Do liberals now talk more than they listen? Gary Raymond asks if the white-middle class liberal default setting should be changed.
I’ll never forget the moment I realised staying silent and listening was, most of the time, a healthier response than speaking. It was at the Hay Festival some years ago (I probably wasn’t as young as I should have been to have this road to Damascus moment), and I was watching Anthony Julius present his magnificent book on the history of anti-Semitism in England, Trials of the Diaspora. Julius cuts a serious figure, a Jewish lawyer who wrote that book revealing anti-Jewish sentiment in the work of T.S. Eliot (the UK’s favourite poet, apparently?), and also acted as Princess Diana’s divorce attorney. He was also Deborah Lipstadt’s defence lawyer in the Nazi David Irving’s libel case (now a Hollywood movie, where he was played by Andrew Scott). Julius was a formidable intellectual presence on that stage. His book, also, it should be noted, is something of an historical masterwork.
So the questions went out and, to the squirms of the auditorium, an elderly male Welsh voice asked Julius why he thought throughout history the Jews had been subjected to such persecution. The question was the typical long-winded kind, now well-recognised at literary festivals; statements dressed up as questions. And this “question”, anti-Semitic in premise, finished with the phrase that is familiar to all Jews – “there is no smoke without fire.” The audience collectively held its breath as Julius calmly, methodically, and politely dismantled the question and then the premise of the question. He was and is, after all, one of the country’s leading trial lawyers.
Whether the questioner was a bigot or not, my primary reaction to this was: what possessed him to ask that question, to that man, in a room he could not sanely assume was a room of like-minded people? The question was not just bigoted, but it was pompous, intellectually detached from the meat and gristle that is human experience. It was the question of a contrarian, someone who felt compelled to contribute to the debate in a way that would mark him out as a serious thinker. To this man Jewish persecution was a topic, a point of rumination, to which wrong-minded clichés such as “no smoke without fire” can and do find their way into the short circuits of the egotistical “intellectual”.
And of course, he was a bigot. You are what you do.
But he could have felt that way and not asked the question. Saved himself the humiliation of Julius’ response.
Many years later, and countless festival talks and panel discussions later, and innumerable more questions from the audience that make you breathe deeply into your collar, I was at the closing event of the inaugural Cardiff Books Festival. It was a panel discussion about the role of feminism in the modern world, the stage peopled with 5 women, and the audience of roughly 80% women. As the debate went on questions formed in my mind. Of course they did, that’s what happens when you sit in an audience at a panel event. But, I decided, (perhaps a tad over-sensitively), I was not going to be that guy – the man who asks a question at a feminism debate. I talk enough, I thought, and I write enough. I am fully aware feminism is an issue of humanity, and I was not trespassing into a “woman’s event”, but still, why shouldn’t I just keep my mouth shut and listen.
And then, while I was talking myself down in my inner monologue, a man behind me asked a question. “Where do men stand in your vision of feminism?”
I breathed deeply into my collar.
What must be going through your mind to think that is the most pressing question to ask in this room? Would it not have just been better to stay silent. Maybe just listen.
Fast forward again, to this weekend, when I was in the audience at a panel discussion and book reading by the editor and two writers from the acclaimed anthology of essays documenting immigrant experience in the UK, The Good Immigrant. The event was a Wales Arts Review event, organised by one of our associate editors, Durre Shahwar, and hosted by Waterstones in Cardiff. Nikesh Shukla, Coco Khan, and Darren Chetty were witty, thoughtful and thoroughly engaging when discussing the book and its issues, and it was Chetty who gave perhaps the most refined and well-mannered response I have ever heard to another familiar question. In the Q&A a white women asked how she might negotiate “certain questions” she has as she is afraid of offering certain opinions on “certain issues” for fear of being accused of being racist. It’s a valid question – nobody wants to stumble into racism by way if ignorance. Chetty responded by saying that (to do his eloquence no justice): go figure it out for yourself. It is not his job as a brown person, Chetty explained, to educate white people on matters of race.
And don’t you hear this question a lot? White liberals are continually asking it. You may recognise it in its base form. It sounds like this: What about me?
The question preceding this pleading for enlightenment servitude, was an even more worrying question, however.
It had been mentioned a few times already how The Good Immigrant tour was a tour of preaching to the left. “If you’re at a Good Immigrant event, we may be able to safely assume you do not have a problem with immigrants,” said Shukla early on. A white lady took this up toward the end.
What can you do to get the book into the hands of those who need enlightening?
The vital point underpinning this question was that we are all together, that liberalism is not on a precipice, and that the playing field is level. We over here have a common goal, and it is to convert them over there. So let’s all hold hands and dish out books. We get you.. what’s next? Liberalism – white liberalism – as usual will save the day.
What this boils down to is that, for whatever reason, many people believe an issue is not real unless they have given their opinion on it, and signed off on it. We do not just live in the age of Twitter, but we live in something much more dangerous – dangerous for its vacuity – we live in the age of the commentariat, and it effects us all. It means that we feel by commenting on something, we have engaged with it, and we have therefore contributed to its righteous fruition. And the debate – every debate – is still dominated by white faces, and for the main part they are still male.
Indeed, from the ironic position of a writer contributing to a debate, it looks a lot like liberals debate whilst conservatives govern.
In the pub after the Good Immigrant event, discussing the debate, I decided there was enough in there to write a quick piece – this piece – about this issue that has come up so many times over the years. I asked what I should call the article, and one of our group (a white person I should probably point out) said, “What about, Why Don’t White People Just Shut the Fuck Up For a Minute?”