Ghettoisation is liberation

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

To which we should now add a fourth slogan:

Ghettoisation is liberation

Yes, I know I must appear to be no more than an ageing has-been, or, more accurately, an ageing never-has-been, raging furiously at the way the world is going. But I hope that’s not quite the whole story. I grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and, despite everything that is still far from perfect, I do know, for instance, that there is far, far greater racial tolerance now (at least in Britain) than there had been some forty or fifty years ago. I also know that modern advances in medicine and medical technology have saved my life: the chances of surviving a triple heart bypass operation are now far greater than they were back in my day. So I would have to be wilfully blind, and unthinkingly ungrateful, to rage against the modern world merely for being modern.

However, certain aspects of the modern world are nonetheless worth raging against. Certain cultural aspects, which, after all, are the major focus of this blog. And amongst the most insidious of these is the increasingly widespread credo that one’s ethnicity, or one’s gender, or one’s sexuality, defines one’s cultural and moral values – defines, indeed, the very person one is.

Certain things enter one’s mind at so formative a stage in that mind’s development, and stay embedded within it so firmly, that it becomes very difficult attempting to look beyond them, or even trying to understand that there may be valid arguments against them. I appreciate that. And one of those things that had entered my mind at a very early stage was the conviction that one’s cultural values, or one’s ethical values, are not determined by race. Indeed, I have long thought deeply objectionable, and, yes, as racist, the idea that one’s race determines the kind of person one is. One’s person is not defined by one’s race: such a credo, determining human value in terms of race, has always seemed to me the very epitome of racism.

So, naturally, I find myself rather bemused, to say the least, when the very people who claim to be anti-racist nowadays proclaim this same racist credo. Suddenly, it seems, everything I have understood about racism seems to be turned on its head. The very definition of “racism” seems to be changed before my very eyes.

Other definitions seem also to be changing before my eyes. Of poetry, for instance. Obviously, defining poetry has never been an easy task: and, after having given the matter much consideration – or, at least, as much consideration as I am capable of – the best definition I could come up with is that if a piece of writing ain’t prose, then it’s poetry, and vice versa. And prose is written in units of sentences, and poetry in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. Or, to put it more crudely, prose goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page, and poetry doesn’t. But that’s pretty uninteresting, and unenlightening: the question is whether something is good poetry, and that, of course, is another matter. And here, we cannot go by definitions, as there are so many different ways that a poem can be good. But, without going into any detailed analysis, it can be maintained, I think, that just as painting involves the manipulation of colours, and music the manipulation of sound, so poetry involves the manipulation of language – of making words communicate more than merely their dictionary definitions. What “more” it can communicate depends upon the intentions and the skills of the poet: it may communicate multiple layers of meaning, or plumb depths of emotion, or evoke distant associations, or elusive states of mind, or capture the most intangible of human feeling and thought; but whatever the poem achieves, its basic tool is language. To analyse how a poem works – should one wish to do that – it is the language we must focus upon.

But this too seems to be changing. Consider this poem, which, I am reliably informed, is a set text for English literature GCSE this year. As far as I can see, with my old-fashioned and no doubt outdated ideas on poetry, this is poetry only because it ain’t prose: the  lines don’t go all the way across the page. It uses a Caribbean dialect, which is fine, but the dialect is used not to any particular expressive end, but merely to assert the poet’s racial identity. And I cannot help wondering what there can be here that merits teaching. The poem conveys nothing more than what may be communicated by a bald summary of its content: “They do not teach us anything that makes me feel comfortable about my racial identity.”

Of course, how history should be taught is a complex issue, and fully deserving of debate and discussion, but to object to the way it is currently taught merely because it does not make one feel comfortable about one’s racial identity does not seem to me a very enlightening contribution to the debate. And such a simplistic statement seems to me a poor theme for a poem. A good poem lays bare the complexity and the intricacy of our human state: a simplistic statement may make a good rallying cry, but its worth as poetry worthy of study remains to my mind dubious.

