reduced to nothing more than component parts of competing biological interests. Condemned to spend our lives sniping and swiping at each other in a zero-sum game, the best we can hope for is to gain an inch for the team we’ve been bundled in with. It’s a hopelessly savage outlook.
A glaring problem with this philosophy is that it requires the existence of unspoken but globally understood group motivations, driving all members of each race and gender, wherever in the world they might be. We’re supposed to believe, for example, that all white people, regardless of economic, social, and intellectual circumstances, share the same politics and want the same things.
The absurdity of this is apparent in the fact that the people writing me off for being a white man were both white, and that one of them was even, shamelessly, a man. How then had they broken their genetic programming? Were they further evolved than me? Maybe they’d come from the future.
If someone tells you that you hold your opinions because of your race or gender, then you can be sure that they haven’t even tried to understand your side of the argument. And if they have no understanding of their opponent’s position, they can never have more than a partial understanding of their own.
At the bar we were in, there are hundreds of CDs shelved up to the ceiling behind the counter. You can ask for songs, and the bartender will take down your CD and place it in a stacked up queue of requests.
I remembered an article I’d read about some distress caused, after the US election, when a grocery store in Brooklyn played a famous Neil Young-rebuking Southern rock classic, and I called out to the bartender,
“Sweet Home Alabama, thanks.”
This post can also be read at Country Squire Magazine