Anti-racism, right speech and overcoming injustice

By Savi Hensman
June 29, 2020

In recent weeks, in response to sometimes deadly racial injustice, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ has been widely shared. There has been opposition, however, and – reacting to this – a Cambridge academic’s controversial tweets have prompted wide debate, as well as nasty verbal abuse and threats directed to her.

The indignation which led her to communicate as she did was understandable. Yet her choice of words, while rightly protected as free speech, has probably given racism a boost, though this was not her intention. Ancient wisdom from Buddhist and Christian tradition may be relevant today to those seeking to make the world better.

Slogans and stark realities

The Black Lives Matter movement has won widespread support in the UK, as well as other countries, after the brutal killing of George Floyd by US police. Here, as elsewhere, there have been a number of deaths in questionable circumstances in the criminal justice and immigration systems, against a background of general discrimination against black and minority ethnic people. Many have died early or had their lives blighted.

People sometimes ask whether it is not true that all lives matter – but, as has been pointed out, if someone calls the fire brigade because their house is on fire, simply insisting that all houses matter is unhelpful. And unless society accepts that black lives matter, it can never be true that all lives are treated as important. There are other forms of inequality too which affect survival and wellbeing.

The way in which racism is experienced varies across settings. But it is far from unknown in the university sector, where Priyamvada Gopal works, even affecting senior staff. Of Indian descent, she has made a valuable contribution to scholarship which values non-European peoples, despite being heavily criticised as a result.

Across the USA and beyond, the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, has brought many people together to tackle racial injustice. The slogan 'Black Lives Matter' has been widely shared and attempts to tackle racism in football has had a boost. Reacting against this, a Burnley fan, Jake Hepple, connected with the far-right extremist Tommy Robinson, arranged for a plane to tow a banner saying “White lives matter Burnley” while the team was playing. His stunt annoyed many other supporters and local people and possibly did his cause more harm than good.

However anti-racists also experienced an 'own goal'. Gopal tweeted in response, “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness”. Twitter temporarily suspended her and she faced a torrent of often vile abuse and death threats, as well as a petition calling for her to be sacked.

Later Gopal explained to the press what she meant: “I was saying whiteness isn't the reason lives should matter. Lives do matter, but not because they are white. I say the same thing about my own community.” She said: “When I talk about abolishing whiteness, I talk about political practices and ideologies… It's about abolishing a race hierarchy where whites are at the top."

Quite rightly, the controversy did not stop her from being promoted to become a professor, with Cambridge University stating its support for freedom of speech. Yet it was entirely predictable that her tweets would lead to headlines such as “‘White lives don't matter' Cambridge academic has post 'deleted by Twitter'” and “Cambridge University backs academic who tweeted 'White Lives Don't Matter' - and PROMOTES her to professor - after she received barrage of abuse and death threats”.

And when she said afterwards, “I would also like to make clear I stand by my tweets, now deleted by Twitter, not me. They were very clearly speaking to a structure and ideology, not about people”, I doubt that her meaning would have been obvious to quite a few people who do not move in academic or activist circles.

Words in context

“I would like to see the university take the lead in getting the public discussion on race in the UK to be more complex and rich than it is. So, instead of a statement on freedom of speech, actually saying that there is something to be said about a critical look at whiteness,” Priyamvada Gopal said . Certainly deepening understanding is important – but so is encouraging scholars to communicate in ways those outside their field can understand.

People in specialist fields or with shared interests, from heart surgeons to sports fans, often have their own language which outsiders struggle to follow. Certain terms are used very differently by activists to their everyday meanings, just as making a pass on a rugby pitch or in a bar are very different activities.

It might be said that people should educate themselves on terms used in current struggles for justice. But many people have fairly basic literacy or face pressures which mean they are unlikely to spend much time ploughing through articles explaining social justice terminology. After a day on the factory floor and an evening changing nappies and mopping spills, it may be hard to focus on “hegemonic structures” and “eurocentric conceptualisations” promoting “unmarked whiteness”. This is not to say that complex concepts cannot be widely grasped, rather that it is important to consider how they are communicated.

Emotional context and timing matter too. The tweeting happened when many had been left grieving, sick or fearful after the coronavirus pandemic led to very high levels of excess deaths, due largely to the UK government’s mishandling. Mortality was especially high among people who were disabled, on low incomes and/or minority ethnic, opening up possibilities of deeper empathy and solidarity among the marginalised.

'Culture wars' can be a way for governments to try to win over members of an ethnic or religious majority whose dissatisfaction might otherwise lead to change. Tweets which could be easily misinterpreted, among people who were feeling uncertain about how much their lives or those of loved ones counted, might play into the hands of those in power.

And the tweeting took place shortly after three people were killed in Reading in what was widely reported as a possible terrorist attack (though the circumstances turned out to be complicated. The far right could be expected to exploit any opportunity to deepen fear and mistrust. While support for the professor in the face of abuse is important, I believe her tweets were poorly worded.

Drawing on ancient wisdom as well as modern knowledge

Most or all of us who use social media slip up sometimes. But long before the internet era, the challenges of wise and compassionate communication were being considered.

The Buddha taught of the importance of ‘right speech’: avoiding false, malicious and harsh speech and abstaining from idle chatter. This has been reflected on through the centuries and is still relevant, even if getting the right balance is not always easy. The New Testament too is a reminder of how communication can be harmful (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12.20, James 3) or grace-filled (Colossians 4.5-6) and Christian thinkers have explored such issues ever since. Centuries of reflection in faith-based and humanist traditions may have something to offer in an age when words can be so rapidly spread and misinterpreted.

Gopal has been the victim of threatening and insulting messages. In addition, hoax tweets have been posted in her name to discredit her and screenshots reportedly shared by journalists who should have checked their facts. These are clear violations of 'right speech'.

Yet her own communication fell short of the ideal, a learning point perhaps for those seeking to build a more humane and equal world. It is easy to let one’s anger or sorrow at injustice lead to a social media post, email or soundbite which might have been better avoided. And it may be tempting to judge a person’s commitment to justice by how forcefully they denounce injustice, when the priority is achieving change. Passion has its place but so does careful consideration.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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