Growing up in rural Ontario, I would talk with older folks about politics. A favorite topic was Quebec, and how those selfish French Canadians wouldn’t fight in the Boer War, the First World War, and the Second World War. Later, as a student in Quebec City, I would hear the other side. French Canadians saw those wars as foreign entanglements of no concern to them. They were willing to fight and die, yes, but only for their own soil. That may seem selfish, but so were we with our slavish loyalty to the British Empire.
The folks back home would have disagreed. The Empire wasn’t just for the British or even for Europeans in general. It was for people of all races and religions. It was an instrument for raising everyone up to British standards of fair play, morality, and civilization. In short, for making the world a better place. Take up the White Man’s burden …
Such talk puzzled me, even as a kid. The sun had long ago set on the British Empire. There was the Commonwealth, but why would its leaders defend our imperial heritage? Most of them had fought for independence from the Empire. They valued the British connection only to the extent that it was useful to themselves and their people.
Some Commonwealth leaders wouldn’t even be that generous. When Robert Mugabe dispossessed the British farmers remaining in his country, we could only look on helplessly. A century ago, people called the Ottoman Empire the “sick man of Europe.” Today, that title surely applies to the remnants of the British Empire.
There is a difference, though. The Ottomans were militarily helpless. We are ideologically helpless. Our universal morality has been turned against us, and it is in the name of our notions of fair play that we’re giving everything up, often to people, like Robert Mugabe, who make no pretence of believing in fair play. And we accept the logic of the situation. We think it normal to judge ourselves by a harsher standard and others by a more permissive one.
Double standards normally work the other way. Normally, one judges people of another kind by a harsher standard. They are less likely to share the same notions of right and wrong. They are also less likely to feel the sort of kinship affinity that makes people want to help each other and forgive minor wrongs, or even major ones.
But we’re doing the reverse. That kind of situation is inherently unstable, even self-destructive. No other human society has ever attempted such a thing.
All of this seems obvious to me. Why is it less so to other people? The question crosses my mind when I see how thinking men and women respond—or rather fail to respond—to the Rotherham sex-abuse scandal. In an English town of some 250,000 people, at least 1,400 school-age girls were “groomed” for prostitution by gangs of Pakistani origin. Grooming begins with seduction and ends in abduction, trafficking, and confinement. This final stage apparently explains why some 500 girls were missing from the town’s 15 to 19 age group at the last census.
This went on for years without anything being done and little being said. From time to time, the parents of the girls would complain, and the police would immediately investigate … the parents. Finally, in August of this year, a long report broke the logjam of silence by officials and the media (Jay, 2014). There is still a pervasive bias against this news item, as seen in coverage by three online magazines.Slate ran one story about Rotherham and four about Jennifer Lawrence. Jezebel had one story about Rotherham and six about Jennifer Lawrence. Feministing made a passing reference to Rotherham and ran two stories about Jennifer Lawrence (Durant, 2014).
Who is Jennifer Lawrence? She’s an American actress, and last August someone leaked nude photos of her online. That’s why she matters so much more to thinking men and women.
It gets weirder. Social media have become overwhelmingly opposed to quarantining of the Ebola outbreak (Alexander, 2014). At one time, quarantines were considered a progressive measure, the sort of thing you would support as a thinking man or woman. If you didn’t, people would assume you were a fool who knew nothing about modern science.
So what makes the Ebola outbreak different? The difference is simple. Quarantining means that light-skinned people will be detaining dark-skinned people. So we just can’t do it. Because? Because.
The same applies to Rotherham, which was about dark-skinned men seducing, confining and, ultimately, enslaving light-skinned women. That, too, triggers the same mental lockdown—Don’t go there! That’s how thinking men and women unthinkingly respond—or almost anyone who has gone to college and watches TV. The response seems almost Cartesian: I try not to think, therefore I am a moral person.
Unfortunately, we cannot make unpleasant truths go away by ignoring them. Sooner or later, we will have to confront them. We will especially have to confront our universal morality, including the assumption that only light-skinned folks have moral agency and only they are to be held accountable for their actions.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for a new improved universal morality. Morality can never be universal. It is a product of local conditions—to be specific, it arises from a co-evolving system of cultural, historical, and genetic factors. If forced to choose between saving one or the other, we should first save this foundational system. Anyhow, that’s all we can really save. Morality has no existence above and beyond the humans who act it out in their daily lives.
That’s a hard message to swallow, but we will have to. Eventually.
Alexander, S. (2014). Five case studies on politicization, Slate Star Codex, October 16
Durant, J. (2014). John Durant compares coverage of Rotherham abuse vs. Jennifer Lawrence nudes, Twitchy Media, September 3
Jay, A. (2014). Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997-2013