“But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The response in Britain to another murder of a Black Man by American police has been curious. The UK is much more comfortable inhabiting the past than discussing the future. Working out a path towards a more just and fair society is hard to do, it involves discussing the warp of the crooked timber of humanity, accepting difference, making uncomfortable choices.
So, we did not do that.
We choose instead to condemn the past, rather than build the future. This is not to say that there is nothing to condemn in the corpulent complacency of the tycoons of the slave trade. The profits in trading human lives were made in suffering and blood that seems inconceivable to any rational human, and yet it was so. Nevertheless, the past is no less difficult than the future, for every Edward Colston there was a William Wilberforce. Eventually the British Empire was among the very first to abandon slavery and then to fight it. In Britain itself, of course, it had long been established that slavery was illegal. There is a context to the past which is lost in the easy answers of the mob. In the end we must condemn the slavers.
Yet once all the statues have been removed, what then?
It is ridiculous to place Churchill in the same disgusting Pantheon of evil as Adolf Hitler, yet if we fail to do that, then we apparently are complicit in the Bengal famine. The crimes of Cecil Rhodes are different from the crimes of Edward Colston, South Africa thousands of miles and hundreds of years from the West African slave markets. Yet some among the protesters demand that we condemn Colston, Churchill or Rhodes with the same vehemence as we condemn Heydrich, Hitler or Stalin. Honestly, I think this is to draw the wrong lessons from our past. Relative evil or relative good are concepts that history invents for each succeeding generation, we are always rewriting the past, since the past lives in us in every passing day, but to turn Churchill from a half angel to a whole devil is a judgement that few fair minded people would make, whatever the social context of his times and indeed of our times.
So, when the fuss has died down, what then?
A few empty plinths, a few art installations, but fundamentally we need to unite to build a common future. In Britain we do not have the legacy of segregation that so poisons society in the United States. The fact that slavery was the original sin of the United States made Martin Luther King’s plea for brotherhood so powerful. Yet inter-marriage in the United States remains low, prejudice remains high, and injustice remains a daily occurrence. In Britain inter-marriage rates are ten times higher than the US. People of African or Asian heritage are joining the body of our society in the same way as Vikings or Huguenots have done in previous centuries. Our social context is not the same, the slavers have been dead for nearly three centuries, while American segregationists still walk the streets… and vote for Donald Trump.
The challenges for Britain are not the same, even though US culture is present in our living rooms daily, through TV shows (and TV news). For Britain is far more of a cultural melting pot than the United States. It may not be evident that political, cultural and social assimilation is more far reaching in the UK than the US, and yet it is so.
There are those, both black as well as white, who are uncomfortable with the idea that cultures evolve and merge. The fanatics who talk of “cultural appropriation” clearly do not understand what culture is, nor that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. These cultural separatists are as prevalent, if not more so, on the political left as on the right. They are just as wrong headed and poisonous. The fact is that to build a just and fair future we must initiate ourselves to the cause of respect and openness; we must remember our common humanity and we must remember that humanity is a flawed and partial state. If we are to build a common political will, then sooner or later we must accept that there is not “us and them”, there is only “us”.
So, as we examine our past, and contemplate past cruelties and injustices we must also take lessons to the present and to the future. It is not particularly wise to let mob rule dictate who we commemorate, especially when such judgments are often incomplete, yet we must learn to understand our past in the context of the future that we wish to build. We need to engage in a national discussion as to what we can do to ameliorate injustice, but this cannot take place in the context of the American culture wars.
I cannot be the only one who feels very uncomfortable that the debate about racial justice seems to be immediately hijacked by debates about many other forms of injustice, and that some of these discussions are spectacularly intolerant. Watching Etonian educated Eddie Redmayne and the almost equally privileged Daniel Radcliffe condemning Jo Rowling for expressing the concerns that many women feel about Trans rights has been extremely uncomfortable. The truth is that women in general have been treated unfairly in our society, and certainly in terms of numbers that is a greater injustice than the injustices made against Trans people. Yet to even state this truism risks being condemned as a bigot, since it implies that one may be equivocal about Trans rights. The fact is that there needs to be a respectful discussion, and being quick to condemn in such a sensitive topic risks undermining the whole campaign for greater social justice. I am a great admirer of Jan Morris, whose wise and warm books show much of the best of humanity, but there are more sinners than saints amongst humans, and a debate about Trans rights that refuses to acknowledge that there may be evil doers, risks creating far more dangerous problems, and it is not bigoty to acknowledge that the world is not perfect and even amongst victims of injustice there may be plenty of flawed and hostile humanity.
Justice is the fundamental goal of a healthy and happy society. Yet our social organisations tolerate inequalities and differences to quite a high degree. The question is when does economic inequality become economic injustice, and I would argue that this is when the poor have so many barriers that they cannot become rich no matter what, and when the rich have so many protections and privileges that they cannot become poor. This asymmetry is true in most levels of injustice: hostile prejudice on the basis of sex, race, religion or sexual orientation.
The crooked timber of humanity will not give clear answers, not matter how we may wish for them, but we can at least understand our own biases and work together for the greater good. In the end, like Elizabeth I, we should not seek “windows on men’s souls”, we should accept positive actions and not seek to condemn what people may feel uncomfortable with. We should discuss the future, not be imprisoned by the past and we should above all, reflect our common humanity as the highest goal.
It may sound idealist, but Justice is built on the search for a better way.