Well, let’s not labour the point: let’s just say that this is not my idea of what poetry should be – or, at least, what good poetry, poetry worth teaching, should be. But then again, I am shown rap lyrics which I am told is poetry of our times, and I can see no poetic merit there either, so I suppose all this is no more than an indication of how utterly outdated and obsolete my perspective is on such matters.

And my perspective on what constitutes racism is similarly obsolete, I guess. I have changed my mind on a great many things over the years but one point I have been constant on, ever since I have been old enough to think about such matters, is that I was not going to define myself in terms of my ethnicity, as my ethnicity says no more about what kind of person I am than does my shoe-size. Of course, some others may well see me in terms of my ethnicity, but they’d be wrong, and I am not going to confirm them in their wrongness by agreeing with them. And, since I didn’t see myself in terms of my ethnicity, I thought it only good manners not to see others in such terms either. So it’s quite a shock, as I find myself approaching my sixties, to realise that what I had thought was a liberal position to hold in such matters is now actually considered racist – that people are actually clamouring for their ethnicity to be recognised, and to recognise it in others; and that it is racist not to see people thus.

For nowadays, it is quite commonplace to see individual people in terms of their race. No-one bats an eyelid. Of course, I’d expect racists to place a great emphasis on race: that’s because, obviously, they’re racists. But this is now a mark of the anti-racist as well, and, dinosaur that I am, I really cannot reconcile myself to it. In The Guardian, an avowedly liberal paper, there recently appeared an article written by someone who would no doubt claim to be feminist and anti-racist, headlined “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. I appreciate that the author was not responsible for the headline, but on this occasion, it’s a fair summary of what the article says. Back in my own benighted times, an article so racist and so misogynistic as this would not have seen light of day.

For yes, it is racist – at least, given my no doubt obsolete understanding of the term. For how else can one describe making generalisations about an entire race? (And it is misogynist as well, for similar reasons.) I raised this point on Twitter, but I was confidently told that one cannot be racist to white people. I did not quite understand the reasons for this quite extraordinary statement , but it’s widely held, and is something, I gather, to do with the “power structures” of society. (It is astonishing how readily the general public laps up the various bits and pieces of bollocksology that emanate from the groves of academia.) And I was recommended to read a book called Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race to White People. I replied, as politely as I could, that I have too much to read as it is, and that I find the title, unless it is intended ironically, offensive. And then I retired from the fray. What else could I do? (The author of this book, incidentally, is so marginalised by the power structures of society that she recently gave a talk at the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was sold out.)

Lionel Shriver, who had, not too long ago, earned the disapprobation of right-thinking liberals for her onslaught on the concept of “cultural appropriation” (an idea so utterly daft that one shouldn’t, one would have thought, even need to argue against it), recently penned an article in The Spectator drawing attention to the statement  made by the UK branch of Penguin Random House to the effect that they are aiming for both their staff and their writers to reflect, by 2025, the distribution of ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and sexualities in wider society. To be fair, Penguin Random House do not mention quotas, but it is hard to see how else this seemingly laudable aim can be achieved without them. And if the questionnaire they sent out to their writers is as described by Lionel Shriver (and I have seen no-one disputing this), then it seems fairly likely that this is indeed the path Penguin Random House is going down. Now, the quota system is controversial, to say the least, and Lionel Shriver is entirely justified in penning a polemic against it – although her means of attack is, admittedly, somewhat ham-fisted, introducing as it does that rather tired and tiresome figure of “a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter”. But her point remains valid. If Criterion X is to be replaced by Criterion Y, then, given that X and Y are not correlated one way or the other, there are bound to be at least some that pass Criterion Y who would not have passed Criterion X. At the very least, there is room for debate. But debate didn’t prove possible: all hell broke loose, with Lionel Shriver accused of racism (when really all she was guilty of was ham-fisted satire); and of saying that “people of colour” (as I guess I have to describe myself these days) cannot write, even though, quite clearly, she says no such thing. She later penned a response, but no-one was really listening by then.

But her point remains, I think, a pertinent one. Looking back, I sat my Scottish O-Grade in English (the equivalent of GCSE) back in 1975, and I distinctly remember studying in class poems by Shelley, by Wilfred Owen, by Dylan Thomas. Even if one thinks more highly of “Checking Out Me History” than I do, it cannot be denied that what is now being taught in English classes nowadays as poetry is not of a standard comparable to what had been around some 40 or so years ago. What can be the reason for this?

The only possible answer I can think of is diversity. (That is, to be clear, diversity as a criterion replacing quality, rather than as an addition to it.) And, also, strangely enough, uniformity. For while we may insist on diversity of ethnicity (and all those other things), we must still insist upon uniformity of outlook. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely fine poets who are black, or South Asian, or East Asian, or whatever, writing poems that display richness of language, and depth of thought. But it’s far easier, and far more convenient, to teach a simple message such as “What is taught does not validate my racial identity, and it’s not fair!” All you do is repeat this simple message, ignore the irony that a poem communicating this very message is now a set text in schools, and, lo and behold, you don’t really need to teach about poetry at all! All that difficult stuff about the use of language, the subtleties of the rhythms, the sonorities, the imagery – the sort of stuff that I was introduced to in the works of Shelley, of Wilfred Owen, of Dylan Thomas, when I was fifteen – can now be safely ignored. And it’s all right, because we have diversity, and that, apparently, is an end in itself.

And meanwhile, it continues. Examples pile upon each other, and it becomes exhausting merely trying to keep up. We keep quoting to ourselves the inspirational line of the late Jo Cox, who was so tragically murdered last year by a far-right racist: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” But even as we repeat this to ourselves, in practice, it is all that divides us that we most insist upon. Human beings are barely regarded as individuals any more: they are white, or black, or brown, or whatever. At the drop of a hat, it’s the ethnicity or gender or sexuality that comes inevitably to the fore, before all else. A published poet feels affronted by an Uber driver saying that he would like to be published, and instantly, she publicly announces that “old white men are exhausting”. Instantly, this taxi driver, who was doing no more than making polite conversation, is not an individual, but someone to be characterised by race and gender (and age), and put down on that score. The tweet has since been removed after heavy criticism, but there has been no apology or retraction.

(I will not link to her poetry by the way, but some are available in Instagram, should anyone wish to see them. I have. As I say, I simply do not understand the criteria of poetic merit any more, so there’s little point my commenting.)

So here I am, wondering why I even bother writing this when there’s so much I clearly don’t understand. Nor, frankly, wish to understand. Foolishly, I really had believed, and believe still, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and still feel very strongly that we have a very long way to go towards racial equality, and, further, that such an end is worth fighting for. But I had imagined that the struggle against racism was to break through the differences, and find that common ground. But that’s all old hat now. The message from all sides seems to me clear: see everyone, including one’s own self, in terms of ethnicity; respect all that divides us; stay in your lane.

Well, I want out. Obsolete  I may be, but I want no part in any of this. Let others fart around trying to find validation in poetry for their racial identity, and judge literary works on such terms: I’ll sit in my ivory tower for as long as I can, and glory in the richness of language and the subtlety of imagery and the profundity of feeling that I found in the English class in the comprehensive school I attended. Especially when the October wind punishes my hair…

Yes, our English teacher taught us this poem by Dylan Thomas for our O-Grade examination. This, of course, was back when people actually believed that poetry, far from being something to validate one’s group identity, existed to enrich our lives.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds

Isn’t that just gorgeous?

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Peter Renshaw on June 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    I would love to comment but as a white male evangelical christian from Australia, I am told by the world I have nothing to contribute.

    (I will try to get away with saying that the Thomas poem is simply stunning!)

