Black Lives Matter or BLM for short, has created a huge amount of discussion around so much that impacts our everyday lives: Race relations, history, privilege, slavery, government, to name just some of them. The Jewish community has been affected, not always equally with other groups. Few have viewed the maelstrom of debate as an opportunity for honest reflection on how we all got here, beyond the immediate causes of personal violence, prejudice, and murder.
The few voices that have tried to point out the obvious are only protected from abuse if they are “permitted” to make observations. So, free speech has been the first real casualty of the riots that were a consequence of the tragic death at the hand of rogue cops, of George Floyd. It is obvious that Class matters as much as Race; that being trapped in poverty can have an enormous, negative impact on race relations. The counter argument would be that Jews were no more than a few generations removed from forced impoverishment and intermittent, murderous pogroms when Nazism returned the world to the Dark Ages of human civilisation. So, it is not simply a matter of economics. Prejudice when allowed to prosper, spreads like a poison and consumes everything in its path. And under the guise of an illusion of “Free Speech” prejudice is either unbowed or resurgent, everywhere.
We only need to go back 60 years to understand why we are here today.
It was in the 1960s that the Class Structure was given a terminal diagnosis. The world was in flux after two world wars. The newly found freedoms awarded to us provided greater access to money, health insurance, job security and freedom of movement – all of which were supposed to empower the working classes and therefore create opportunities for movement up the class pyramid.
I am only speaking, at this point, for the U.K. but there is little reason to doubt a similar social history for the rest of the Western world. At the start of the 20th Century about 20% of Britain’s population were middle class and almost all the remainder were lower (or working) class. A minute number were upper class. That was it. Today, most of the Western worlds’ population is viewed as Middle Class. Since 2018 just over 50% of the world’s population is viewed as having sufficient discretionary expenditure to be comfortably well off, a reasonable enough definition of what is termed “Middle Class”. This Consumerism is as much an attribute of self-confidence as it is, the ability to withstand short to mid-term economic shocks. It also means that about 80% of Western society is Middle Class with the remainder of the Developing World expected to reach that same milestone by some time in the 2030’s.
Or, at least, that was the case until the COVID19 Pandemic.
It also means that excepting the relatively small number of very rich families and wealthy aristocrats, there remains nearly 20% of Western Society who live with food, housing and job insecurity, do not necessarily have equality of access to high standard health care and thus, they suffer from a significantly shorter life expectancy.
Class mobility was supposed to eliminate most of the evils of human society. Three things happened and the ramifications resulting from them, could not have been foreseen. The sexual revolution, the exponential growth of mass communication through both Television and the Internet and an era of rampant Consumerism that is unprecedented in human history. All have had consequences, few of which are positive.
First, sex. It was not only attitudes towards sexuality that changed in the 1970’s. It was Societies view on interpersonal relationships that radically changed. Marriage as an institution gradually became unimportant and single parent families, principally headed by women, relegated male participation in family life to an optional, marginalised status.
Second, television. It had been opening our eyes since it first made its appearance in the USA in the late 1920’s and in the UK in the late 1930’s. Prior to television it was our parents, our place of worship, our school and the government that had the greatest impact on our lives. Culture was a product of our physical environment. After the introduction of mass-participation television it was TV that had the greatest influence on how people viewed society. Is it any wonder that reactionaries were terrified of its influence?
The internet proved to be another game-changer but with the obscurantists deftly manipulating the corrupted diffusion of knowledge, the Internet has altogether failed to quench humankinds’ darker urges. Instead it has supercharged them.
Truth and accuracy have not been the high ideal that Web participants strove to achieve.
In their place: dissimulation, disinformation, and manipulation are daily used to create a reality that gratifies the ego of the creator. Passion and prejudice have found their ideal vehicle for distribution. Sloppy thinking and nihilism have been glorified whereas, prior to the Internet, the radical and the bigot would need to be at the very least, eloquent, to be heard by a critical mass of people.
The simplicity combined with the ubiquity of the worldwide web has made us lazy. It is too easy to find an answer that reinforces our prejudices. We remain too lazy to be challenged. But it has also, crucially, empowered the bully for whom domination is of equal importance to the message.
All this has meant that Society is unable to respond to all that is challenging to stability and coherence within nation states. Let me explain.
No one wants society to return to the days when women were second class citizens without equal rights. Few people would want us to return to the time when it was regarded as manly for a man to “get” a woman or girl pregnant even as it was ruinous to the reputation and the life of the female. The popular view of marriage was that it was a failed institution which enabled the man to control the family, right or wrong. Single parenthood became eminently preferable to fixed relationships, especially, when children were involved.
