Kezia Picard: The Descent of Man was a landmark book that established that all human beings shared a common origin. For this universalist idea, Darwin is often celebrated on the left as a radical. Was he?
Samuel Grove: The idea was certainly revolutionary. Polygenism (the belief in the separate creation of the human races) was very widespread in the nineteenth century and was the view most closely associated with the scientific racism at that time. Darwin’s evolutionary idea struck a death blow to creationism, and thus this particular form of scientific racism.
At the same time Darwin is the recipient of a fair amount of historical revisionism. In a recent book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that Darwin’s views on human evolution were motivated by his hatred of slavery. They draw a neat, but in my view very dubious, distinction between the racism of polygenism and the righteousness of Darwin’s monogenism (the belief in the unity of the human species) that then allows them to effectively equate evolution with emancipation. They even credit Darwin with having “saved the blacks”. This is very misleading.
Darwin abhorred slavery and did believe in the common origin of the human races. However, his views on the human races were far from radical. It is important to remember that by Darwin’s theory, the distinction between races and species is arbitrary. “It is almost a matter of indifference” he wrote, “whether the so-called races of man [are] ranked as species or sub-species.” He expected the debate between the polygenists and monogenists to “die a silent and unobserved death” — not because the monogenists were right, but because, evolution aside, he considered the debate irrelevant. Darwin did not abandon scientific racism so much as he transformed it.
KP: Indeed. The Descent of Man is littered with derogatory statements about black people, indigenous people, the Irish, women, the poor and so on. It begs the question whether the anniversary is something we should celebrate at all.
SG: Debates about historical racism tend to get mired in the question of moral relativism. Should Darwin be judged by the standards of today, or should we view him in a Victorian context in which bigotry was accepted and mainstream? More recently, this debate has been deepened with broader questions about whether we give too much attention in our education system to the achievements of dead white men. In the universities there has been a movement to decolonise the curriculum, to pluralise the education system, to make it more diverse and so on. On the other side, opponents of these movements complain that students might be deprived of studying classic works in the name of political correctness.
In each case, the question is an either/or. Do we cast judgements upon authors of the past, or even cast them out entirely, or do we stick with tradition regardless of how our politics, our values, our morals change? Actually, what I think antiracist and feminist perspectives encourage us to do, is not just to read more widely, but read more thoroughly.
KP: How can antiracist and feminist perspectives encourage us to read Darwin more thoroughly?
SG: There is a tendency to take white supremacism or patriarchy at face value. To just assume that because the writers of the past projected an air of superiority, certainty, confidence, and arrogance that they really are that confident and certain. This wasn’t the case for Darwin at all. Studying his own notes and letters more closely, we can see Darwin was very disturbed by the problem of human evolution. It caused him an enormous amount of anxiety.
Darwin’s discomfort surrounding human evolution began, I think, when he first encountered an indigenous man from Tierra Del Fuego. He describes how the Fuegian’s cries and demeanour greatly disturbed him. In a letter he referred to the shattering effect it had on him — “What will become of me hereafter, I know not; I feel, like a ruined man” The literary theorist Gillian Beer has argued, persuasively, that the impact derived from the reciprocal nature of the gaze. In confronting the Fuegian’s animality, Darwin was also forced to confront his own.
A great deal of Darwin’s writings since can be read as his fidelity to this moment but also his disposition to keep the experience at bay. Rather than confront man’s animal origins, he was more inclined to anthropomorphise the entire animal and plant kingdoms. Humanise animals, rather than animalise humans, if you like. This was his rhetorical strategy in The Origin of Species.
Unfortunately, while he convinced readers that evolution had happened, most were still unwilling to extend the concept to human beings. In The Descent of Man Darwin had no choice but to confront the problem directly. He had to animalise humans. Rather than animalise Anglo-Saxon men like himself, however, he, rather cowardly, focused on humans lower down the pecking order. Indigenous people, black people, women, and the poor were more convenient targets — for both Darwin himself and the types of people he was trying to convince.
KP: How did Darwin deal with Anglo-Saxon men, did they appear at all in The Descent of Man?
SG: They do, and in an interesting way. Much of Darwin’s anxieties around human evolution hovered around a single question: If humans had evolved, like every other organism, from blind selection, what confidence could anyone have in, as he put it, “the convictions of a monkey-mind”? He called this his “horrid doubt“.
The problem has many dimensions to it, but the one he addresses in The Descent of Man is a very specific one. According to his theory, nature selects for survival, not truth. Surely, Darwin asked, selection would favour organisms that were prepared to lie and cheat for their own personal success? A dogmatic fidelity to truth would appear to degrade one’s chances of survival rather than improve them. And yet acceptance of his theory entailed that evolution had produced subjects capable of discovering scientific truths in general, and human evolution in particular.
How could this have happened? Darwin’s proposed solution was that there had to have been a selection process which favoured tribes composed of more courageous, honest, truthful men. This selection process then culminated in Anglo-Saxon men — the pinnacle of mankind — capable of recognizing their evolutionary origins.
KP: Was this evolutionary story enough to resolve Darwin’s doubts?
SG: Not at all. Darwin’s “horrid doubt” went with him to the grave. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Darwin would have been very unsatisfied with his line of argumentation. To begin with, Darwin was loath to commit himself to any definitive evolutionary explanation. Indeed, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had declined to propose one single evolutionary explanation. Instead, he confined himself to hypothetical scenarios in which selection could have taken place.
Secondly, Darwin’s evolutionary story here relied on group selection — a selection process in which some tribes are favoured above others. This was because courage and heroism do not confer advantages for survival on individuals. Darwin was, in fact, virulently opposed to group selection and had spent an enormous amount of time through the 1850s and 1860s trying to prove that selection only took place at the level of the individual. [Now I happen to think Darwin was wrong to insist on the fallacy of group selection, but for different reasons]. The fact that he resorted to a group selectionist argument in the case of human evolution, and the evolution of truth, is indicative of just how rattled he was. How desperate he was to resolve this paradox.
KP: Darwin’s evolutionary argument wasn’t just racist, by your reckoning, but also sexist as well. It was very much men that were courageous, virtuous and truth seeking (and women were not).
SG: Yes. There is an interesting background story to this. In The Descent of Man Darwin credits Immanuel Kant for recognising the importance of “courage” as a subjective condition for truth (“sapere aude!“). Darwin’s use of Kant stands out because Darwin almost never engaged in philosophy. He considered it antithetical to the scientific method.
Well, it turns out that he was introduced to Kant by a feminist, Elizabeth Power Cobbe. They had got into a debate in which Darwin boasted that men had evolved their superior vigour in an evolutionary struggle for the possession of women. Cobbe, in return, mocked the idea that one could understand such questions without some understanding of philosophy and advised him to read Kant. No doubt chastened by the experience, Darwin’s subsequent use of Kant and his persistent emphasis on male superiority can be read as his belated rejoinder to Cobbe.
KP: This encounter does not give the impression of a scientist detached from political conflicts?
SG: Darwin, to his credit, was about as close as it gets to the ideal of the detached scientist. He spent most of his time on his own, carrying out experiments in his garden, and writing. It did mean, however, that what conflicts he did have, affected him. He was, in general, a very anxious person. I think this also helps to explain his resort to bigotry in The Descent of Man. He was, ironically, terrified of offending people. Not the people on the receiving end of his bigotry, of course, but the Anglo-Saxon men he went to such lengths to flatter in the book.
