Into battle

Venus_and_Mars_National_Gallery copy.jpg
Botticelli, “Venus and Mars”

Generally, the people who are good at winning wars are not good at winning the peace. The very characteristics that make somebody an effective combatant – aggression, stubbornness, controlled (sometimes barely controlled) anger, unwillingness to compromise – are often handicaps in the invariably messy period of reconciliation and rebuilding that accompanies the aftermath of conflict. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus provides the template depiction.

Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” neatly explores this point, with the titular anarchist V training a pacifist replacement even as his anti-government campaign reaches its bloody climax, as he recognises his deeds place him outside the society he wants to create. Similarly, in “Serenity”, the ruthless Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is open about how he’s put himself beyond inclusion in the very system he is fighting to defend: “I’m a monster… What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.”

Real-world examples often follow a similar trajectory. The first wave of campaigners in any step towards equality are fighters whose role is to recognise and confront inequality/discrimination wherever they see it. By continually and loudly calling out and challenging those who support and promote the inequality (some of whom may not even be consciously aware of doing so), they both raise awareness of the issue and combat its further promulgation.

Feminism led the charge in the early 20th century for women’s rights. The civil rights movement in America did likewise for race relations. Peter Tatchell and Outrage! kept gay rights in the spotlight. More recently, transgender awareness has gone up, with Scarlett Johanssen’s retreat from playing a transgender role after a backlash from activists marking a case in point.

But once those warriors, those activists, have won the argument – when the mainstream has altered its opinion, and when nobody is going to openly, publicly express such views without knowing that it’ll bring richly-deserved opprobrium, you then need a kind of campaigner. A truth and reconciliation angle to educate people and assist everyone in moving on. You need figures who can heal, who can bring previously warring parties together and perhaps rein in the triumphal instincts of the recent victors. Winning the battle doesn’t mean overnight transformation.

These days, nobody is going to seriously argue that smoking is good or that passive smoking is harmless, but smoking itself is not likely to disappear altogether, and certainly not quickly if so. In the debate over Intelligent Design in the late 90s, Richard Dawkins was great as a belligerent warhound who attacked and antagonised creationists wherever they were; but with the debate in the mainstream now won several times over (evolution is a fact, the world is old, and creationism/ID do not belong in science classes) people like him are arguably less useful to the pro-science cause, and often embarrassing. 

The truth is, these kind of battles are hard, and they’re liable to consume a person. Once someone’s done some serious shifts in the trenches they are unlikely to ever fully return to a normal existence, because they’ve been exposed to so many ugly sides of the human character. They’ve faced attack after attack from their critics and been willing to go toe-to-toe with every one.

That leaves a legacy, a kind of issue-based post-traumatic stress disorder. Like tiresome old-school feminists who persist in seeing discrimination absolutely everywhere, even in the most mundane settings, warrior types can sometimes come across as cantankerous puritans incapable of enjoying an off-colour joke.

Or maybe they’ve been right to keep their guard up? The MeToo movement has exposed the shockingly glib complacency of much of modern society over matters of gender equality, with the Weinstein case simply the most prominent and repellent of a phenomenon that is now turning out to be as ubiquitous as it is distasteful.

In parallel, many Western societies are now convulsing in debates over nationality (with racism consequently lurking in the shadows) – the recent debate over the actions of the German footballer Mesut Özil, with echoes of Lord Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test” in 90s Britain, has now prompted a “MeTwo” response in Germany for those with an immigrant background and feet in two countries.

In German, the term “Kellernazi” (cellar Nazi) is often used to describe people who keep their neo-Nazi sympathies and support shrouded in secrecy. It’s reasonable to assume that there are Keller-bigots for all issues, who’ve neither questioned nor recanted their old opinions, but simply learned that they can’t express their views in public and gone underground (and online). Does this reflect the consequence of not winning the peace? Mansplaining is a good example of possibly subconscious but – until recently – openly tolerated sexism. 

This problem of winning the peace is part of an existential problem that all liberal democracies face – how far should you tolerate intolerance under the banner of freedom of speech? Like most liberal notions, implicit in the concept of freedom of speech is a sense of mutual respect (“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”). Lose the mutual respect and you’re on a slippery slope that can end up eroding the values that you cherish.

MeToo (and MeTwo) and related movements have suggested that while the mainstream debate was concluded, the peace wasn’t won, and with recent societal upheavals it’s enabled the Keller-bigots of all flavours (some of whom are apparently now in high political office) to take advantage of recent turmoil to push their viewpoints. 

It strongly suggests the old discrimination warriors are needed to gird up and go into battle again. Let them call out discrimination – sex, race, orientation – wherever they see it. And in their wake, bring the peacekeepers.  

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