    Reply

  2. Posted by caromalc on June 26, 2018 at 2:56 am

    It’s very hard to get it right these days, isn’t it? Just yesterday I was reading someone ranting against racism and it seemed to me she was the racist one, seeing everything in terms of race. And then I heard someone else (she was Indian) on the radio saying she had been talking to a fourth generation NZer who was of Indian ethnicity and she was condemning people who asked him where he came from. They were probably just being polite, though you, Himadri, might equally be a bit put out by that question, I don’t know.

    It’s the same with sexism – there are a lot of articles on my main NZ news site (which allows comments). I don’t know which is more depressing, the articles or the comments! The articles are generally raving about racist behaviour or more often railing against men and the way women are treated. The comments are ignorant rants, not even long enough to be rants really. They are just confirmation of what the writers were saying, without reasonable arguments. On both sides everything is black and white (no pun intended but seen just after I wrote it!).

    I count myself as a feminist but by that I mean the sort of 1970s feminist who just thought men and women should be treated the same in work situations and pay etc. Now every man seems to be considered unworthy and everything they say and do is criticised from the point of view of a shrill-sounding “feminist”. I find it all very depressing. Then there’s the opposite which is equally depressing – those people who insist that little girls wear pink and play with dolls because it is innate rather than a social construct. And people arguing sensibly about this and using historical evidence and scientific research are voted down mercilessly. As are the people who want to teach Te Reo (the Maori language) in schools.

    I should just not read this but it is very tempting!

    As regards poetry, I am not a great poetry lover – probably because I don’t take the time to analyse or understand it. The poetry I do like is that which I learnt at school and university perhaps because I had to learn it. Although my favourite one is one of Fleur Adcock’s, talking to her 5-year-old son.

    For a Five-Year-Old

    A snail is climbing up the window-sill
    into your room, after a night of rain.
    You call me in to see, and I explain
    that it would be unkind to leave it there:
    it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
    that no one squashes it. You understand,
    and carry it outside, with careful hand,
    to eat a daffodil.

    I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
    your gentleness is moulded still by words
    from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
    from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
    your closest relatives, and who purveyed
    the harshest kind of truth to many another.
    But that is how things are: I am your mother,
    and we are kind to snails.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,

      I am really not so sure why personal interaction should be difficult. Treat everyone as an individual rather than as representative of some group, and speak courteously. And that’s all there is to it, really. And if anyone chooses to take offence over unintended slights, well, that’s their problem. Why should I get offended if someone asks me where I’m from? That’s just stupid!

      (Although, when I’m asked that question, I don’t know what to answer:

      – I was born in Bengal …
      -So you’re Bangladeshi?
      [There follows explanation of the difference between Bangladesh and the bit of Bengal that stayed in India; and then …]
      – I moved to Stockport in Cheshire when I was 5
      – So you grew up in England?
      – No, in Scotland actually … we moved there when I was 7…
      – So you have family in Scotland?
      – No, they moved back down to England when I was a teenager, but I stayed on up there as a student …
      -And you’ve been in Scotland since?
      – Well, no, I ….

      By this stage, they’re wishing they hadn’t asked!

      (I have heard of Fleur Alcock, of course, but don’t know her poetry, I’m sorry to say. )

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Well it is a gorgeous work and I agree with you. We should judge each person we meet individually as the person they are and not as a stereotype or group. And we should judge a work of art on its merits and not what group it falls into. End of. But the world is not a rational or sensible place any more.

    Reply

    • To be honest, I doubt the world ever has been rational or sensible: it’s just that each age has its own different lunacies… 🙂

      As Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”

      Reply

  4. Thank you for what appears to me to be the largest outpouring of common-sense I have read in a long time. It may be my age (I am also approaching sixty); or my love of Dylan Thomas (passed on from my mum); or some other quality we share… but you have given voice to many of the thoughts frequently riffling through my brain: but which I have felt unable to express (firstly, because I didn’t have the courage; but mostly because I couldn’t make them concrete). A great piece of writing, too (almost quite poetic!) – beautifully structured and argued – and one which pulls together, I feel, many of your recent thoughts and writings.

