We are under an illusion that censorship is empowerment, and suppression is fairness. The date is April 20th, 2016- Adolf Hitler’s 127th birthday. An auditorium packed with people debate whether their organisation should make efforts to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. A vapid applause is heard across the room as a speaker takes to the stage. Her suggestion? No, the organisation should be “inclusive” and not be of disservice to other genocide victims and, therefore, the Holocaust should not be commemorated. After all, to commemorate the Holocaust would be to “whitewash” all of history’s other atrocities.
As many of you will already be aware, this is what happened at the annual National Union of Students Conference this year.
While much has already been written about this, I want to single out one thing in particular amongst everything else that is obviously wrong with this speaker’s statement. Her suggestion is basically this: that by the NUS not marking the Holocaust, it is being “inclusive” to the victims of other genocides. That to be all-encompassing and fair, Holocaust victims cannot have their genocide officially remembered by the organisation. Of course, making the effort to remember other, lesser known genocides (in addition to the Holocaust) would not be a bad thing for the NUS to do. The speaker could have argued that while the NUS must of course commemorate the deadliest genocide in history, the Rwandan and Armenian genocides should also be acknowledged. Yet, she, and everyone who applauded her endorsed an illusion that the way to fairness would be for nobody to have their genocide remembered, Holocaust or not. This supposed “equality” is delivered through a race to the bottom, as opposed to putting in the extra effort to ensure everyone felt represented. This is at best lazy. Yet, at worst, it is another extension of the arm of our recent social justice culture – one that loves to conflate empowerment and fairness with exclusion and suppression.
This amendment to a motion at the NUS conference is just one of these many races to the bottom – one that believes stripping people of nebulously defined “privileges” or “over-representation” is how we achieve equality. Sadiq Khan in July posited a new rule for Transport for London advertising: the organisation will now refuse to display any “body shaming” adverts on its services. This was mainly in reaction to the now infamous Protein World advert. Last summer, the company showed commuters a bikini clad model while asking if they were “Beach Body Ready”. It is important for us to remember that the category for what constitutes “body shaming” is somewhat imprecise and subjective. This is, yet again, another example of censorship and disenfranchisement being applauded as “empowerment and justice”. Preventing the display of skinny and attractive models as we take our commute to work will not magically cause thousands of women to suddenly embrace their body shape. The Protein World advert may very well have been promoting an “unrealistic” standard of beauty. Should the solution not be, therefore, to ensure TFL display a better diversity of body and beauty types in the adverts they allow on their services; while still allowing Protein World to advertise their products how they wish?
That would, of course be too difficult. The easy option is to instead say “no, we just won’t allow that”, and to give jurisdiction to the advertising decision maker to censor any adverts they believe promote “body shaming”. Ironically, this legislation goes full circle in its supposed “inclusivity”. For those with a different shape to the models in these adverts, to avoid feeling ridiculed and damaged it must be the case that the models themselves be the ones to have their bodies policed against a spectrum of acceptability. People may feel as if this was a strange example for me to use, and it is obviously quite different from not commemorating the Holocaust. However, yet again one form of supposed “suppression” or “under-representation” is just replaced with another. The body acceptance movement should be making the effort to celebrate all body types. However, they take “empowerment” of those who feel unrepresented to be a clamping down on those who are supposedly represented “too much”.
When campaigners prefer to race to the bottom instead of pushing the benchmark higher for a fairer world, their commitment to social justice in its truest sense must be questioned.
This culture has permeated no-where quite as strongly as our university campuses. Every screaming student activist who demands that we dismantle “privilege” of various forms as they deface university property is not on a mission to assist minorities. They are on a route to creating a worse world for all of us. A world in which it may well be the case that we are all be equal but collectively standing in equal piles of shit. The language used by student activists is no longer one of empowering and creating equal opportunity for those who do not have it, but of wanting to shut off the opportunities of those they believe already have everything. We do not achieve fairness and equality by working backwards, nor do we create it by segregating ourselves into groups that are more and more fractured along the lines of identity politics. We do it by breaking those barriers down, for everyone! Just as jealousy is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, placing a barrier in front of others will not make life any fairer for me. Even if it does, this cannot be true equality; my success has been achieved at the expense of someone else.Let’s start believing that we can all have more, instead of forcing everyone to accept less
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.