General Politics Personal Writing Political Debate

Comments on Identity and Success in a Fractured World

At some point if you are a member of a minority you will bump up against some elements which serve to make the biased structure of the world visible to you. A woman might see the glass ceiling or casual sexism, a black man may be stopped and searched repeatedly with no real cause, a blind person may continue to find the internet intensely difficult to navigate with their screen reader. Sometimes these moments make one compassionate to other struggles. Sometimes people are convinced that only their specific problems exist and all others are the result of paranoia.

If you are lucky then you will be asked to believe there is something there which you will never experience. Something that cannot be seen, that is often hard to objectively prove, and that if true means that your position is not entirely due to your hard work or ‘natural’ talents but also the result of a system which keeps others outside and tells them they deserve very little.

I think it is clear this is why there is a group who see bigotry as only the obvious – racism is a man yelling a slur, homophobia is banning marriage rights. It is harder for them to see how it can be generation after generation creating a situation where the unconcious idea of a worthy person has the mannerism, tastes, accents – and so on – of a narrow selection of people. They can’t see that if this supposed meritocracy¹ just so happens to predominately favour the group of people who have always been in charge then maybe they are the group who rigged the game.

When you grow up in an environment where it is hard to fail completely, and where when you do that failure is often a result of some catostrophic mistake or horrific piece of bad luck then it becomes easier for your sense of self to project that it is the same for others. That every success is the result of their hard work and that if others just stopped complaining and tried more we’d be past “all this”. The more overlapping a persons identities are with those which aren’t upheld by the system, the more it seems that they “play the victim”.

We all have this thinking to a greater or lesser extent if we don’t catch ourselves – the more privileged we are the more we must take it on faith when someone tells us their experiences. That gathering to protest injustice is a legitimate pro-community reason to break social distancing while gathering for a party is not.

Back in the pre-2013 Snowden relevation world I remember being on the other side of this. Having numerous white British people view my knowledge that there was a global surviellance programme in collaboration with the Five Eyes powers – a knowledge shared by so many around me growing up that it was backround noise – as conspiracy thinking and the results of some racial and cultural paranoia. It surprises people I tell this to now, who are all on board with the idea that the CIA read emails how hostile people were to this idea back then. I was told that Western powers would naturally only do this on occasions where they would get warrants, that there would be no increased targetting of people from specific (particularly Muslim) backgrounds because the UK government was obviously restrained by the rule of law.

My nationality data dashboard project² highlighted a small fraction of that gulf – some people were surprised by how frequent people challenge my identity, whilst others commiserated with me on the basis of similar experience.

Clearly I don’t have all the answers – I am a researcher by trade. However the older I get the more I think it is pertinent that I have more open public conversations about these issues drawing from my areas of expertise. It means more data projects, more blogs, and continuing to work on some other items I have put off for a while, unsure of the need for them. And perhaps most importantly it means that if you would like a chat, then I am here.



  1. Meritocracy is a faulty concept in the first place. One of the main ones I have issue with it is that, aside from the fact that you can’t divorce so-called aptitude from the ways in which we can pass down benefits to our children via our status in society, in a lot of ways it ties your value as a human being to your capitalist productivity. Nobody is talking about a setting up a meritocracy based on advancing joy and it seems to be a backdoor way of justifying social inequality.
  2. The nationality dashboard project was borne out of the frustration of constantly battling the question “but where are you really from?”. It’s a question that many people, particularly BAME people know too well. And underneath it is the sinister implication that you are not really part of “us”.
General Politics Political Debate

How We Communicate With Abominable Ideas

The Dutch elections are to be held on the 15th March and Wilders may just get the majority of seats. He won’t be leader, but the tension of rising numbers willing to side with him means I’ve been thinking about the way that we as a society debate reprehensible ideas. We tend to feel the theatre of open debate will help, when all that happens is people like Wilders exploit these gaps. Later when opponents concede or ape particular points in a vote chasing effort he can present it as his whole position being secretly correct. It’s an effective manipulation.

There is a weird tendency I’ve seen where someone will argue against a position not understanding why the other person holds it. For instance an individual might argue for “shutting all borders to Muslims because they are terrorists”, and their opponent will argue “we can’t turn away refugees fleeing from wars caused by terrorists”. This is not going to sway anyone who thinks that every Muslim is a problem because it does not get to the root of their argument which is the intertwining of Islam and terrorism. We frame the fault in their statement as a lack of compassion, when really it is a faulty risk analysis and/or pure racist and xenophobic bigotry.

Coupled with this is the inclination to point out that a position is discriminatory, which doesn’t make much difference if discrimination was the point of the speech in the first place. If people are not starting with the same base ideals as us chatting to them as if they are doesn’t magically change their opinion. Nowadays we see how these linguistic tick boxes are used against us, to re-frame arguments so that a racist can slip in ‘human biodiversity’ in lieu of ‘segregation’ and ‘racial hierarchy’.

Wilders himself frequently uses LGBTQ rights to batter the idea of Dutch Muslims, a trick he borrowed from his populist predecessor Pim Fortyn. Lamenting that discrimination against Muslims is wrong when they are arguing that Muslims are the cause of discrimination, or pretending that a nod to our conventions means they are on the right track, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. They are dragging the discussion over to their frame so that we are left picking holes out of politeness rather than opposing the concept as a whole.

Defending principles on the grounds that they are important enough to be re-articulated without concession is essential, as is not discarding values just because your opponent discards them in an attempt to win them over (I’m looking at you people suddenly now against freedom of movement). Yet having these pointless back-and-forth “debates” in public is just giving these groups the chances they require if they are to expand.

Perhaps the key flaw in a lot of liberal thinking is the idea that concepts we find repulsive will remain fringe if we allow the ideologies to talk themselves out of existence. It assumes others will find what we perceive to be self-evident truths and so these concepts will never gain wider traction. Yet even if that may be the case sometimes, in situations where you risk severe losses to bigoted ideas why even take the risk of exposing more people to them?

Why allow debates about the rights of individuals to be reopened under the guise of public speech when we have already settled the answer? Ultimately it ends up undermining your point by sending a signal that certain principles are negotiable. Giving Fatima an advocate, or letting her speak for herself, in a public debate about whether she should have rights is an abhorrent position to wilfully put anyone in.

Sometimes I suspect that this problematic style of argument develops because our first introduction to political discussions are often with family, where certain conventions of respect are expected to be followed. It’s much politer in conversation to say “I see your point, but here’s the issue” than “That is a ghastly opinion to hold and I think that if you genuinely hold it you are an awful person.” Breaking out from the instinctive response to keep everyone on friendly terms takes work.

In other words proper resistance is the idea that we can’t just get along with everyone, and that there are a fair amount of people who are irredeemably awful. No public institution or talk show is required to host those whose views effectively portray a number of the population as subhuman. Debates are for whether pineapple on pizza is an abomination, or the best way to approach economic policy, and politeness in political talk is for great-aunts. When it comes to people with ideas like Wilders we should not give them the same consideration.