    Reply

    • To be quite honest, I was expecting to land myself in considerable hot water with this post. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time… But this is a topic that means much to me personally, and I find it difficult to keep quiet about it. Thank you very much for your kind words.

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on June 26, 2018 at 7:33 am

    “c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.
    Or something like that. You are taking a chance.
    That’s the great thing about the internet, one can pretend learning and there was once a liberation about being in an environment where, as one cartoon put it, no one knows that you are a dog. Now that is changing for all sorts of reasons, some good and some bad, and reputation matters again, so fear sets in as well as civility.
    Recently I saw a picture of the campaign slogan of Charles Evers who in the late sixties became the first black mayor of Fayette in the state of Mississippi. It said: “Don’t vote for a black man. Or a white man. Just a good man.”. I can’t imagine such a slogan being used today. It catches the eye by starting like a racist slogan but celebrates character instead of race and assumes the possibility of a common notion of what is good.
    Now, I know nothing of the record of Charles Evers so I’ve no idea if he lived up to his claim, but that isn’t the point, the point is the change in the nature of the debate.
    It seems to me than in the pursuit of justice or revenge some people are now using racism to fight racism and abandoned the notion that a common idea of what is good is possible outside of a set of group identities, identities to which people must conform. The problem lies in the consequences: if you use racism to fight racism there is a very good chance you will encourage more racism in return.

    Reply

    • That’s actually a very good slogan. And no, I can’t imagine it these days either.

      I thought i was taking a chance too, but the responses so far have been very positive – quite flattering, really. But let’s not speak too soon!

      And yes, using racism to fight racism is precisely what many people are doing. It can only result in escalation. For if “people of colour” identify themselves by their colour, and define their interests in terms of their colour, why should white people not do the same? Are we not heading towards cultural apartheid, and towards entrenched positions based on race, opposing each other? I really do feel very apprehensive about it all.

      Reply

  6. I had to come back and comment. I have been thinking about this essay all day. I do think many of us simply feel shut out of what have become (race and gender) very polarizing debates. One cannot even call them conversations. I have been encouraged by friends to write about the new feminist argument that implies that “All men are guilty and all women are victims” which serves no one. Yet as a middle aged white man (we are the same age) I hesitate. I’m sure someone has seen me as sexist somewhere, but I also have 40 years of life experience as female, not to mention the eye-opening experience of male puberty at 40. But to engage in that discussion means appearing to be pulling my “gender identity” card and I refuse to be labelled or defined by that. It influences who I am, but so do many other aspects of my existence.

    As for poetry, I read a lot and I have many friends who are poets, some of whom may be LGBTQ, but I have to say that the single poem that speaks most vividly to me of my experience as a transgender man, especially the transformation, is—surprise—by Dylan Thomas.

    I dreamed my genesis in sweat of sleep, breaking
    Through the rotating shell, strong
    As motor muscle on the drill, driving
    Through vision and the girdered nerve.

    From limbs that had the measure of the worm, shuffled
    Off from the creasing flesh, filed
    Through all the irons in the grass, metal
    Of suns in the man-melting night.

    Heir to the scalding veins that hold love’s drop, costly
    A creature in my bones I
    Rounded my globe of heritage, journey
    In bottom gear through night-geared man.

    I dreamed my genesis and died again, shrapnel
    Rammed in the marching heart, hole
    In the stitched wound and clotted wind, muzzled
    Death on the mouth that ate the gas.

    Sharp in my second death I marked the hills, harvest
    Of hemlock and the blades, rust
    My blood upon the tempered dead, forcing
    My second struggling from the grass.

    And power was contagious in my birth, second
    Rise of the skeleton and
    Rerobing of the naked ghost. Manhood
    Spat up from the resuffered pain.