I remember the debates that ran into the early 1970s. Was remaining in a failed marriage preferable to separation, divorce, and single parenthood? The prevailing wisdom, then, was that a child was damaged more by the tensions created in living within a failed relationship than by single parenthood (always assumed to be female). Any discussion around repairing relationships that had frayed at the edges was muted. Nor, were the economic consequences of inter-generational single families, part of the forecast model that social scientists examined when they assisted in formulating government policy. Maintaining or even creating greater disfunction within the class structure was not considered as a possible outcome – it was as if, they never studied social history.
We now know that overwhelmingly, single parenthood is a female endeavour that too often leaves the family impoverished. It can lead to behaviour that is characterised by raised stress levels, emotional disfunction and physical hostility. Difficulty in adapting to change, conduct disorder and violence are more common in the children of single parent families from poor households. Low educational achievement simply encourages a continuation of the cycle of poverty and low expectations through successive generations. Resilience is less prevalent in families that do not stay together (assuming a normal level of family stresses). Mental health issues are also of greater prevalence in the children, and the child as adult, when divorce and single parent families are involved.
Class as defined by economic stability and resilience is directly impacted by both poverty and the failure of the family even as an extended family is often able to provide much of the support that the fragmented family may experience, minimising the negative impact of the single family.
Thus, proclaiming the death of the Class System was premature because revolutionary change created new challenges. We are yet to address to a satisfactory outcome, any of those challenges.
The new era of Consumerism was the third assault on Western Civilisation. Today’s consumer society is different from earlier periods of mass acquisitive social behaviour. It is marked by conspicuous consumption; and instant gratification results in a debasement of value in everything we possess. With the commodification of ‘everything,’ ‘everything’ has a price, and nothing has a value (beyond the status it confers or its worth in coin). Crucially, this applies to relationships and not only products with a physical dimension. Through the ubiquity of enhanced visual communications media, we are all living a partially vicarious reality augmented by Reality TV and further programming meant to encourage an escape into fantasy.
In America, nearly every ethnic group has been able to rise above its earlier impoverishment and alienation from the mainstream of society to become integrated into that society and therefore, to commit to the idea that in order to maintain its own comfort and stability it must support that with which it now identifies. Except in African American society (and native American). Some 70% of non-African Americans are in permanent relationships and therefore experience a degree of family stability that is unheard of in all but 30% of African American society. That means two things. First, the cycle of poverty is extremely difficult to escape and second, the expectation that change for the better is possible is not part of the reality of most African American families. The American Dream is for someone else but not the Black man (or woman). The creation of a permanent disenfranchised underclass is not simply unhealthy for society – it creates the kind of frustration that intermittently explodes into violence, unless that group is permanently enslaved and even then, history records many slave revolts.
Tearing down statutes or censoring old movies and classic television programmes fails to solve any problems. They do empower those for whom violent confrontation is a useful exercise in intimidation. Inevitably violence damages most, those for whom the poverty is already, terribly real. If attitudes towards policing are based on power dynamics and fear, then both become an impediment to good policing. But abolishing the Police will not help either. People forget that the police are there to protect us and usually, even imperfectly, that is what they do. If institutional racism and violence exist, then it must be addressed by acknowledging that they exist and then finding the means through which they can be eliminated. It starts with researching the degree to which both exist
A return to reactionary sexual mores will not help society to progress. But it is time for sex education to reflect the lessons of the last half century or more. Children whose familiarity with family relationships is unstable are often, themselves, damaged by the experience. Conflict management and the consequences of living with broken families should be part of nearly every subject taught throughout the education system.
Prejudice and intolerance as a valid cultural component of ethnicity is justified within our international multi-cultural framework. It is time to say NO, this is not how we learn to live together.
History must be depoliticised. If fact becomes hostage to fashion or prejudice, then the truth is the first casualty. We cannot understand each other if we only possess some of the “facts.” Our universities have become centres of creative prejudice where knowledge is only necessary to support and further a point of view. If fact finding becomes no more that the selective choice of a prejudiced elite then our higher education bodies are no more than political institutions that will turn out idiots, incapable of free thought.
Safe spaces are not the place to learn to live together or to meet and learn about the other. Selective safe places have made sanctioned hostility a means of destroying targeted communities. Safe spaces are not places to experience another culture in an environment of learning. Respect comes from learning to mutually listen and mutuality, is not an aspect of so called “safe spaces.”
Society cannot evolve for the better under our current conditions. Violence will not help us to understand how we arrived at today. Living the dream must be both realistic and universal. But also subject to rules that encompass everyone in society without exception. Those rules create stability and give every nation, its unique character. And that is also nothing of which to be ashamed. If our past requires elucidation, that is the function of universal education and government standards mandated for all within society. Tearing down statues and renaming halls just hides the past so that ignorance reigns supreme.
The past cannot be erased, nor can it be subject to selective examination. We need a real debate, without political or religious interference. It must be honest and open to all. We need to find a new way forward for all people within society but clearly, even pragmatically, any underclass is a disaster waiting to happen.
And next we will come to the challenge of White Privilege.