KP: Racism and sexism can be read in many other writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (not least the aforementioned Kant), but I’m guessing they weren’t all crippled by doubt and anxiety.
SG: That is true. Darwin, as I have said, had personal encounters, particularly with the man from Tierra Del Fuego, that affected him deeply. But what is remarkable about this kind of virulent racism — that, as you say, can be read all over the scientific and philosophical literature of the time — was that it often came from writers that hadn’t travelled at all. Kant barely left his hometown of Königsberg. The psychoanalyst Oscar Manoni once wrote that the ghost of the colonial encounter haunted men who hadn’t even left Europe. He’s right. But I think to understand why, we have to move away from personal explanations and analyse the function of racism at an epistemological level. A lot of the anxiety that I believe underpinned the racism of this time was epistemic in nature. Let me explain.
Darwin was writing at the back end of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘dual revolution‘ — the British Industrial Revolution and the French Republican Revolution. It wasn’t just the dual revolution either. There was the revolution in Haiti, there were the Latin American independence wars, there were mutinies in India, and so on. These events would change the world, including the way in which the world was conceived. Quite suddenly it became clear to people — scientists, geologists, philosophers, social theorists among them — that the world wasn’t stable. It became clear that the world could undergo massive irreversible change.
Before the dual revolution, ‘time’ was conceptualised in a very different way. It was regarded as essentially empty and unthreatening. Events would take place, but nothing fundamentally would change. ‘Time’ was viewed rather like the seasons; as cyclical and repetitive. This empty form of time provided Western thought with a very stable foundation. It provided the basis for scientific certainty, the discovery of laws and eternal truths. In a sense, it provided the basis for scientists’ and philosophers’ own sense of immortality. Their work, their ideas, their discoveries would last forever. Or so they thought.
However, in a world that was constantly changing in drastic and unpredictable ways, such claims became much more precarious. Scientists and philosophers were forced to confront their mortality. This was a very difficult thing for Western thinkers to even comprehend, still less accept. Much of their work was organised around resolving this problem: how to exempt themselves and their ideas from the proverbial ‘ash heap’ of history. The solution they came up with—this is seen most notably in the work of Kant, Hegel, Comte etc — is a conception of history that advances lawfully until it finally produces men capable of knowing the truth. These men were, invariably, themselves. Michel Foucault referred to this as the age of ‘transcendental narcissism’ and you can see why.
At the same time there is a sudden surge of bigotry in the works of the very philosophers and scientists proposing these historical laws. Non-white people were derided for their ignorance, their vanity, their folly and so on. It’s very difficult not to read this as a form of projection. It was other, non-white people that would have to carry the burden of history so white men wouldn’t have to.
KP: Isn’t this essentially the same argument that Darwin made in The Descent of Man?
SG: Not quite. Darwin proposed a selection process that wasn’t lawful but lawlike. Part of why Darwin was so anxious about his theory was that he couldn’t seek recourse in comforting laws. Unlike other evolutionary theories, he had proposed that evolution was entirely contingent, driven by blind chance.
Take Jean Baptise Lamarck’s theory for example. He had proposed that there was a gradual complexifying force that leads organisms to become steadily more advanced. With such evolution it’s not difficult to justify man’s place at the top of the heap. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides for no such fixed law. By his theory, the evolution of one organism is entirely separate from all the others. There is no steady advance for organisms over time. Darwin was quite explicit about this. “Never say higher or lower” he wrote.
This had two radical consequences. The first was that Darwin had flattened the hierarchy between organisms. There was no scientific basis for arguing that one type of organism, or indeed one type of human being, is cosmically superior to another. By Darwin’s theory there is only adaptation to local circumstances. Bacteria are just as advanced, maybe more advanced in terms of survival capacity, than humans.
The second radical consequence was that Darwin’s contingent theory could be applied in different ways. It opened the space for alternative, competing arguments for evolutionary history. Much of this is conveniently forgotten now, but in fact Darwin’s theory gave rise to radical re-interpretations of evolutionary history from a feminist perspective. People like Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Eliza Burt Gamble applied Darwin’s theory to emphasise female agency and capacities in human evolution. A hundred years later Huey P. Newton (one of the founders of the Black Panther Party) became interested in evolutionary biology and offered his own re-interpretation of human evolution.
Whatever Darwin’s motives, he had proposed a theory that not only robbed the ruling elites of validating tales about their divine providence, but a theory that could be appropriated by other groups of people in the service of very different, even liberatory, interpretations of evolutionary history. Darwin’s The Descent of Man didn’t so much settle questions of human origins so much as instigate them.
KP: I don’t suppose that re-interpretations like those of Blackwell and Gamble make up the majority view?
SG: Not at all. The Descent of Man gave rise to a tidal wave of reaction, both in the scientific and the popular literature. It is a mistake, however, to believe this was because Darwin’s theory was inherently reactionary. It was the very fact that Darwin rendered relations between the sexes and races indeterminate and contingent that generated the reaction. White Anglo-Saxon men could no longer take their superiority for granted.
KP: Which comes back to your point about anxiety and doubt underpinning so much of Victorian bigotry.
SG: Quite. Darwin had formulated a theory that was far more radical than even he was comfortable with.Endnotes:
 A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (London: Penguin Books, 2009), viii.
 C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex In Two Volumes.–Vol. 1 with Illustrations, London, 1st Edition, (London: John Murrary, 1871), 235.
 G. Beer, Open fields: science in cultural encounter. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 24.
 C. Darwin. The Descent of Man, 179.
 M. Foucault, “An historian of culture”, in Foucault Live: Collective Interviews, 1961-1984 (Semiotext(e), 1996), 99.
 This was Darwin’s note to self in the margins of his copy of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges. Darwin cited in S. J. Gould, Full house (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011), 137.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited slightly for readability.
When the presenter on Good Morning Britain (GMB) introduces Shamima Begum she is silent. Sitting quietly, Shamima plays with her hair as she patiently waits to speak. It is the first time UK audiences see her without the hijab and the black abaya she was first filmed in.
Shamima is speaking to an audience of millions, and she has one main message: she wants to come home. The image stands in stark contrast to previous interviews where the young woman was filmed by journalists following the fall of ISIS.
It is also the first time Shamima has spoken to the media after the release of a new documentary, ‘The Return: Life after ISIS’, which follows the realities faced by many women who, like Begum, fled Islamic State territory and now remain stranded in northern Syria.
The documentary follows Muslim women from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and their lives in the camp. They receive regular workshops delivered by a small group of Kurdish women, focusing on helping these women come to terms with what they saw, experienced and abetted while they were in ISIS. In addition, the Kurdish women run a writing workshop where the women get the chance to explore their emotions, one of which includes writing a letter to their younger self who was determined to join ISIS.
Shamima Begum: Then and now
Shamima Begum first appeared on our screens in 2015 after she had absconded to Syria with two of her friends from Bethnal Green, East London. So much was written about this — about what it meant for Britain, where she belonged. Things then went quiet for a few years until she reappeared on our screens in 2019, when Sajiv Javid, then Home Secretary, revoked her British citizenship, a question which has been an ongoing battle for Begum and her legal team ever since.
In the summer of 2020, three Court of Appeal judges ruled that Begum should indeed be allowed back into the UK to challenge the revocation. However, after the case was taken to the Supreme Court, it ruled in early 2021 that while Begum does have a right to challenge the decision, she should do so from outside Britain due to “security concerns”.
