Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 10 March 2017

White Self-Interest

I know I should leave it alone, I know it's not wise to get involved in this sort of thing, but I keep being drawn back to wondering what on earth David Goodhart means by the term "white self-interest" in his recent FT piece (you can also find the text here).

So the gist of his argument is something like this: ethnic groups have interests; some of these interests are protected by law - predominantly the interest in not being  unjustly discriminated against; everyone (more or less) agrees that these interests are legitimate and that it is proper for the law to take them into account; whites also have interests; some of these interests are legitimate; one of these legitimate interests (the only one he actually mentions) is in not being made to feel uncomfortable "about their group no longer setting the tone in a neighborhood". 

Whether we take it literally or metaphorically this is quite a claim.

So where to begin. Firstly the idea of group interests. Certainly human beings have interests and if we follow Peter Singer so do animals, but let's stick to homo sapiens. 

I have lots of different interests which I share with  people who are similar to me in respects that have a bearing on those particular interests. For example I have an interest in not having the aircraft that will land at Heathrow's 4th runway fly directly over my apartment, an interest which a large majority of my neighbours share. I have an interest in the UK agreeing a deal with the EU about the post-Brexit  right to residence of EU citizens in the UK which I share with everyone else who is either married to or cohabits with a non UK EU citizen. I have an interest in the Mogden Sewage Works not stinking in the Summer which I share with a large number of people who live in East Twickenham. I have an interest in UCU negotiating a decent settlement in the next wage bargaining round which I share with all other UK academics (whether or not they are union members). I have an interest in the Arts Council for England restoring its funding to the ENO so that I,  and other resasonably well off middle-class people, can enjoy cheap live opera (I didn't say all interests were legitimate!).

OK, I don't have to labour the point. The interests I have are various and they are shared with only partially overlapping sets of people. Like every other citizen I also have interests, which have been given the status of rights. For instance the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, race, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, sex and so forth. These are not group rights as such, but rights that  the state guarantees to me as an individual and that I share with others by virtue of the characteristics we have in common. As a white, middlle-aged, straight male I have, at least formally,  the same interest in not being discriminated against as the proverbial one legged, black lesbian. NB I am not claiming that there is the same objective probability that someone will attempt to discriminate against me - that is a different matter and as a matter of fact quite implausible. The interests and the rights are universal and not group specific. 

I'm now struggling to think of those interests that I have and share exclusively with other whites in the UK. I'm struggling and failing. 

Consider this anecdote. In the 1990s I bought an apartment in West London in an area that was undergoing gentrification. A large freeholder was selling off the leases as and when their predominantly white older working-class tenants died. So the nature of the area changed. Out went the 10 year old Fiats and Renaults, in came the GTIs,  Mazda  two seaters,  the 4 wheel drives and the baby buggies. I remember vividly two elderly neighbours standing on their doorsteps, practically under my front window, complaining bitterly about how the neighborhood had changed, how they didn't know anyone any more, and how they hated all the yuppies that had moved into their street.

 I suppose these white people felt they had an interest in keeping people like me out of the area. I concede the interest. Was it a legitimate interest? No it was not. It was not their street, not even the bit of it that one neighbour tried to stop me parking on because they felt that it was their parking place, reserved for local people like themselves. The sort of society we live in does not recognize that sort of group interest in space no matter how entitled people feel. Likewise it does not, and should not, recognize as legitimate any interest I feel I have in not having individuals with different cultural preferences living next door to me, as long as those preferences do no significant direct harm to me. 

I have a legitimate interest in the young man who lives next door not bashing his drum-kit for two hours every evening when I am trying to sleep, but no legitimate interest in preventing the couple on the other side from praying five times a day in the privacy of their own home.

So far so liberal. Now comes the tricky part. Instead of thinking about white majorities and ethnic minorities let's think about existing citizens and immigrants that will become citizens. Do existing citizens (whatever their colour or ethnicity) have a legitimate interest in discriminating between the types of people that will be eligible to become citizens? It seems to me obvious that they do. The existing citizens are a political community and they get to make choices, some of those choices are about who gets to join the club. They will, of course, not all agree, but that is just part of the normal back and forth of normal democratic politics. 

It's not clear to me how things could be otherwise. Despite their differences the existing citizens share a large degree of commonality in their way of life, their political culture and so forth. Presumably they have some commitment to these things and an interest, not in keeping them completely unchanged, but in society developing along lines that are broadly consistent with them. That would seem to entail being concerned that new citizens also hold views, not necessarily identical to their own, but at least not incompatible in terms of broad principles. 

If you live in a secular, liberal state, you have a legitimate interest, if you are gay, in not admitting to citizenship sizeable proportions of people who, once enfranchised, will vote for stoning you to death. Likewise, if you are a woman you have an interest in not admitting people who believe in, and once they become citizens can lobby for, modesty dress codes and restrictions on what you can wear when you walk down certain streets. If you are an educated person you have an interest in controlling the number of new citizens who prefer that only the version of reality that is espoused in one or other sacred book is to be taught to children in school.

White interests? I don't know what those are. Shared citizen's interests? Those are easier to understand,  defend and rationally discuss.

No comments: