You’ve got ventriloquists

My previous post is now approaching 3,000 reads; it’s now the best-read post in this blog’s history, passing the previous record-holder – which was (bizarrely) my annotated “There There, My Dear”.

I’m pleased with the impact the post has had and very pleased with its reception (I’ll write about some critical responses in another post), but since I wrote it I’ve felt that more was needed. The post was a line-by-line fisking of David Goodhart’s column, following the twists, feints and occasional leaps of the argument, so it wasn’t a very systematic presentation of my disagreement with his and Eric Kaufmann’s ideas. I hadn’t read the whole of EK’s report when I wrote it; I’ve now made good that omission, which in turn has prompted further reflections. Also, DG complained about the post’s facetiousness, which is fair enough; I was trying to raise a smile quite a lot of the time, if only to keep the anger at bay.

So this and the next couple of posts will be devoted to my considered, and reasonably straight-faced, thoughts on this whole ‘racial self-interest’ thing. First, let’s talk about the vexed issue of racism and how to define it. Here’s the OED definition, one more time:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

Needless to say, this isn’t the definition DG and EK prefer; on Twitter, DG ridiculed my reliance on ‘dictionary definitions’ – which is fairly rich coming from somebody who’d relied on a definition plucked out of the air. For DG the ‘normal definition’ of racism is “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”. EK, in the project report, quotes DG (it’s a small world) hypothesising “someone who identifies loosely with their own ethnic group … [and] wishes to live in an area where the group is predominant”; this person, however, “holds no negative views of other groups”, and as such we are invited to consider him or her not to be racist. EK for his part notes that different people do in fact define racism differently – although “most agree that someone who does not want to live next to a person of a different race is racist” – and offers to resolve the problem by coming up with a narrower, core definition on which we can all agree. In his words,

the central question concerns motivation. Do [people who want to reduce immigration] fear, hate or look down upon those of other ethnic backgrounds? If the answer is yes, they are racist by any definition of the term. Or is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are … seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group[?]

And in this case, again, we are invited to consider that these people are not racists.

Now, you’ll have noted the absence from the OED definition of any reference to fear, hatred or contempt, so central to both EK’s and DG’s version of the term (DG’s formulation in fact specifies irrational hatred, etc, implying that in some situations he might not even consider those negative emotions to rise to the level of racism). So how can this definition be valid? Let’s suppose that you are one of our putative non-racists, feeling no animus towards any other group but identifying with your own group, wishing to maximise its demographic advantage and preferring to live in an area where the group is predominant. Let’s suppose you live in a street with nineteen houses, ten of them (your own included) occupied by people who identify with the same ethnic group as you – White British, Bosnian Serb, Loyalist, Hutu, whatever it might be. Now suppose that one of those ten families moves out suddenly – trading up to the outer suburbs, relocating for a job in another town, whatever – and the house is bought by a family from the other group. They’re perfectly nice people – you’ve got nothing against them as individuals; the thought of hating or fearing them personally has never crossed your mind – but they’re not from your group, and that matters to you; you want to maximise your group’s demographic advantage, and to live in an area where your group predominates, and while their group has the majority in your street that isn’t possible. You hear on the grapevine that the location is really convenient for them, the house is the house of their dreams and they got a really good deal on it; you’re happy for them, really you are, but still.

Now suppose that your street is a gated community, and buying a house there isn’t just a matter of putting the money down: the residents’ committee have to agree on any newcomer. Or suppose that they’ve got the house fair and square, but you hear rumours that they’re not really happy there and they’re thinking of moving out – they hadn’t expected their new neighbours to throw so many loud parties. Decision time: if you’re going to act on your preference for a community numerically dominated by your group, your course of action is clear. You regretfully vote against the newcomers in the residents’ committee; you find the first excuse to throw the loudest and longest party you can manage. Let’s face it, the new family was never going to fit in – it’s a kindness, really, to let them find out sooner rather than later…

I respectfully put it to DG, EK and their co-thinkers that, from the point of view of the newcomers, it doesn’t make much difference whether you consciously hate them or not. There is very little difference between being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who genuinely hate you, and being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who just don’t want you around. In any case, hatred is as hatred does: if somebody denied you the house of your dreams just because they didn’t like the look of you, I think you could be excused for feeling that they did in fact hate and/or look down on you. In point of fact, if the history of ghettoisation and ethnic cleansing tells us anything, it’s that terrible things can be done by people who don’t consciously hate or fear anyone, but just think it’d be better all round if those people were somewhere out of sight.