Begum’s fleeting (re)appearances over the past six years have thus been used as a mirror through which the United Kingdom had the chance to self-reflect and consider its moral complicities and crimes abroad. Begum’s mere presence has become inseparable from the ways in which this island sees itself, the way it defines its internal borders and who belongs within its clearly defined lines.
Begum captures the nation’s imagination through her mythologisation, whereby she herself ends up embodying the “floating signifier” (Stuart Hall) through the core themes of race, class and religion. These three variables most commonly give the establishment anxiety, and it does everything it can to pretend no issues exist in relation to them. Yet we see these three variables emerge on our screens in the documentary, subtly lacing the women’s lives in their respective countries.
Shamima Begum’s lack of remorse or guilt has been one of the core emotions weaponised against her — an element used to explain why she is a ‘national threat’. This alleged lack of emotion is pertinent, as this new documentary wants to point out how she cried and does so for the first time. Anthony Loyd, the journalist who first found Begum in 2019, wrote a recent piece where he exposed this binary of Begum being presented as either a victim or a perpetrator. It was in this piece that I came across this documentary. As part of promoting the film, the trailer utilises the clip of Begum crying.
Why was this specific clip used to promote and embed in this article? Does Begum’s humanity hinge on showcasing her tears to the world, thereby warranting forgiveness? Otherwise, does she still pose a threat? I could not help but view this with suspicion and notice how this surely was a deliberate choice to induce a sense of sympathy in people.
The spectacle of her crying, a subversion of the image of the dangerous brown woman, is what will be the site that accelerates her redemption. This is no longer a case of the subordination of the Muslim. Begum needs to be made an example of and become the obsequious Muslim, the compliant one. Indeed, Begum forms the ground from which human-ness of the Muslim itself is contested and defined. As Loyd states in his piece, “Without that recognition of responsibility, and a commitment to some sort of atonement, western societies will never accept these women back…”
The criticisms meted out against Begum are, by extension, a scathing attack on minority communities in the UK, most evidently against the Muslim community. The impenetrable focus on Begum has shifted the ways in which a liberal vernacular dispelling the supposed ‘threat’ posed by Muslims is (re)produced. What this means is that not only have these ‘homegrown Muslims’ caused us damage here, but they also pack their bags and go ‘over there’ to do the same thing.
This new vernacular, in turn, is inflected by the current political and social conjectures and contexts, reigniting the long-standing debates and contestations around the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, this time this is explored through a particular lens: citizenship. Although citizenship stripping has been a prevalent, non-public facing practice before Begum’s case, as clearly demonstrated by work done by CAGE and others throughout the years, with Begum it has now entered the dominant political discussion.
The façade this island presents — primarily of a nation that upholds the rule of law and has entrenched this as a ‘British Value’ across the public sector through the Prevent Strategy, is a grand performance. This insatiable appetite to use its minorities to position itself globally and display its marvel ways has not gone unnoticed by the racialised within its borders.
Here, the figure of Begum punctuates much of the dismay and horror expressed by Brits over ISIS, and for all that is wrong ‘over there’. Her presence in the nation’s conscience, maintained by the media, abets the necessary argument not to give her access to the only home she has ever known.
The documentary and its narration
The documentary follows Muslim women from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and their lives in their camp. We hear about their lives in their respective countries, their families, their fraught relationships with their parents, families and wider society. Much of it will be familiar to those racialised in the British context and what these dehumanising processes encompass vis-à-vis racism.
These ‘western societies’ set the parameters of who is worthy of accessing ‘our societies’ even though these women are of those societies. The women very clearly highlight how they are products of those societies that have rejected them, warranting the need to question whether Muslims are merely ‘guests’ and never quite full citizens of those nations. These societies, at most, are more preoccupied and concerned with ascertaining their sense of self through a ritual of self-aggrandisement. It is to salvage itself and absolve its role in these women’s lives. When you listen to the majority of these women speak, they all speak in English with their distinct Dutch, German, American, Canadian and British accents. (I am pointing this out not to humanise them but to illustrate the markers and signifiers of the respective countries these women embody.)
Begum’s face is used in frames during the introduction of the documentary with British newspapers’ headlines about her. One of them, a lot more explicit than the others, reads: ‘No Regrets, No Remorse’. Next, we meet Begum herself inside one of the tents, in her grey hijab, where she talks about what led her to join ISIS and make that journey to Syria in 2015. This is the first time we hear directly from her about why she decided to leave the UK with her two friends, how they planned it and who helped them.
She also shares how she had a ruptured relationship with her mother while simultaneously expressing regret at not having hugged her mum before leaving because she misses her. She felt like she was the odd one out, while her older three sisters were more extroverted. This theme appeared with the other women too: feeling like the odd ones out in their contexts and seeking a sense of purpose and belonging. The Canadian woman, Kimberley, talks about feeling lonely after her children grew up and left home. Huda, from the US, addressed this point and how she wanted to help the helpless and powerless (i.e. the Syrians). Ouidad, from Germany, felt Muslims were disproportionately discriminated against back in Germany but realised it was worse for Muslims under ISIS.
Begum is present in many scenes throughout the documentary and only speaks when the camera is specifically on her. You sense the reluctance, the emotions and her anxiety around how she will be received. However, the camera is gentle on her, and she captivates the audience with her honesty and sincerity. She does not hide what she witnessed, and, at some points, it proves challenging to listen to the many stories all the women share about what they saw, did and encouraged. However, at no point do they attempt to minimise the roles they played in advocating for ISIS. Yet the question still remains: what role did they play in ISIS during the time there?
What was distinct about the camera work in this documentary is how it is simply there in its stillness. Its lack of manoeuvering makes you feel like you are there yourself, in her presence, to hear her story, her version. It does not zoom in on her. It does not hover over her, as was the case when she read out the letter from Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary, revoking her citizenship.
Begum and the other women read out the letters they penned to their younger selves. The common denominator in these letters is how the women wished they could tell their younger selves to be less reactionary. Begum’s letter references her mum and how she had hoped her younger self had made more of an effort with her, and how much she now misses her mother. She talks about how nothing can ever replace a mother’s love.
Previously, Begum seeking atonement was gauged, fleetingly, through the dissection of her sartorial choices and changes. These included juxtaposing her in a jilbab and hijab with pictures of her in jeans and a cardigan. The suggestion was that she was only doing this to seek forgiveness, to project the image of a ‘girl next door’ as the only way to humanise herself. The Daily Mail used images of Begum in jeans and a white t-shirt in an article where there is a detailed discussion of why she no longer wears her hijab. This fixation reveals more about the foundational logic of (re)producing the ‘good Muslim woman’ discourse than the actual complexities around dress choices.
However, in this documentary, the Muslim women speak very candidly about their relationship with the hijab. Some explain that they wore it from a young age because relatives forced them to, while others expressed frustration that their parents lacked Islamic knowledge about the hijab and thereby stunted their understanding of it. The discussion around dress was held in tandem with wanting a clear sense of purpose and belonging in the countries they originated from.
Begum will continue to function as the repository of the ‘dangers’ of having so many ‘of them’ amongst us. She is deployed as the hyper-individualised subject representative of the community she stems from, legitimating the dominant ideas that masses of Muslims are simply incapable of entering modernity. This is in contrast to how she speaks in the documentary. You realise her child-like disposition, vulnerability at the end when asked what would be the first thing she would do if and when she returns to the UK, and she shares what it would feel like having a foot-long subway.
