A while ago, on the subject of identity politics and competitive victimhood, I wrote:
Any claim to moral agency is surrendered to those members of a favoured group who happen to be shouting loudest. Thus, injustice is defined, unilaterally, by feelings, or claims of feelings - and by the leverage they provide. Phobias, prejudice and oppression become whatever the Designated Victim Group or its representative says they are. And the basis for apology, compensation and flattery becomes whatever the Designated Victim Group says it is. The practical result of this is egomaniacal license and the politics of role-play.
As if to illustrate this point, the Observer’s Andrew Anthony profiles Jane Elliott, a “diversity training” pioneer and Witchfinder General for the modern age:
Elliott is keen on verbal watchfulness. She believes that racism is in the eye of the beholder and therefore one needs to be ever-sensitive to the possibility of giving offence. “Perception is everything,” she says. “If someone perceives something as racist then I am responsible for not saying that thing.”
Note Elliott’s disregard for context, motive or objective criteria. “Perception is everything,” says she. By which she means the perception, or misperception, of one party only. This is the premise of Elliott’s crusade – to provide moral correction for all pale-skinned people. The particulars of an exchange and who did what to whom are all but immaterial; what matters is which party belongs to the Designated Victim Group, as defined by Jane Elliott and others in the trade. Clearly, moral logic isn’t Elliott’s strong suit; hers is the realm of pantomime and emotional bullying. As Elliott’s own publicity material makes clear, she “does not intellectualise… she uses participants’ own emotions to make them feel discomfort, guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation.” And there’s the rub. Once rendered suitably emotional and distressed, her subjects can be re-educated so much more easily. Want to see how? Elliott’s 1996 workshop documentary Blue Eyed can be viewed here. The fun starts around the 2:00 mark with the guy and his name tag. And pay close attention to the exchange around 5:40, before the “exercise” begins.
We’ve seen this unhinged and pernicious nonsense before of course, not least from Peggy McIntosh and her “invisible knapsacks of privilege,” and Shakti Butler, who tells unsuspecting students that, “the term [racist] applies to all white people living in the United States.” Like McIntosh and Butler, Elliott’s formulation of guilt is presumptive, unilateral and based on a conviction that “white ignorance is the problem.” (A problem that “we white folks have now managed to export… all over the world.”) Thus, guilt is framed as a collective phenomenon and effectively a function of a person’s pigmentation. So no racism there, clearly. Bearing in mind how “perception is everything” and what that entails, it seems unlikely that realistic argument will be encouraged or looked on kindly. And those who happen to have pale skin and are unfortunate enough to fall within Elliott’s influence may not wish to be held hostage by every passing opportunist or liar with a grudge.
Sceptical readers may wonder if Elliott reveals more than she intends when telling her captive audiences that “a new reality is going to be created,” that they have “no power, absolutely no power,” and that her title, “bitch,” stands for “Being In Total Control, Honey.” And some readers may question the credibility and motives of an “educator” who tells students that, “white people invented racism.” Transcending such vices is of course impossible, except through Ms Elliott and her tender ministrations. Being as she is the self-appointed gatekeeper of redemption through guilt.
As Alan Charles Kors notes,
In 1996, [Elliott] told her audience at Kansas State University that all whites are racists, whatever they believe about themselves: “If you want to see another racist, turn to the person on your right. Now look at the person on your left.” [...] She told the students that if they were angry at her, they should write letters, but that they must do so without paper, alphabet, or numbers, all of which were invented by people of colour. “You’re all sitting here writing in a language [English] that white people didn’t come up with,” she told [Webfronds] magazine. “You're all sitting here writing on paper that white people didn’t invent. Most of you are wearing clothes made out of cloth that white people didn’t come up with. We stole those ideas from other people.” […]
Jane Elliott has lived through revolutionary cultural changes without taking note of any. She teaches only helplessness and despair to blacks and only blood-guilt and self-contempt to whites. She addresses no issue with intellectual seriousness or purpose. She also is the reigning star in thought reform these days. On May 7, 1999, CBS News ran a feature on her that declared: “For over 30 years, Jane Elliott has waged a one-woman campaign against racism in America.” CBS might want to rethink the notion of “racism”.
As becomes clear if you watch the Blue Eyed video, Elliott is unwell and what drives her is not benign. She’s also aware of the intimate and long-term damage she so zealously inflicts. In an interview Elliott describes how one of her younger victims went from being a “brilliant, self-confident, excited little girl to a frightened, timid, uncertain little almost-person.” Who would have guessed that abusing and manipulating children until they feel “discomfort, guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation” might leave some of those children fearful and utterly demoralised? And yet she persists, on an ever greater scale, presumably for reasons of sadistic self-gratification. Evidently, Elliott wishes to create “almost-people” wherever she can, provided they happen to have a pigmentation she despises.
Still, there’s some comfort to be had in Elliott’s counsel, as aired in her forthcoming Channel 4 appearance:
She describes herself as the “resident bitch for the day,” and speaks to the blue-eyed contingent as though they were criminally stupid or stupidly criminal. “Keep your fucking mouth shut,” she tells one smiling blue-eyed young man. “I don’t play second banana.”
Ms Elliott can be seen healing the nation in How Racist Are You? Thursday 29th, 10pm, Channel 4.