    I dreamed my genesis in sweat of death, fallen
    Twice in the feeding sea, grown
    Stale of Adam’s brine until, vision
    Of new man strength, I seek the sun.

    Reply

    • Dear Roughghosts (sorry – I know that’s not your name, but it’s the only name I have!)

      Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us. To make any kind of blanket condemnation of an entire race, of an entire gender, is so lunatic a thing to do that one is constantly surprised that one has to argue against it.

      I too dislike pulling any “identity card”, as you put it. But in a society where what one says is inevitably judged by one’s gender, race, or sexuality, it becomes, I appreciate, very difficult.

      I had not known that Dylan Thomas poem before. Thank you very much for posting it – it really is quite beautiful.

      Reply

  7. Great post. You hit every nail on the head, and I commend you for doing that unabashedly in today’s irrational atmosphere of discourse. I’m 24, and don’t worry–there are a lot of young people who agree with you–not enough I fear, but we do exist. Love the sentence about bullocksology in academia–painfully accurate. Ironic that you quoted 1984 because I’m rereading it and was thinking to myself that racist anti-racism is doublethink.

    Reply

    • Hello Lily, and thank you for that. it is, I fear, all too easy to hear a lot of fanatic voices on social media, and think they are representative. It is a trap I have fallen into more than once. I am sure there are many, many people – possibly the majority – who don’t think in that way, but nonetheless, when bad ideas are around, they need to be argued against.

      I made a big thing about getting old and out-of-date and obsolete, because I feel it is a good strategy to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you!

      Best wishes, imadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by Scallywag on June 26, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    I don’t think this polarisation is new. I was a lesbian separatist back in the 1980s and one of the slogans we bandied about was ‘All men are rapists’. It sounds bonkers but was based on the belief that heterosexual relationships happened in a context where the relative power of men and women was so skewed, women couldn’t freely consent to sex with men. Or something like that – I didn’t really care, I was swept up in the zeal of the moment, in the joy of finally encountering a positive vision of what I, as a woman, might be, and in the relief of finding a community and somewhere to belong. I don’t think like that now. I’ve gone from vegan lesbian to undefined hunter (now there’s a debate that will get you into hot water). But i do know that the kind of identity politics you’re talking about was alive and strong in London in the 1980s.

    I think your position is a bit disingenuous. Of course, we should meet each person as an individual, and treat them with courtesy, but that meeting happens in a context of unequal power and privilege. I can’t believe that nearly forty years on from my involvement in women’s rights campaigns, women still aren’t paid the same as men. It’s as basic as that.

    So although nowadays I refuse to define my sexuality at all, and have more in common with some men than I do with some women (for instance) those allegiances still mean something. Incidentally, missing from this discussion so far is the the word ‘class’, which, in my experience, still accounts for significant differences in privilege in the UK today, perhaps more than any of the other factors we go on about so much.

    Intersectionality is relevant too – we tend to belong to more than one group at once, usually we come from several, with often conflicting levels of privilege and power, and all of these collide when we meet each other.

    The greater problem, for me, is the atmosphere of virtue and shame which surrounds these issues. Your trepidation about saying anything at all is telling. i mentioned in the pub a few weeks ago that I worried about the polarisation between men and women, and that perhaps the ‘Me Too’ campaign had inadvertently exacerbated that division, and I couldn’t have provoked a more scandalised reaction if I’d peed on the table.

    Sadly, I think if you put three people in a room, they will divide along lines of identity and power, as will two people. And if you put one person in a room they will divide against themselves. I suspect it’s part of who we are – we split, we get hostile, we get self righteous, and we fight with each other. Luckily, we do also seek connection, and we love.

    Reply

    • “Your trepidation about saying anything at all is telling.”