It could be argued, conversely, that this is all a dreadful misrepresentation – when we talk about wanting to maximise demographic advantage we’re not actually talking about people who would do nasty things like veto new residents on racial grounds. But if we’re not talking about that, what on earth are we talking about? I may have a deep-seated yearning to surround myself with fans of Cannon and Ball (no ironists or timewasters please), but if I never act on it in any way it’s not of any interest to anyone. We’re surely talking about beliefs that people are prepared to act on – or that they genuinely want politicians to act on on their behalf. That being the case, the difference between being an ‘ethnic partisan’ and ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group’ is vanishingly small.

DG believes this is all a terrible mistake, tactically as well as normatively: “To describe as racist what many ordinary citizens regard as reasonable anxieties about rapid change is simply wrong, and a cause of great resentment”. EK: “Real racism exists and is dangerous. All the more reason to refine the term, using it precisely rather than permitting it to be stretched by political entrepreneurs”. Both seem to be backed up by a former Labour voter, quoted by US academic Justin Gest: “I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist.” Labelling people’s views as racist both alienates those people and makes them less sensitive to the actual danger of racism; instead, we should keep our definitional powder dry, abandoning the OED definition for the higher ground of a hatred-based definition. DG again: “The point is precisely to cordon off racism as far as possible into a place where everyone can recognise it and reject it, and then place linguistic and intellectual barriers between it and other forms of thought and behaviour that may involve race but are not racist”. Or rather, to relocate the linguistic and intellectual barriers which make racism taboo, putting some of the forms of thought and behaviour currently regarded as racism outside them.

There are two arguments here, both of them fairly confused. Whether ordinary citizens regard their views as ‘reasonable anxieties’ has no bearing on whether or not those views are in fact racist. (And let’s face it, most people have always regarded their own views as reasonable.) Calling their views racist may cause great resentment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (although it may call for a degree of tact). It certainly doesn’t mean that we should redefine racism so as not to offend anyone(!). DG argues both that racism has no intrinsic meaning (but that we should redefine it to exclude anything that ‘many ordinary citizens’ currently think), and that it has an intrinsic meaning which is much narrower than its current usage. EK for his part argues that the current definition has been deliberately stretched out of shape, apparently for partisan advantage, and that this over-extended definition tends to discredit the whole concept (although in that case it’s not clear where the partisan advantage is coming from).

But the whole argument’s moot, given that – as we’ve seen – there is no significant distinction between the broad and narrow definitions. To stop somebody getting what they want, not because it directly benefits you but because of who they are, is to treat that person hatefully and contemptuously. Whether you’re cackling evilly while you do it, or mentally reassuring yourself that you’re acting for the greater good, is not the deciding factor; in fact it’s a very trivial factor, of little interest to anyone but you.

As for the “anti-racists make it worse” argument, I think we should call its bluff – particularly bearing in mind that the “former Labour voter” quoted had subsequently transferred her loyalties to the BNP and then to UKIP, and that Gest also recorded her making comments such as

there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

Are people really being alienated by anti-racists insisting on labelling harmless traditional preferences and turns of phrase as ‘racist’? Or is it just a case of people expressing racist views, being told that those views are racist and being – or acting – mortally offended?

Next: ‘racial self-interest’ and how to ask a silly question.



  1. Posted 16 March 2017 at 09:30 | Permalink | Reply

    Great piece. I felt the most obvious problem with both DG & EK was precisely their avoidance of this issue of what happens when we step from the realm of “this is what they feel” to “this is what they want their politicians to fix.”

  2. Posted 17 March 2017 at 10:47 | Permalink | Reply

    Side note: DG this week has been in FT again and on Newsnight… 🙄

  3. Posted 20 March 2017 at 12:32 | Permalink | Reply

    Both seem to be backed up by a former Labour voter, quoted by US academic Justin Gest: “I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist.”

    Ironically, DG wants us to construe kebabs, children, etc as racist – as a terrible assault on our cherished group self-interest!

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