The ‘West’ and Muslim women
This documentary, in this sense, crystallises the idea that Muslims are birthed through the gaze of the West and enter humanity only if they meet the standards set by it. The Muslim as a political subject has to morph into the apolitical. The focus has shifted to: how much is Begum willing to grovel? How much will she partake in the spectacle where she is consumed aplenty to determine her worth, her human-ness?
Begum, and the other women from their respective countries, will not be disappearing from the collective conscience any time soon. In the UK, Begum will be the site used for the representational matrix of the Muslim who either disposes of their faith or holds onto it by continuously distancing themselves from the likes of Begum. The former is preferred and will continue to be lauded as the success story. Begum is the ultimate battleground to forge who qualifies as the ‘right’ Muslim.
“There is a part of everything that is unexplored”
— Gustave Flaubert
Over several months during lockdown, I became increasingly aware of an urge to be able to see over the hedge of my back garden and across to the hills behind.
Finally, I felt moved to pursue this urge, as part of an ongoing campaign to listen to half-formed gut instincts. We don’t have much of a vocabulary in English in relation to the ‘gut brain’. Some people use the phrase the ‘enteric nervous system’ but – inexplicably – the phrase hasn’t caught on.
The following visual metaphor helps me remind myself to listen to my stomach:
But enough context. If I keep going down this line, I will end up at the beginning of the (current) universe.
I had two options for being able to see the hills beyond my hedge. The first was to chop the hedge down. This quickly turned out not to be an option after all. The second option was to raise myself up in or near the big tree in my garden. Being in or near the tree would provide shelter and discretion. I began to investigate the concept of an elevated chair.
One of the most common types of elevated chairs is the tennis umpire chair. A nice option because they are wooden and blend in with a tree. But they are expensive and, anyway, I could not figure out how to reasonably transport one from a tennis court to my house. Also, it seemed to be that the primary function of the elevation in this type of chair is to pronounce judgement on those below. It draws on the fact that people below you feel a little bit more inclined to listen to you. It is, in some ways, an elevated throne. “This person is in charge”, is what this chair says to those below. That wasn’t the vibe I was after.
Next I considered lifeguard chairs. I have spent many hours sitting in them because I used to be a lifeguard. So they are reasonably comfortable, but they don’t look so nice when positioned next to a tree. The primary function of elevation in this chair is to provide a sense of safety for those below. ‘This person will look after you’, is what this chair says to them. A pleasant vibe, but a misleading one in this context.
An astronomy highchair was a new discovery for me during those early months of my enquiry. It’s a type of chair where you can move the seat up and down according to the angle of, I guess, your telescope or the stars you’re looking at. The adjustable height was a nice feature. Only problem for me, even at the highest setting, an astronomy chair was never going to be high enough to let me see over the hedge. Stars and planets, no problem. Over the hedge, no way. The primary function of elevation in this chair is observation of what is above. “This person is on a different planet”, is what this chair says to those below. An unsettling vibe to convey.
So much for astronomy observation seats. But perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction: perhaps I needed to look down in order to look up? Perhaps I needed a baby’s highchair? The obvious problem was that a standard baby’s highchair was never going to work for me as a fully-grown adult male. The optics would be all wrong. The primary function of elevation in this type of chair is to provide access to that which is otherwise inaccessible, and thus was closest in spirit to what I was after. “This person is not yet fully grown”, is what this chair says to those below. I quite liked the concept of improved accessibility but could do nothing with the idea since a ‘high’ chair was, in actual fact, far too low for my situation.
For all the reasons set out above, and others I’ve left mercifully unmentioned, none of these chairs suited me. I extended my search to the world of art, and happily discovered lots of different uses of elevated chairs. For example, the idea behind this elevated chair below, from an artist called Angie Hiesl, is to make more visible people in society who are usually invisible:
The primary purpose of elevation for this chair is to provide social commentary about how older people are treated in a society. “This person deserves greater respect”, is what this chair says to the people below.
I like the chair in this picture for very many reasons, but was not interested in the idea of making myself more visible – I’m plenty visible enough, thank you Angie! – and, besides, I was distracted by logistical questions such as: how was the chair attached to the wall? How did the person get up there? Did the person definitely want to be up there? Had they changed their mind? Therefore, the chair didn’t help me with my immediate purpose, although it prompted a still-unfulfilled urge to look into different uses of giant furniture in art installations.
Inspired by Hiesl’s work, I discovered other art installations featuring elevated chairs, many providing an element of surrealism that rang the invisible telephone in my gut. But I was no closer to finding an actual chair that might actually work in my actual garden.
Moving on from the world of art, I started to see elevated chair-type structures wherever I went. Travelling on a train I spotted the structure in the photo below, which I immediately wanted to take home with me, but of course the train was in motion:
Am I the only person who ever looked at this structure and thought “with a cushion incorporated into the round bit on top, this would make a nice place to sit”? Probably. Does that matter? Probably not.
Another time I saw this cherry picker, and for a while played with the idea that what I really needed was a mobile elevated seat on wheels:
But even leaving aside the fact that I lacked the disposable income for such a machine, there was no way I could get something of that size into my back garden without demolishing part of the hedge. And if I did that, I wouldn’t need the cherry picker because the view would be clear.
Sharing my dilemma with a practical friend, I was advised to visit a shop in my local town that sells ‘high quality tat’. I asked the proprietor, Becky, to see if she stocked any elevated chairs of any description. The most elevated chair she had in stock was a bar stool.
It struck me that the purpose, and implied message, of a bar stool is actually quite similar to that of a baby chair: namely, providing access to that which is otherwise inaccessible. It was a nice bar stool but, as with the baby chair, it would not be high enough to enable me to see over the hedge.
Becky then mentioned something called a ‘hanging egg chair’, which could be suspended from different heights. An important and exciting suggestion, which among other things made me more confident in my assumption that there did exist, somewhere in the world, a chair that would meet my exact needs.
And so I discovered a line of chairs which were available from a well-known discount supermarket, but which had rapidly sold out during lockdown. It seemed like Covid had really brought out in others, too, a strong urge to want to sit in or near trees.
Still, the hanging egg chair looked promising, and confirmed the idea of using the tree as part of the structure, rather than being free-standing as I had imagined it up to that point. It seemed to me that the primary purpose of elevation for this chair is to provide suspension from gravity, to enable the chair’s inhabitant to move somewhat freely around in three dimensions. “This person is in mid-air”, is what this chair says to the people below.
I was still thinking about hanging egg chairs when I spotted my daughter inadvertently recreating one half of Magritte’s painting ‘The Lovers’, using a chair hammock, and the thought occurred to me, Oh my God, what if I already have everything I need to create my own hanging egg chair? What, in other words, if the thing I most needed had quite literally been right in front of me all along?
I waited for my daughter to finish her surrealist re-enactment and elevated the chair hammock way up high in the tree, so that it would enable me to see over the hedge, to the hills beyond.
It seemed to offer all the anti-gravity attraction of the hanging egg chair without any of the online queuing hassle, but in my excitement I had forgotten about the fundamental drawback of the non-anchored chair, which was that there was no way to get in or out of the chair without risking serious injury.
I considered investing in a crash mat or a safety net, but decided against it on the basis that no chair should have to come with its own crash mat. I lowered the chair hammock back to its original elevation, a couple of inches off the floor, to the relief of the family, and came to terms with the fact that I had moved precisely no closer to my target.
