‘White men’: the most dehumanising insult of our times
by Brendan O’Neill, December 2016
The one good thing about Twitterstorms is that they tend, witlessly, to prove the point of the person they’re hounding. In the very act of whipping up fume and fury against someone who’s said something you’re not meant to say, these virtual pitchfork gangs confirm that person’s point, which was normally something like: ‘Have you ever noticed how risky it has become to express your thoughts on [some heated issue]?’ ‘You can’t say that!’, hollers the Twittermob in response. Well, yes, quite. So it was for Simon Jenkins this week. He wrote a column in the Guardian saying the one group of people you’re allowed to hate these days is old white men. ‘Stupid privileged white old man why doesn’t he STFU’, responded the Twittermob. Let’s call it Jenkins’ Law: the fury that greets anyone who says old white men have become hate figures proves that old white men have become hate figures.
Jenkins’ piece was good, knockabout stuff. On the back of this week’s description of the Football Association as a bunch of ‘old white men’, Jenkins said that PSMs — pale, stale males, like him — have become targets for humiliation. All identities are celebrated now, except oldness, maleness and whiteness. Institutions are ‘hideously white’. Old voters are ‘selfish’. PSMs are blamed for Brexit and Trump, for decades of discrimination and much else besides, said Jenkins. Twitter melted, of course. The Huffington Post huffed. Radio phone-ins were held. But if Jenkins committed any wrong, it’s that he didn’t go far enough. He should have said that ‘white men’ has been the most dehumanising phrase of 2016, speaking to the terrifying and casual way in which the politics of identity erases those considered ‘problematic’. It’s now really easy to tell when someone is prejudiced: they use the term ‘white men’.
2016 has been the year of the ‘white men’ slur. It’s been gathering pace for a while. There’s been the fashion for articles that start with ‘Dear White People’, and proceed to tell white people how awful and stupid they are. Censorious students, most of them white, hilariously, rage against ‘white men’. If I had a penny for every time some jumped-up Joe Stalin on campus said to me ‘You would say that, you’re a white man’ — as if my pigmentation and penis control my brain — I reckon I’d have at least two quid. The Guardian, slowly morphing from a newspaper into a tumblr account, has been at the forefront of white men bashing. ‘Philosophy has to be about more than white men,’ said a columnist in 2015. ‘Why are so many white men trying to save the planet without the rest of us?’, asked another in 2014. Even when white men try to do good — not that I buy the idea the planet needs saving — they’re lambasted for their maleness and paleness. They can’t do right for being white.
But phobia of white males — we can all play the phobia game — really took off this year. The Brexit and Trump victories were said to be part of a ‘whitelash’, with ‘white male rage’ now posing a physical, bovine threat to normal politics. The novelty of this year is that ‘white women’ got it in the neck too. That 53 percent of American white women voted for Trump sent feminists into a frenzy. These poor creatures suffer from ‘internalised misogyny’, we were told (ie. they don’t know their own minds). ‘The problem was white women,’ opined a white woman in the Guardian horrified at ‘the complicity of women in their own oppression’. White women are so dumb, right? But it’s still mostly ‘white men’ who are demonised, as Jenkins has discovered. A couple of weeks ago, before the PSMs piece, he criticised the politics of identity; this is the ‘primal scream of the straight white male’, fired back a fellow Guardian writer.
The charge of ‘white man’, the open discussion of ‘white men’ as a problem, a scourge, a primal, furious blob, is extraordinarily dehumanising. In the classic meaning of that word: it deprives a group of people of their individual qualities in preference for treating them as a great indistinguishable mass. The real problem with the ‘white men’ jibe is that it commits what I thought was meant to be the greatest crime in the eyes of identitarians: it erases people’s identities and experiences. ‘White men’ — which white men? The white men who make up the boards of many top companies? Or the white men bent over, sweating to make the desks at which you write your anti-white men screeds? The white men who run much of the oligarchical EU? Or the white men who deliver your groceries, unclog your toilets, build your homes? My dad, a white man, who left school at 15 and later travelled from Ireland to London in search of work, or the white man who told him he’d be better as a bus driver than a bus conductor because the passengers wouldn’t understand his thick-as-tar Irish accent? Come on: which white men?
The ‘white men’ slur obliterates the class, social, cultural and political differences between white men. It treats a vast group of people that includes rich and poor, the toffee-nosed and the back-broken, the manicured middle classes and labourers with hands like leather, as a faceless horde, all privileged, all comfortable, all probably horrible, or at least arsey and entitled. It is a lie, and a really ugly one. Its greatest wrong is to overlook, and in fact negate, the most important difference between people: the class one. Indeed, that’s what identity politics is ultimately designed to do: to replace the edgy, potentially destabilising politics of class with the fundamentally conservative politics of identity. This is a tragedy. For whatever you may have thought of the class politics of old, it at least contained within it the ideal of solidarity, where people of all kinds of backgrounds might come together to demand a better, fairer deal. The politics of identity, by contrast, is separatist, and fatalistic, dividing us into biological, racial and gender boxes and telling us we will never truly understand each other.
I refuse to define myself as a ‘white man’ because I want to discover what I have in common with others, whatever their skin colour or gender. I’m interested in the universal, not the particular. But then, you can discount everything I’ve just said because I have a penis and I was born to white parents. My race voids my argument — this is the world we live in.