"... grievance culture is alive and well, thriving on the silencing of anti-racist voices."PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In March, an audience member on Question Time made a point about the press’ treatment of Meghan Markle having been racist. The British actor Laurence Fox was a panelist that night. Rolling his eyes as if to show how tedious he found the topic of racism, Fox interrupted her with the words, “It’s so easy to throw the charge of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now.” Is this an extreme example? Are traditionally conservative people, now after over a month of Black Lives Matter protests, coming around to the idea that racism is indeed very much a ‘UK problem?’ 

The short answer is no: grievance culture is alive and well, thriving on the silencing of anti-racist voices. Anti-racist work needs to involve action as well as speech, but the Question Time exchange highlights that the two go hand in hand. Racism has been discussed and debated on social media, but it takes only a look at our government’s responses to Black Lives Matter to recognise how misleading the liberal echo chamber can be. You might rebut that Boris Johnson has verbally condemned racism and acted on it by initiating a racial inequalities inquiry. But he also deliberately postponed the publication of a document of recommendations on how racial disparities in Covid-19 death rates might be alleviated. Lives could have been saved - but the government’s priority was to avoid encouraging conversations about racial inequality.

"Inquiries will not expose racial inequalities when they are specifically designed not to..."

What is more, the inquiry he initiated will be led by Munira Mirza, a woman who denies the existence of systemic racism in the UK and has described it as ‘a perception more than a reality’. As Dianne Abbot said, the inquiry is effectively ‘dead on arrival’. Inquiries will not expose racial inequalities when they are specifically designed not to, however flashily they advertise themselves. Such efforts to quash voices that interrogate racial inequality and discrimination should give us a very clear indication of why we desperately need to sustain demands for change and speak when we have experienced or witnessed racism. Stop talking and they have won.

Boris Johnson, Munira Mirza, Laurence Fox are all subscribers to the idea that talking about injustices too much has regrettably facilitated the emergence of a grievance culture. According to this narrative, if you allow people to start discussing how they have been treated unfairly, they will exaggerate the scale of, or actually invent, cases of oppression.

The idea is nothing new. In fact, there is a striking likeness between the modern British narrative of grievance culture and the characterisation in medieval England of pride as one of the seven deadly sins - a sin stereotypically characterised by being too vocal. On a religious level, every member of medieval English society was to avoid pride, but on a social level, pride was expected of some - Richard the Lionheart’s self-congratulation as an icon of masculine, military strength helped him to placate a population deeply unhappy about excessive taxation - and denounced amongst others. It was the peasantry and women who were in fact regularly chastised for being prideful.

After the Black Death, mass mortality led to an increase in the value of labour, giving peasants working on rural manors an opportunity to demand better pay from their lord or move elsewhere where they might find it. In response, fears arose amongst the nobility that the hierarchy of entrenched socioeconomic inequality might come under threat. Thus, in the latter half of the 14th century, there was a serious effort to suppress the agency and the voices of peasants, in part by condemning their consciousness, or their ‘pride.’ This is reflected in the contemporary literary output; the virtue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s merry widow in his Canterbury Tales, for instance, was her humble acceptance of her station and poverty.

"As the medieval Church and Munira Mirza would both tell you, the way to be happy and virtuous is to be content with one’s lot..."

At the same time, numerous chroniclers were blaming women and their ‘pride’ for the challenges of the late 14th century. One John of Reading went so far as to say that ‘the mortality was particularly of males… however the greatest cause of grief was provided by the behaviour of women.’ Reflecting this anxiety, vast numbers of individuals, mostly female, were charged in court with ‘scolding,’ which could encompass any speech deemed too loud, forceful, or opinionated. As the medieval Church and Munira Mirza would both tell you, the way to be happy and virtuous is to be content with one’s lot, and not demand any more. The parallels are striking.

Afua Hirsch has recently spoken of a ‘war on woke’ under Boris Johnson. The shaming of those who speak out about inequality is nothing new, but Hirsch rightly points out that the term ‘woke’ has in recent years been twisted by conservatives of all kinds to undermine anti-racism. Institutions and individuals hostile to racial justice work are armed with many terms to trivialise an individual’s commitment to fighting inequality. In the case of a BBC skit entitled ‘Are You Too Woke?’, social justice is presented as a fad for white youth, who will soon grow out of their caricatured, liberal views. 

More aggressive cases attack ‘identity politics’ in order to condemn those who speak out about experiences of racial inequality for demanding ‘special treatment.’ By extension, as the author of one Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) blog post puts it, overly vocal minorities are to blame for the rise of populism because their self-expression alienates the far-right. How expressions of identity were silenced and shamed in the 1300s is not all that dissimilar from how it is done in the 2000s. It baffles me that, whilst British society decides to coopt ‘ethnic’ hairstyles and music, amongst other markers of non-white cultural identities, as trendy, people of colour reclaiming and taking pride in their culture are shamed for assuming a unique identity. Clearly, we have not come far in 700 years.  


Mountain View

The problem with statues, reading lists and what we call ‘activism’

The threat given in late medieval England was a one way ticket to hell. Today, the threat given is responsibility for a populist, racist resurgence. Speech is an act of defiance that we cannot afford to trivialise.

Blaming marginalised groups for their own oppression has survived over centuries because it is such an effective means of preserving those oppressive structures. It is, after all, much easier to denounce those who fight for uncomfortable truths to be addressed, than to address them. Even so, the insidious nature of the grievance culture narrative also gives it a weakness. Its ubiquity means that, once you know what to look for, it becomes easier to identify and disarm, whenever and wherever it is applied.