Sometime later I was talking to a friend, who lives on a different hill, about my fruitless chair quest. He mentioned that, in the woods near him, he had seen a type of elevated chair which hunting folk strap to trees and sit in so they can shoot at birds and other animals without being spotted. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, like, “Everyone knows these are a thing, what’s wrong with you?” I began looking into ‘shooting chairs’ and ‘hunting chairs’, but neither seemed to be the right term. Was this definitely a thing or had my friend been taking hallucinogenic drugs while walking in the woods?
Then I tried looking for high seats. Stalking high seats, to be precise. A place for, I guess, mostly men to hide themselves up a tree while waiting for birds and animals to kill. The primary purpose of elevation in this instance is to provide camouflage. “There is no person up that tree”, is what the chair says to the unsuspecting prey below. But what if you sat in the chair and didn’t shoot at animals and birds? Well, here was surely an actionable idea. The right-wing gun lobby had already solved the problem that had been presenting itself to me for such a long time. The lesson was clear.
I found a company called ‘Keith’s High Seats’. The idea of such a literal, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin company name profoundly appealed to me. It made me wish that, back when I worked as a freelancer, I’d had the guts to call my business: ‘Dave’s consulting’. But Keith offered premium models, designed for the serious shooter.
After a while I found the closest thing I could get to a budget stalking high seat, not wanting to cut too many corners on the cost of something that was going to support me while halfway up a tree.
There followed a period of internal wrestling with my conscience about whether or not it was, all things considered, appropriate to invest one hundred actual monetary pounds on what appeared to be a fundamentally non-essential item. I sat on the decision for several days, wasting money on things like takeaway food and drink, realised I still wanted it, though not really able to explain why, and made the purchase.
A short while later, a stalking chair arrived in a flat pack. Assembly occurred, minus the cross-piece to lean a gun on. I then strapped the whole thing to the very old yew tree in my back garden. At one point during the ratchet-strapping operation, I had to stray onto my neighbour’s driveway to get the strap all the way around the tree. As I crashed around in the undergrowth, my neighbour came out to ask what I was doing. I hesitated, wondering how far to go back in the story, before settling on explaining what I was doing and leaving out the why I was doing it, a question I could only answer once I sat up the tree.
Then it was ready. I climbed up the disturbingly high ladder and, for the first time, sat 3.5 metres above my garden.
The view out to the hills beyond was mostly obscured by branches, but it didn’t matter: at least I could see over the hedge. More importantly, leaning my head back against the trunk of the centuries-old tree conveyed a particular and unusual psychological flavour, which my stomach seemed to appreciate. And I was level with wood pigeons and blackbirds who, I liked to think, accepted me as one of their own.
The primary purpose of elevation for my chair, I realised, was to enable metamorphosis. “This person is a bird”, is what the chair says to the people below.
During the course of my research, which ended on such a deeply, strangely satisfactory note, I had compiled possibly the most comprehensive and defiantly useless list of elevated chairs that has ever been compiled, which I’m pleased to share in Figure 1, below.
Figure 1: Types of elevated chair, by frequency
In 2008, the Israeli military launched a bombing campaign in Gaza, killing over one thousand Palestinian civilians. Here begins Cloud Studies, Forensic Architecture’s latest exhibition at the Whitworth, consisting of two single channel films and a series of smaller installations. The headline film immediately immerses us in a cloud of dust, an insidious grey shroud emerging in the wake of necropolitical destruction.
“Mobilised by state and corporate powers, toxic clouds colonise the air we breathe across different scales and durations”, states the collective. Bombs erupt and explode. They are dropped either in isolation or in coordinated groups, yet we understand their effects to be temporally enfolded, condensed into isolated moments of utter destruction. But what of the traces they leave?
The term ‘necropolitics’ was coined by African philosopher Achille Mbembe to describe how state technologies of violence create ‘death-worlds’ — “new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead”. The Gaza strip, subject to repeated acts of targeted aggression and paralysing economic blockades, is one such necropolitical formation.
But it is not just the Palestinians’ exposure to mass death that confers upon them the status of the ‘living dead’. Every act of violence leaves a cloud, literal or metaphorical, a suspension of noxious chemicals and conditions, that inscribe such depredations upon marginalised bodies. It is through this lens that Cloud Studies explores the formation and dispersal of clouds as technologies of violence and colonialism, purposely dispersed by states and corporations in an attempt to deprive populations of the ‘universal right to breath’.
The exhibition surveys a variety of contexts, ranging from the 2014 bombing of Rafah to Indonesian deforestation. In every case, clouds form part of the architecture of slow violence. The term was developed by Rob Nixon to describe “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive”, scarcely recognised as violence because of its dispersal “across time and space”.
By way of example, Nixon draws upon the US’s nuclear testing regime in the Marshallese Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear weapons were detonated on Bikini Atoll in an effort to develop weapons of mass destruction. This led to the mass dislocation of hundreds of residents and the poisoning of the surrounding sea and soil. The destruction has since been driven into indigenous bodies; well into the 1980s, Marshallese women were giving birth to severely deformed babies, “more jellyfish than child”, in the words of Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. A 2005 US Senate Hearing suggested that fatal birth defects were continuing to appear in Uitrik Atoll at the time of writing, over 300 miles away from the original testing sites. The enormous mushroom clouds that came to represent the programme have inseminated the bodies of humans and non-humans in the island nation with radioactive particles.
Nixon alerts us to the ‘representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence’, asking:
In an age when the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?
Cloud Studies offers techniques to make slow violence visible. Through a range of methodologies, including fluid dynamics and 3D modelling, Forensic Architecture pieces together the lifecycles and dynamics of clouds as they besiege the colonised and oppressed. The atmospheric consequences of forest burning are mapped through the visualisation of gaseous concentrations in Indonesian rainforests. Security footage is used to monitor the use of teargas in mass protests and civilian uprisings. The erosion of black cultural heritage in the American South is revealed through comparisons of historical and contemporary maps showing the disappearance of sacred groves.
Clouds, and the slow violence they represent, resist simplistic notions of causality. Temporally and spatially diffuse, clouds cannot easily be traced or attributed; “their dynamics are governed by nonlinear, multi-causal logics”. As such, “cloud studies is forensics without inscription”, states Cloud Studies’ narrator. Legal and political doctrine conceives of violence as temporally bounded, reducible to isolated events with clearly demarcated victims and perpetrators.
The absence of such easily definable borders in cases of slow violence allows for the avoidance of accountability and the spread of misinformation. As such, Forensic Architecture maps the spread of ‘information clouds’, formed in the wake of the Syrian government’s release of chemical weapons upon its own civilians. Political actors and commentators hide amidst the clouds’ haze, manipulating the course of events to favour given ideological positions and geopolitical interests, showing little regard for the experiential realities of the clouds’ victims.
In situations unamenable to simplistic narrativization, we must foreground the lives and experiences of those at the interface of such harm. Cloud Studies alerts us to the immense power of testimony and bearing witness. It is through the assembly of testimonials that Forensic Architecture gives shape to otherwise indiscernible events. The consequences of herbicide spraying by the IDF along the Gazan border are made visible through photographs and samples of damaged crops. A timeline of the 2020 Beirut explosion is assembled by an analysis of video testimonials indicating smoke trajectories. The Grenfell Tower fire is modelled with the aid of survivors.