      Well – if I didn’t say anything at all, I am not quite sure what you’re taking issue with!
      But to be serious, reading over what I have written, I think I said what I wanted to say. And if I didn’t say it forcefully enough, it’s less to do with trepidation that with, perhaps, a natural diffidence that is, for whatever reason, part of my character.

      I fully accept that different groupings in society have different levels of power and privilege. I accept that we all belong to different groups (“intersectionality”, as you call it), and this gives us different levels of power and privilege in different contexts. I accept also that there is a great deal of injustice in the world, and that the struggle against injustice is an entirely legitimate, and, indeed, necessary. I have not disputed or questioned any of this.

      What I don’t accept is that our individual identities are nothing more than a conglomeration of the various group identities that we are born with. I do not accept that the power and privilege that come with the various group identities override all else in our human interactions.

      My cultural, aesthetic, and moral values have absolutely nothing to do with my race (or with any other group to which I may find myself belonging). To see ourselves, and to see others, in such terms, to see our identities as fixed by the circumstances of our birth and immutable throughout our lives, is, I think, to take a diminished and impoverished view of what we are.

      And this is what worries me: I worry that we are heading towards, effectively, a cultural apartheid – that we split up into different groupings determined by our race, our gender, our sexuality, and, yes, our class. I worry that these differences are emphasised, not merely by those whom we have traditionally regarded as bigots, but also by those seeking liberation. Liberation is best found in trying to break down barriers, not by emphasising them.

      Sadly, I do not have the cure to the world’s ills in my back pocket, and I do not know how we can abolish the monstrous inequalities and injustices that continue to plague our world. But I do know that to emphasise our differences, to find our individual identities in our group identities, to adopt entrenched and opposed positions based on the groups that we happen to be members of, is not the right path to take.

      As you quite rightly say, “luckily, we do also seek connection, and we love”. Indeed. It is here that we find whatever salvation there may be to be found. And that is far from disingenuous.

      My best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Scallywag on June 27, 2018 at 10:37 am

        I agree with you, mostly, and I hope on a personal level I meet people (and I meet a lot of different people) in the spirit you describe. I don’t think our identities are fixed by the circumstances of our birth, and I had hoped that what I wrote about myself would demonstrate how deeply and personally I know that they are not immutable. I also know you’re not saying the heinous injustices we live with shouldn’t be resisted.

        I was partly thinking aloud in my reply, but I was also trying to say (badly, it seems) that I don’t believe this is new, that this kind of polarisation has happened for a long time. When Virago and The Women’s Press started to publish books by women, the concerns you’re raising about quality were raised then, too, for instance. The current discussion about poetry, and whether or not some contemporary writing is really any good, has happened before too. (And let’s face it, some of it is terrible). I was trying to be optimistic, to say that although we’ll have periods and phases of a sort of apartheid, both individually and socially, we will also continue to connect, and to love across even very substantial difference.

        So all that, but also, perhaps we part company in how we see the impact of difference. My view is that of course it has an impact on our interpersonal relationships, and to connect across difference, especially differences in privilege, those things need to be acknowledge and respected. They’re not who we are, but they’re part of what’s shaped us, and they’re present in our relationships.

        Perhaps the word trepidation was inaccurate, I thought that’s what you were saying, but I think I’m right in thinking you were expecting a negative reaction? I was also trying to say that the shaming and prohibition which often surrounds discussions about difference, is unhelpful and wrong. That’s all, really.

      • Hello, I think I was, to a great extent, thinking aloud to. (Much of this blog is simply me thinking aloud!) I think we’re mostly in agreement, but we possibly have different emphases.

        I take your point about Virago Books: the quality of those books surely cannot be doubted. (I am currently reading Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter in a Virago edition, and it is wonderful.) However, against that, we have to consider that poem I linked to in my post. I remember a time not too long past when something like that would not have been even considered as a school text. What has changed? Something has!

