Imagining the future

Towards the end of 2019, I was on panels discussing Decolonising Culture (Royal Academy) and Reimagining Britain (Queen Mary, University of London/ Wasafiri Magazine’s 35th anniversary).

Many themes ran across both these experiences, foremost among them:

Imagination can be a revolutionary act, and revolutions never end.

Imagination and revolution are about words, voices, ideas, and actions; they’re about making change.

Each of us has a story, often more than one. Our life experiences, origins, cultural imprints and conflicts, stories of migration (whether from Grimsby or Ghana), stories of possession, dispossession and journeys of self-realisation shape who we are and how we see the world. We all want our story to be heard.

The reduction of any person’s story into one narrative is dangerous, it creates a false sense of who they are and is frequently based on a narrative constructed for them by those who have power and impunity, or by in-groups which enforce singularity.

Singular narratives, immune from censure and appearing to be supported by a majority, create division and separation and legitimise hate or institutional disadvantage against distinct groups, usually those who are visibly different or whose life circumstances mark them out in some way. Eurocentric knowledge and practice is presented as neutral for example, when in fact it centralises western perspectives, values, cultures and knowledge, leading to the continued erasure and perpetuation of racist ideologies in practice and popular culture.

The desire to be heard is a negotiation with other voices, but we should be aware of majorities and mobs and guard against drowning out quieter voices to ensure a negotiation of equals. There are ways to achieve this.
We can, and should, ensure that in-groups aren’t unquestioningly re-established / encouraged, perhaps by determining membership by lottery rather than self-selection. This allows voices to be heard which might not necessarily conform to the norm.

We’re starting to see this change in the way the Oscars are now voted on and decided with greater female and ethnic diversity in the Academy, BAFTA has a lot of catching up to do in that regard, steadfastly holding on to a walled garden of privilege and singularity with a helpless shrug and the words:

“Our industry isn’t diverse enough, so the pool of people to draw award winners from isn’t diverse enough. I want the awards to be as diverse as they possibly can be. But people can only vote on what they’ve seen.’

Amanda Berry, President of BAFTA

So, no action to change anything then? Just words. Sounds an awful lot like ‘when privilege is the norm, equality feels like oppression’.

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“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For example, it amuses me that it’s so often out and out racists who insist that we “discuss immigration” – many of us do, it’s just that many of us don’t do so from their viewpoint. There is more than one way to see the world and diverse life experiences enable diverse conversations and many voices.

We increasingly see openly racist people invited on to TV shows with a person representing the target of their hate placed against them in a set up ‘debate’ – an extraordinary juxtaposition, a false equivalence which legitimises the hate and absolves the racist of any responsibility while demanding of the person being attacked that they should somehow ‘suck it up’ and defend their right to exist, invariably resulting in a destabilising ‘debate’ which re-establishes the polarities needed by a controlling elite and which make them seem incontrovertible. It creates a screen of security for a majority culture built on the blood of minorities.

Think critically, and it all starts to look very different.

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Racist British newspaper headlines

The New Union Flag Project by the artist Gil Mualem-Doron is about imagining a new union flag reflecting the many voices, cultures, and stories in Britain today.

The project is a direct challenge to ideas of Englishness, as distinct from Britishness or identities springing from nations which are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why?

An Irish woman I spoke with at the Royal Academy said:

“The problem is that the English only ever learned about my history through the lens of their ruling class – we were ‘the Irish problem’.”

That sums it up. Anyone or anything, or any group, which challenges the hegemony is seen as a ‘problem’. Instead of self-examining and asking questions, people retreat into self-enforcing ‘tribes’ thereby preserving a hegemonic order even if it isn’t actually in their own interests.

A friend, the author William Dalrymple, makes a related point in his book ‘The Anarchy; The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’. In it, he writes about the way corporatism can come to control entire polities, shaping societies for their own ends – and not just abroad:

“Western imperialism and corporate capitalism were born at the same time, and both were to some extent the dragons’ teeth that spawned the modern world … The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.”

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy; The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

The failure to examine the ruling elite and the history they create for us but rather to tug forelock and play along with them is evident in recent political history. And it is underpinned by notions of ‘Englishness’ or ‘a place in the world’ that don’t necessarily reflect modern reality.

Take the example of the way Indian history is taught in the UK (we gave them railways), as compared to how it was lived and experienced. Britain benefited hugely from India’s vast wealth, plundered from the 18th C till the turn of the 20th and endured punitive mass starvations, wars and anarchy, in order to feed the monstrous demands made on it by British corporate interests. A lot of that is brilliantly covered in this summary of Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union.

Another modern example is to look at the way food production is geared towards Western consumption patterns. Corn is widely grown across Africa as a cash crop for Western food production. This, despite the fact that Corn is an import to the continent and doesn’t grow well there unless intensively farmed (with all the impacts apparent in that). The result of corn production is that indigenous grains, better suited to climate conditions, ceased being grown and local diets also changed leaving people vulnerable to crop crises.

And I can’t not mention slavery. The legacy of slavery, an organised and brutal trade in human beings, was compensation payments amounting to nearly £20 billion in today’s money to former slave owners upon the abolition of the trade. You and I as tax payers were repaying the debt accrued by the ‘compensation’ right up until 2015. A perfect example of a state bailout of private, corporate interests, and something we’re not taught nearly enough.

Decolonising is important in this context because it demands that we revisit the way history and culture are transmitted in schools, theatres, workplaces, health systems and within communities, and think critically about how it prescribes the way we think and view the world.

Decolonising demands that we examine which interests, and whose, we have co-opted despite them being against our own best interests.

Jatinder Varna, the outgoing Artistic Director of Tara Arts put it well:

“… the stories of white culture exist in my head but my stories need to be in the heads of white people too. That’s the challenge of the next few decades.”

Decolonising isn’t about mass hysteria or toppling statues, it is about a more rounded view of where we’re at and how we got here – it’s about respecting the multiplicity of stories.

Decolonising is about examining, analysing and questioning.

Decolonising is about being aware that majority cultures like ours in the UK are products of colonising practices which made a few very rich, against all our interests.

Why continue to sleep when you’d be awake?

The failure to understand what decolonising is, and the desire to enforce a singular, received view or opinion and resist any challenge…

Now, that’s the ultimate bubble.

It’s why we’re in the mess we’re in.

Let’s reimagine Indiana Jones as a movie where the hero steals from museums and returns the artefacts to the cultures they came from. That pops the bubble.

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Further reading:

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/dec/08/welcome-age-anger-brexit-trump + https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/books/review/age-of-anger-pankaj-mishra.html + https://www.ft.com/content/3b73068a-d1ed-11e6-b06b-680c49b4b4c0 + https://literaryreview.co.uk/from-rationalism-to-ressentiment

The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/306/306038/national-populism/9780241312001.html + a precis here: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/brexit-vote-explained-poverty-low-skills-and-lack-opportunities

#BAFTAsSoWhite: https://www.thedailybeast.com/baftas-so-white-exposes-the-deep-racism-misogyny-and-classism-at-the-heart-of-uk-cinema and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2020/01/07/bafta-nominations-2020-baftassowhite-outcry-all-white-acting/ and especially https://www.scotsman.com/news/people/harry-wootliff-no-wonder-there-is-bias-judging-panels-are-made-up-of-white-privileged-men-1-5073753