Hurrah, another open debate.
Do middle-aged pundits pose a threat to civilised society? How might this threat be managed?
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that the likes of Claire Fox, Trevor Phillips, Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann and David Aaronovitch really are a threat, I’ve always opposed discrimination against pundits of all ages. I’m just asking questions.
There’s a debate taking place at Conway Hall, the original subject was ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’A glance at the website shows they’ve changed the title to the less race-baity “Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?” It is reassuring to know that ethnic minorities are no longer a threat to the whole of western civilisation, we only constitute a challenge to liberal democracy.
But the original is what the panel signed up to. So it is worth unpacking that original title a bit. On one level it might be dismissed as pure click-bait. Designed to garner publicity, I guess it was dumped when the backlash proved to be a little more vociferous than the organisers expected.
But what is implied by asking if ethnic diversity is a threat to the west?
Firstly, that there is something readily and unambiguously identified as “The West”. What might that be? Presumably this is not just a geographical marker.
So a concept then. Not just the west, but The West.
If ethnic diversity is potentially a threat to The West, then clearly ethnic diversity must be intrinsically lacking from The West to begin with. The West, therefore denotes something ethnically homogeneous, or at least it ought to be. It was in some purer, more authentic time. To the extent that The West is ethnically homogeneous it is safely The West, to the extent it is becoming diverse it is not.
Does it exist, this ethnically pure West? If so, when was it? And where?Who were the ethnically pure Westerners? The debate is taking place in London, so presumably the English are in. Or some of them at least. If the English are in The West, are the French? Presumably.
But are Australians? Geographically they can’t be, but if not then do Australians also constitute a threat to the ethnic purity that is so vital to its survival? What about Canadians? Or Americans? If they don’t count then this West is looking very small and embattled indeed.
But if they do, and Australia is in, then maybe it is just White Skin that defines the West? For how long have America and Australia been homogeneously White? Have they ever? Do Southern Italians count? They can be downright swarthy, so does Italian migration constitute a threat? There have certainly been times in American history when it did. But does it now? That might be news to Matteo Salvini and the Lega Nord.
What about the Irish? We might include them now, but I think if we were to inform some Victorians that Irish Catholics were to be included within the rarefied circumference of Western Civilisation many of them would object in the strongest possible terms.
If the West doesn’t make much sense as a term of definition, it does make sense as a term of exclusion. The most important point about The West has never really been about who it includes. Its always been more about who it excludes.
All ideas contain the idea of their opposite. So this West, the one that may or may not be threatened by ethnic diversity, cannot exist without its reverse. The Orient perhaps. The Orient is also not an actual place. It is a concept. The Orient signifies ethnically, diverse, polyglot impurity. When we talk of the threat to The West, post by ‘ethnic diversity’, we mean the threat that it will become like The Orient.
At the moment The Orient is often Asian and largely Muslim. At times however, it has included Africa and it sometimes still does. In the 50’s and 60’s it also included the Caribbean, and within the last century it has included the Irish and Jews. People who are not currently from The Orient, would do well to remember that they might find themselves from there at some point in the future.
People from The Orient are inherently destabilising. Their very presence is problematic. The more people from The Orient, that there are in The West, the more diverse it becomes and the less it can be said to exist. The very existence of these Orientals is a threat to the binary separation on which The West depends. Too many of them and it will simply collapse.
This impression is confirmed if we look at some of the people who have invoked the defence of The West, who have raised the alarm and rallied to its defence.
Last year Donald Trump voiced his concern over the threats to Western Civilisation and praised the far-right Polish government’s role in defending it. Marine Le Pen is fond of invoking defence of Western Civilisation to buttress her attempts to alienate and exclude French Muslims, and Victor Orban has made it a key plank of his authoritarian ethno-nationalism. To that rather unedifying list can we now presumably add Conway Hall and Academy of Ideas?
Some participants in this debate have been defending their liberal, anti-racist credentials and arguing that of course they fervently disagree with statement; but they believe in free-speech and confronting racism with open debate.
The problem is they’re not the ones currently being debated.
Once the topic of whether one’s identity is a civilisation-level threat has been put on the agenda, those who endorse the question do not have a great claim to the gratitude from the people who’s lives they are debating. They are playing the game regardless of which team they may be on.
Other of the participants in this debate have been on Twitter defending their participation on the grounds that they are just asking important questions. These questions are out there, whether or not they get publicly answered. The fact that they are now being answered at prestigious events involving Russell-Group academics, prominent radio and press-pundits is neither here nor there.
It’s a useful move, the “Just asking Questions” defence. It allows those who often have very little at stake to say irresponsible and offensive things without ever having to take responsibility for the tension they create. They would never shout fire in a crowded theatre. But they are loudly asking if anyone else sees all that smoke. It’s open debate and you can’t blame them for any resulting stampede. They’re just asking the question.