“You’re either with us or against us” has been the intimidating rallying-cry of zealots throughout the ages. It’s been responsible for the carnage of religious wars, the terror of revolutions, and for making fierce and bloody enemies of people who had been friendly neighbours barely moments before. It’s even present in supposedly civilised democratic politics. Margaret Thatcher’s judgement of people was often based on whether they were ‘one of us’ and it was that divisiveness her critics most deplored. Now we are in the middle of yet another of our periodic ‘culture wars’. This sets the so-called have the opposing camps of so-called ‘woke’ against the ‘anti-woke’. Yet many people – perhaps most – don’t want to be forced into making such a binary choice. On many issues they’re neither with us nor against us but can see that there’s something to be said for both sides. Rather than nailing their colours to a particular mast, what they value is a willingness to see the other point of view, tolerance, generosity of spirit, magnanimity and, most of all, the avoidance of descent into unnecessary conflict. But are we being pushed in the other direction?
As I write the European Football Championship games are about to begin. If recent games are any guide we shall, once again, be treated to the extraordinary sight of English fans booing their own team for ‘taking the knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter. Is this because those fans are racist bigots who couldn’t care less about black lives and might well blurt out incoherently after a bevvy or two, that they think they don’t matter at all? Some of them undoubtedly are: all societies have their share of despicable idiots with more tattoos than brain cells whose views are beyond the pale. But I’d guess that most of them take an unexceptional attitude to racism . They disapprove of it, have perfectly good relations in their own lives with people of different-coloured skin even to the point of not noticing the difference, and were as horrified by the video of the slow murder of George Floyd at police hands as anyone else.
So why will some of them boo? I’d suggest it’s because they have allowed themselves to become susceptible to the ‘Are you with us or against us?’ challenge. That’s fine except that the challenge isn’t about racism in itself, but about what has come to be known crudely as woke versus anti-woke. The anti-woke argument is that BLM demands that we accept that racism is the only legitimate prism through which to see anything and everything. That means statues with any remotely colonial links should be pulled down, buildings renamed, heroes shamed and all of us are required to confess to our intrinsic racism etc etc? Or are you against us (woke)? If the former, you boo the knee-takers. If the latter, you applaud.
In this world there is no acknowledgement of the notion that the players’ action in taking the knee could be interpreted in any other way than through this stark binary choice – for example, that they take the knee because they are acutely and personally aware of how much racism persists in football (and in especially ugly form on social media), and that they want to make a gesture in protest against it. This is an in-your-face challenge about whether you’re with us or against us. Woke or anti-woke.
It has always been in the interests of zealots on both sides of a confrontation to remove the option of nuanced reflectiveness in which reasonable people of goodwill mumble about things being not so black and white (so to speak) as the zealots claim, that there is much to be taken into account, that both sides have a point and so on. The best tactic for removing this option – a tactic perfected by Lenin and zealots who’ve come after him – is to tempt the other side into being extreme, so allowing you to be even more extreme in response. That sets in train a dynamic of polarisation, forcing those who had hoped to stand on the safe ground of reasonableness in between to realise that that ground is getting narrower and narrower and that there really is no choice but to join one camp of zealots or the other. Once that’s achieved, there’s no room left for balanced thinking, still less for tolerance and generosity.
The question is whether it’s now a battle to the death on the narrow terms of the opposing camps. Have we reached the point where we are starting to accept that everything must be adjudicated according to the fundamentalist ‘with us or against us?’ challenge. So let’s move from football to cricket.
The whole world knows by now that Ollie Robinson has been, in Monty Python language, a very naughty boy. Not so much naughty as stupid. But he was a boy – still in his teens – when he made his crass comments on social media nearly ten years ago. He has apologised unreservedly since then but it did him no good.
The England and Wales Cricket Board ruled that he should be suspended for the second test match against New Zealand, which might very well mean the end of a very promising career. Pretty severe punishment, you might think, for a bit of youthful stupidity. The eminent members of the ECB can hardly blame youthful stupidity for their action. The most plausible explanation for it was fear.
They have been watching what’s going on in football and they took fright. They were scared of the BLM zealots. Better destroy the career of a young man than risk the charge of being sympathetic to racism. Manna from heaven for the zealots.
The ECB’s response has been regarded by most as harsh and by nearly everyone as unexpected. A less draconian but very public rapping of the knuckles was probably what most people thought would happen once these deplorable old remarks had been unearthed from the ineradicable memory of social media. The interesting question is why the ECB decided to act so much more harshly.
The most plausible answer is that it took fright. It had seen what was going on in football and elsewhere and simply assumed that Robinson’s asinine remarks would immediately be seen in the context of BLM at its most zealous. Not to condemn them and their author in the strongest terms would expose the ECB to the charge that it was indifferent to BLM, that it harboured racists without doing anything about them, that therefore the ECB was racist itself and so on. Rather than run that risk, much better to come down like a ton of bricks on Robinson.
For some, this strong disciplinary action has been like a red rag to a bull. The ECB is obviously in the grip of woke, they charge. Wokery is like a virus sweeping the land: even that bastion of tradition, reaction and doing things the British way, the members’ pavilion at Lord’s, has succumbed. We must take sides: man the Long Room!
In other words, this has all the ingredients of the dynamic of polarisation that the ‘are you with us or against us?’ challenge sets up. But is it inevitable?
Fortunately, in this case, it seems not. We’re still some way from seeing the orange and yellow ties of the MCC booing their own board and there has been an intervention on the part of the voice that says ‘try to resist the with-us-or-against-us challenge’. It came from Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, who said he thought the ECB had gone ‘over the top’.
It’s a wonderfully English phrase, ‘over the top’. Its meaning is clear and forthright enough, but its tone is moderate. It speaks against the polarising zealotry of absolutes by implying that most things should be judged according to degree, to a sense of proportion, rather than in the crude black-and-white terms of either-or. It suggests we should make judgements reflectively rather than judge instantly. It suggests immoderation (going over the top) is a greater sin than failing to take sides.
Of course Dowden’s own intervention has itself become a subject for the ‘with us or against us’ challenge.
In this case, it’s claimed, Dowden and the Tories are obviously exploiting the woke/anti-woke confrontation for their own political interests. And so they probably are, because that’s what politicians do. But at the same time Dowden’s statement was was an assertion of resistance to the ‘with us or against us’ tendency of our times. It left in no doubt how much he deplored Robinson’s original remarks but called for a more generous and magnanimous response to teenage stupidity and a lesser penalty in the light of the culprit’s remorse,
There is no end to the number of issues demanding our attention that could benefit from such resistance to that tendency. From major concerns like the trans debate to utterly trivial ones, such as whether the undergraduates of Magdalen College, Oxford were right or wrong to remove a picture of the Queen from their walls. So many, indeed, that perhaps we would do well to stop interpreting them in terms of something where we think we must instantly take sides. In the case of the Oxford students we’d do best not to bother to think about it at all – does it matter? Most things are best not forced into pre-existing boxes but considered according to their own lights.
Or have we passed that point? In this culture war is it now a question of ‘for us or against us’? And if it is, whose side are you on?
Let us know.