        Similarly with that book Why I am Not Talking About Race to White People. As I said, race relations in UK are much improved since the 1970s, but I cannot imagine any reputable publisher back then publishing a book with so offensive a title. I cannot imagine an author who promotes this kind of idea being feted, being invited to give talks at prestigious venues. Now, they are.

        And “cultural appropriation”: where did that come from? I remember when I was small, one of our neighbours once asked my mother if she could show her how to wear a sari, and my mother was delighted. Where did this resentment come from that no-one should adopt anything from our culture?

        Yes, polarisation has existed, but certain ideas which were, at best, only out in the fringes, now seem prevalent in the mainstream. In my student days (late 70s and early 80s), I was involved (in an admittedly modest way) in the anti-racist campaigns, against National Front and the like. And as far as I remember, we all subscribed to the idea of integration, of people from different backgrounds mixing together, sharing their cultures. The idea of students organising events for a single race only would have been unthinkable! It isn’t now: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bahar-mustafa-goldsmiths-university-diversity-officer-keeps-her-job-after-vote-of-no-confidence-10277562.html

        We would also have protested very strongly against racially segregated student accommodation. It’s happening now: https://www.thecollegefix.com/post/28906/

        There are many other examples of this kind of thing. I certainly hear things said from members of minority groupings that I never heard back then, and I am old enough to find these shocking.

        And these things are happening in the name of liberalism! I’m sure this isn’t how it used to be.

        I am of Indian background, and have grown up in UK in the 60s and 70s, and so, inevitably, I have experienced racism, and yes, inevitably, that must have shaped the person I am now. I do not think this is sufficient reason for me to construct my identity based on my ethnicity. And if I were to be antagonistic to white people in general because some white people have behaved badly to me, then not only would that be ungracious to the many white people who have behaved decently (and often far more than just decently), I would merely be adding to the problem. That is not the way forward.

        I was, frankly, expecting a negative reaction to my post, and was, perhaps, unconsciously a bit cagey in expressing myself. But I want ideally to live in a world where we all bring our cultures along to a common table, and share, and differences of race or of sexuality or of anything else matters no more than differences of height or of shoe-size. That’s what I had hoped we were heading towards, but many things I see and hear nowadays really do depress me. Insisting on separateness, on, effectively, a self-imposed apartheid, is a deeply retrograde step.

        Anyway, I have babbled on long enough for now.
        All the best for now, Himadri

  9. Thank you so much for being such an eloquent champion of artistic honesty and individual worth.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Scallywag on June 27, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you for such a stimulating and thought provoking blog. I find myself going over it in my mind when I’m doing other things – I can’t ask for more, so thank you for that! And I’m with you on cultural appropriation, and your last paragraph, too. I think I might have a go at reading ‘Why I am not talking about race…’ I swerved away from it for reasons I imagine you understand, but now I’m curious!

    Reply

  11. Posted by caromalc on June 29, 2018 at 4:13 am

    Today I read someone taking issue with the classic Little House on the Prairie series being labelled as unsuitable by American Library Associations.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/105110149/cultural-cleansing-takes-another-childhood-icon–little-house-on-the-prairie

    I don’t seem to know how to provide proper links in this blog, sorry.

    I haven’t read the series at all, but it seems to me that libraries of all people should not be censoring books.

    As regards cultural misappropriation, I live in a country where Maori are taken a lot of notice of, and they object to people using their precious moko (tattoes) without the understanding of their meanings. Some of them take this too far though, when they find other people using the word “mana” (meaning something like prestige, honourableness, having leadership qualities, admirable) offensive. (Mana is used frequently in everyday English.)

    We do seem to live in very awkward times.

    Reply

  12. Posted by mudpuddle on July 1, 2018 at 4:22 am

    i don’t have a lot of eloquence… it’s just that i’ve (i’m 75) been telling anyone who would listen for over fifty years that there are well over 6 billion universes on this planet, and that they need to find a way to get along… or not… unfortunately, i see a bang, not a whimper, coming up… fine post, tx…

    Reply

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