The work of scholar activist Flora Cornish, too, shows the value of witnessing. Having meticulously documented events unfolding in Grenfell’s aftermath, she is compiling a timeline that attests to many of the disaster’s lingering after-effects, including persistent soil toxicity. Through careful co-production and knowledge exchange, her work makes visible the consequences of structural neglect in the aftermath of state violence.
In attending to slow violence’s scattered effects, we are alerted to new forms of resistance. Borrowing from Donna Haraway, Cornish uses the phrase ‘staying with the trouble’ to understand why community organisers and Grenfell survivors continue on despite their abandonment. Communities continue to garden on the contaminated soil, fully aware of the potential risks. Yet in doing so, they provide a vision of communal care that imagines other ways to live amidst toxicity.
Similarly, Manuel Tironi describes the actions of residents of Puchancaví, Chile’s most heavily polluted industrial compound, as ‘hypo-interventions’. Here, small, relational acts of care and survival, like tending to wounded plants and wounded bodies, create “the conditions for the flourishing of life in a devastated landscape”. Resistance, especially in the face of destruction and precarity, rarely conforms to the assumed public spectacles or linear ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ through which we have come to understand activism. It is instead through the everyday that slow violence is both enacted and resisted.
As dominant frames of accountability thus encourage a focus on isolated events, slow violence and the resistance it generates are left largely ignored, unamenable to systems of evidence-gathering that fail to draw the necessary connections between acts of aggression and their dispersed, toxic after-effects. Cloud Studies shows us the power of visual documentation and creative assemblages in challenging state logics that seek to silence experiences of protracted suffering. It gives us tools to unearth struggle as it is suppressed under the weight of formless and diffuse threats. It emphasises the primacy of testimony as a form of resistance, giving shape to the amorphous, deadly clouds that envelop entire populations, and moving us further toward accountability and closure. If we are to oppose colonial and oppressive structures, we must engage in the slow work of bearing witness and piecing together stories. Forensic Architecture offers insight into how we might do so.
[All photos: Forensic Architecture]
“But these grinning men were someone’s brother, son, husband, father. They were human beings, people who took immense pleasure in the utter cruelty of torturing others to death—and were so proud of doing so that they posed for photographs with their handiwork, jostling to ensure they caught the eye of the lens, so that the world would know they’d been there. Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.” — Adam Serwer
Earlier this year, on March 31, 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez was stopped by a Chicago Police officer, Evan Solano. The reason for the stop remains unclear — body camera footage of whatever led to the stop is yet to be released. A foot pursuit followed which ended with Alvarez being fatally shot in the back five times. Two days earlier, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot dead after a foot pursuit by another police officer not far away in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
I briefly knew Anthony. He was a student at my first school. While I did not teach him, I was aware of his reputation as a kind, caring, and inquisitive person. One interaction which remains clear in my mind was when Anthony greeted me when I returned to school after having a seizure. He told me he was so glad that I was back, and I was taken aback by this as I never had him in my class.
On Saturday May 29, I attended a protest for Anthony. While I was not close to him, I felt a duty to attend. The gathering, outside the 16th District Precinct, drew “Defend the Police” counter-protesters too. Two days later, on the two-month anniversary of Anthony’s killing, Police officers turned up on Chicago’s Laramie Avenue to tell mourners that they needed to take a memorial to Anthony down. In a video of the incident, the approaching officer begins by asking, “Where is your attorney? … does somebody speak English?” Latinx people did not speak English, was the clear implication. The crowd responded that they all did.
The video is disturbing and illustrates the degree of the disconnect between US police officers and the communities they claim to serve. The racial implications, too, are glaring. There are, for instance, plenty of memorials around Chicago for White cyclists who have been killed in accidents, yet police somehow never harass their grievers.
By the following afternoon, Anthony’s memorial had been cleared.
It is impossible not to pay attention to the timing of these events in the wider context not just of the rise of the far right during the Trump era but of the long history of police violence against racialised communities in America. As Adam Serwer points out, “the cruelty is the point”. While his article specifically refers to Trump and his supporters, it is applicable to police officers too.
Last summer, as police assaulted protesters—shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, blinding a journalist with a foam bullet, tear-gassing a toddler—they produced a counternarrative of growing danger: Their milkshakes were being poisoned; it was no longer safe to order at the drive-thru. The threat was everywhere. Claiming to be hated for ensuring public safety reinforces the idea that critics are malcontents or sociopaths.
For the police and their defenders, maintaining this false construct is necessary to counter the idea — unfathomable for some — that the police are not only unjust, but cruel. More concretely, this police-as-victims narrative allows perpetrators of police violence to evade moral and legal culpability and accountability.
The counter-protesters on May 29, too, seemed to relish the cruelty. One of them came into our crowd, attempting to intimidate us, and nearly knocking over Anthony’s two-year-old daughter in the process. Another counter-protester appeared to be making angel wings and jumping up and down, mocking Anthony’s death. “All communists are bastards” was an overheard chant. They brandished middle fingers at us, including one motorcyclist slowly driving by, honking his horn. These ‘blue supporters’ gleefully appeared to take pleasure in our anguish.
In one interview with some of the counter-protesters, Anthony was painted as a “gangbanger” and criminal. Yet not only is there zero evidence that Anthony was ever in any gang, plenty in law enforcement are open supporters of the vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people last August. For those who defend Kyle Rittenhouse but degrade Anthony, the cruelty, once again, is the point. The obvious truth is that the “Blue Lives Matter” movement was never about treating the police with respect, but rather a fig leaf for dehumanising Black and Brown bodies, including Anthony’s.
To add insult to injury, the officer who killed Anthony is now being investigated not for that shooting but for a road rage incident where he pulled his gun on a (White) citizen. He has been stripped of his police powers but still has his job, and faces no legal consequences for Anthony’s killing.
That the only reason Anthony’s killer is facing any consequences at all is his on-camera aggressiveness toward White citizens is hardly novel. In the words of Ibram X Kendi, “This is the legacy of racist power” — Black and Brown bodies are viewed as intrinsically more dangerous than white ones. To the police, Anthony’s life did not matter, but those of the White citizens of Chicago do.
Having spoken with one of Anthony’s family members, it is clear they remain undeterred, as are their supporters and other local activists. In the face of hatred, contempt, and cruelty, and in the absence of real justice, we will keep standing for Anthony.
“I appreciate everyone who has been supporting us ‘til this day,” Anthony’s stepbrother, Alex Martinez, told me, “the fight isn’t over until ‘till we get justice.” For those who demand justice, we do so in the name of love, and for Anthony’s two-year-old daughter who will now grow up without a father. For her, Anthony will be a shadow without a body.
In times of frustration, it can be easy to give in. My own grandmother, a Jewish Czech Holocaust refugee, cautioned me against this danger. Until her passing in 2017, she always made it clear giving up was simply not an option. As she explained to me after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, “What choice do we have?”
Today we manifest that same spirit in the name of Anthony Alvarez. Despite the cruelty, injustices, and feelings of futility at times, we do not give in. In his latest book, Charles M. Blow references Theodore Parker’s famous quote, popularized by Dr, Martin Luther King Jr., about the arc of the moral universe “bending toward justice”. Blow points out that this does not happen on its own, that citizens must “force the bend.”
Activists, along with the family and friends of Anthony Alvarez, will continue to pursue justice. Despite the cruelty we witnessed, from the police and from their supporters, we will keep fighting, we will keep standing up, we will keep forcing the bend.
As my own grandmother noted, we have no alternative.
[Photo credits: Mike Friedberg]
Comment | The Shawcross Prevent Review will lead to greater criminalisation of activism — We must stop it
Over the past month, Prevent Watch has noted that the Prevent programme in the UK and its global counterpart, CVE, are being used to quell Palestinian activism and, in some cases, criminalise it as “extremism”. This is a reminder of the political nature of Prevent and how it uses its own conceived language to suppress individuals and groups who support those who are being oppressed. This is being done under the banner of the ‘war on terror’, and the recent attacks on Al Aqsa Mosque and the clampdown on advocacy against the abuse of Palestinians is a distillation of these mechanics.
It is no secret that pro-Zionist, neoconservative “think-tanks” have been influential in formulating Prevent and CVE. It is also pertinent that William Shawcross has been chosen by the UK government to “review” its Prevent strategy. Shawcross — who once lambasted the UN for its criticism of Israel’s attack on the freedom flotilla, and who has expressed support for “enhanced interrogation” of Muslims at Guantanamo — has pointedly been instructed to “investigate” links between “Islamist extremism” and “antisemitism”.
This calls into question the ethical integrity of the current review; it also illustrates that Shawcross is unsuitable for such an “investigation”; his record on such subjects is so biased that his would-be conclusions are already obvious. Shawcross’s ties to Zionist political groups, as well as to neo-conservative hawks in the British government, makes clear the implication of his selection by No. 10: To link “Islamist extremism” with “antisemitism”. It also gives us some idea of what the future Prevent might look like.
The fusion of loose and political terminologies means a wider funnel to contain activism
Antisemitism, very much like “extremism”, is also defined loosely. Its framework is set by the IRHA — a controversial organisation in itself — which claims that “antisemitism” includes the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”. Though this is a highly disputed statement in a number of circles, it says a lot about the future political bent of Prevent, and the obvious bias of the current “review”.
There is now no longer a need to wonder what ideology is behind Prevent, or to hold our breath for how the next revamp of Prevent will view Palestinian activism — in particular that involving Muslims but others too, who will also fall into the net. These developments have been coming for some time.
The 2014 Birmingham school hoax (known popularly as “the Trojan Horse affair”) was a watershed moment in embedding Prevent in schools by co-opting safeguarding policy — which is today being leveraged to silence activism for Palestine among young people. It is significant that then-education secretary, Michael Gove, commissioned the former counterterrorism unit head Peter Clarke to investigate the Birmingham school hoax.
Though obviously disingenuous, the report that was eventually published revealed much about the pro-Zionist political alignment of Prevent; for instance it pertinently used the Prevent definition of “extremism” to censure the orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, because it was “anti-Israel”. Since then, the cases we have dealt with at Prevent Watch strongly indicate an anti-Palestine bias running through Prevent referrals, which — when seen in light of instructions to Shawcross — hints at the shape of things to come.
In 2015, it was reported that a schoolboy was accused by a police officer of holding “terrorist-like” views simply based on their possession of a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) leaflet. That same year, “Free Palestine” badges were deemed “extremist” while another teenager required “deradicalisation” for attending a peaceful protest against an Israeli diplomat. The following year, Prevent’s behaviour manipulation continued: a young schoolboy who was referred by his teachers for raising money to help Palestinian children was questioned by counteterror police for wearing a pro-Palestine badge.
Universities in particular have come under increasing pressure to manage and risk assess Palestine activism to adhere to their responsibility under Prevent in a manner that is out of balance with their legal imperative to ensure freedom of speech and opinion. For example, the Safe Campus Communities website cites in its list of “contentious” topics” the “vocal support for Palestine” and “opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza.”
Prevent exerts pressure even when there is no referral; its language and guidelines justify sanctions against those who articulate support for Palestine, particularly young people. In one such recent incident, which was recorded and went viral, a teacher is heard telling a child that his opinion of what is happening in Palestine is why people like him go on to join terrorist groups.
Alternative platform of advocacy against Prevent gathers support
It is the Prevent training in particular which links Palestinian activism with a supposed “vulnerability to extremism”. The fact that this can happen retrospectively should concern anyone involved in political causes that challenge the government.
In one of the cases documented by Prevent Watch, social workers, acting on Prevent guidance, called into question the parental capability of a Muslim parent who took her child to a pro-Palestinian rally six years ago. She did not imagine that her child would be flagged and scrutinized under Prevent, and herself questioned for “undermining” the UK government.
The Prevent training is a particular weak point that needs investigation. The social worker in the above case claimed that she would have to “take the case forward” and “follow procedure” because they had undergone so-called “special training”. This was a reference to the Workshop to Raise Awareness about Prevent (WRAP) training, which public sector workers undergo as part of the Prevent duty.
Although most Prevent advocates batted away earlier cases as teething issues, the problem is still prevalent today. Recently, an individual who had attended the WRAP training called Prevent Watch for support. During her Prevent training, she told us, the trainer referred to Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”. The Prevent trainer had also stated that children attending pro-Palestine rallies were “vulnerable to extremism”. Such training shows how the Prevent guidelines are not only inaccurate, but they are also outdated and driven by paranoia; and the fear they foster is bringing untold harm to many innocent people.
The alternative People’s Review of Prevent promises to explore all of this and more. While hundreds of organisations have boycotted the Shawcross “review”, it is now up to all those concerned with its trajectory to organise an alternative platform centred on justice. We’ll meet you there.
If you have any concerns about Prevent, or have experienced its harms yourself, or in your family and community, please join us and submit your evidence to us.
Discussions of violence and non-violence often begin by first trying to define those terms and then asking what justifies the use of violence or non-violence as a strategy in social and political movements. However, this approach assumes that an abstract distinction between violence and non-violence is decisive for whether a political action or strategy is justified. In other words, it is already assumed that either violence or non-violence is more effective or legitimate than the other, and this assumption influences how we define both terms.
Unless we reserve the term ‘violence’ for only the most horrendous of acts, and use ‘non-violence’ to denote only the most passive and ineffective kinds of protest, I don’t think we can assume from the outset that one is more legitimate or effective than the other. And if we do define violence or non-violence in this way, then I don’t think the question has much relevance for social movements.
Instead, I’d like to turn this question around and begin with a different assumption: that, however we define these terms, both violence and non-violence have a place in social movements.
As such, the violence/non-violence distinction does not have to be a moral or practical one but instead relates to differences of/in power within social movements. This would mean that the question of whether violence or non-violence are justified depends on the specific context of each action, and specifically on the relations of power within which this action is unfolding.
Interestingly, both violent and non-violent resistance have in the past been justified as strategies for disrupting structural violence. On one side, it is argued that only non-violence is able to break out of a cycle of “reciprocal cruelty and vengeance”. On the other, it has been argued that non-violent activism reproduces the very inequalities of oppressive relationships it purports to challenge, and that these can be overcome only through the reciprocity inherent in violent resistance. I am here particularly thinking of Fanon’s argument that violent struggle “rids the colonized of their inferiority complex”.
I suggest that both arguments are true. Their apparent contradiction is not one of logic but rather rooted in the contradictory nature of power itself. On the one hand, I agree with Foucault and Butler that there is no innocent position outside of oppressive systems: People depend on and reproduce power-relations for their social existence and survival. For example, I am a union organiser and in order to improve conditions in my workplace, I also reproduce the system of wage labour that exploits workers.
On the other hand, power is exercised and experienced unequally. It creates divisions between people whose lives are valued, cared for and protected, and those who are locked away, persecuted, exploited, killed and silenced. Power creates opposing interests and perspectives that cannot be reconciled without a transformation of oppressive institutions.
The consciousness of the oppressed is not the same as — or inferior to, or the mirror opposite of — the consciousness of the oppressor. It is radically different: it negates not only the oppressor but the oppressor-oppressed relationship itself. The contradictory nature of power is that it is both totalising and divisive. It oppresses both by including and excluding.
To break out of the cycle of violence, then, you have to already be within this cycle. Refusing to participate in structural violence can be thought of as a disruptive act of non-violence. If one is already invested, and participating, in systemic violence, such non-violence will not be easy or passive. It will involve sacrifice, sustained effort and (un-)learning. It can involve acts of defiance, such as occupying arms factories or disrupting immigration raids. It can also involve quitting a job or sharing one’s home with people excluded from housing. Such non-violences acknowledge complicity with oppression. They are acts of dissent and differentiation.
It is sometimes asserted that violent resistance reproduces the violence of the oppressor. However, the violence of the oppressed could never match that of the oppressor. The biblical principle of “an eye for an eye” presumes a situation of equality where one person’s loss is equal to another’s. This, of course, is not our reality. Asserting the right to reciprocate against oppressive violence is to assert, and act out, an equality that has been denied. Violent resistance, therefore, exposes and challenges the inequality of structural violence. The right to violent resistance is given by the situation of inequality itself.
This can involve armed struggle, of course, but also many acts that are not commonly seen as violent, such as going on strike or demanding accountability for crimes. Another example of violent resistance in this sense is migration, and the demand for migrant and refugee rights. Migration can be thought of as a way of asserting the right to move and settle in another country, even though these rights are not – or are only reluctantly – granted. Where migration violates unjust boundaries, it can be seen as a form of violent and legitimate resistance.
Because of the contradictory nature of power, people will find themselves in both the position of oppressor and oppressed at different times and depending on particular situations. This means that many people will use both violent and non-violent practices at different times in order to resist oppression. However, the totalising and exclusionary tendencies of power are polarized in such a way that there are large groups of people who will almost only have recourse to violence, and groups who mostly enjoy the privilege of non-violence. I argue that this is precisely the situation that must be transformed through a diversity of tactics that recognizes the interdependence of violence and non-violence. Diversity of tactics is a praxis that does not eliminate but depolarizes and decentralizes the contradictory nature of power.
Both violence and non-violence can radically transform oppression. By asserting equality, violence (as I have conceptualized it here) exposes and subverts a person or system’s power to exclude. It challenges the monopolies of violence held by these systems and their agents such as sexual predators, landlords, police and employers. By asserting difference and dissent, non-violence can subvert and challenge a person or system’s claim to universality.
The aim of activism is not to keep oppressed people in a space of difference, and neither is it to simply integrate people into oppressive structures. Instead, the aim is to transform those structures. This is done by continuously challenging and subverting both the totalising and the exclusionary tendencies of power. The degree to which individuals and groups can carry out either task depends on their relationship to oppressive structures. I suggest that the resistance by people excluded by these structures in any particular situation can be characterised as “violent” because it involves using the hegemonic discourse to demand a “piece of the pie”. The resistance of those who are complicit with oppressive structures can be characterised as non-violent because it involves a refusal of the hegemonic discourse.
Sure, if lots of people in the UK took up arms they’d be effective, but imagine if they all quit their jobs or stopped participating in elections. How can we justify violence in instances where non-violence is just as effective and potentially more so? Conversely, how can someone non-violently resist if they have no job to put down, no ballot to spoil, and the system does not recognize their life as valuable? People occupy unique and mobile positions within intersecting systems of power, and so the strategies of resistance that they can use vary. However, their strategies are united in the challenge they pose to oppression. Since the contradiction between violence and non-violence is rooted in oppression, our diversity of tactics is the praxis that can transform this oppression.
 Adin Ballou “Christian Non-Resistance”, Chapter 1.
 Frantz Fanon 1961 “The Wretched of the Earth”, Chapter 1 ‘On Violence’.
 Leon De Kock 1992 “Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa”.
James Baldwin’s critique of American life stands out as one of the preeminent interventions of the Civil Rights era. A bitter moral condemnation underlay his analysis, yet it was attenuated by a belief in a very worldly redemption, in which America, a house divided against itself, could become one. Race was central to Baldwin’s thinking, as were issues of sexuality and class, ideas explored through his fiction, notably Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, and through his non-fiction, in the form of essays.
In Notes of A Native Son, James Baldwin declared his principal ambition in life was to be ‘an honest man and a good writer’. In 1948, at the age of 24, he departed for Paris, spending the rest of his twenties in Europe, before returning to America in 1957. Baldwin stood outside the reality of his country, which allowed him to more accurately observe what he saw upon his return. In many ways, it was this distance which allowed him to offer the critiques that he did.
Baldwin’s conception of America was fascinating. Whereas MLK fought non-violently for an integrated America and Malcolm X rejected the promise of it, Baldwin argued America was already integrated. The labour spent and the blood spilt building the country, he pointed out, were the consequence of an existing, enforced and unequal state of integration. Three centuries after the first slaves arrived in North America, and two centuries after the founding of the union, had ensured that the United States, black and white, were integrated by blood, if nothing else. Yet, given the economic, social and spiritual immiseration of Black Americans, Baldwin believed in the necessity of creating art, a greater form of liberation for the individual and society at large. His own novels were an obvious example. Rufus Scott, the black protagonist of Baldwin’s novel Another Country, was partially based on his friend Eugene Worth, who committed suicide in 1946 by jumping off the George Washington bridge (just as Scott does in the novel).
Black music also featured prominently in Baldwin’s imagination. As a child preacher he understood the importance of cadence and musicality to the human ear, and even after leaving the Church, this feeling remained with him. ‘There are three elements in the blues: the reflection of a condition, the expression of a rage, and an avowal of love. It’s love that gives the blues their ironic and tragic tone’. The ironic, the tragic and the beautiful were Baldwin’s assessments of America, an insight, as an outsider and writer, he was best placed to make.
Baldwin’s analysis of American racism is best understood as a social-psychological critique, grounded in a potent moralism. As he memorably put it in an interview with Dr Kenneth Clark in May 1963:
The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people…whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they’ve relied on for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man.
Baldwin’s outspoken declaration was an assertion of an identity long denied. The very terms which were used for black men — ‘boy’, ‘nigger’ — reflected the infantilisation and degradation of black Americans. Racism is explained as a product of white American fear and insecurity. The ‘nigger’ was a creation of white minds, not a description of reality. Baldwin goes on: “For a negro there’s no difference between the North and the South…there’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact’. No other significant intellectual of the period spoke in such a way. The extraordinary achievement of Baldwin was to simultaneously condemn his country for its conduct yet hold out the prospect of redemption, as long as black and white subsumed themselves as Americans.
Baldwin’s criticism also extended to the idea of cultural immaturity. ‘Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too’. Baldwin explored the idea of American immaturity in great depth in an early essay, written in 1949, titled,’ Preservation of Innocence’ as well as in one of his final essays, ‘Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood’. The ‘unnaturalness’ of homosexuality was cited as the reason for its depravity yet, as Baldwin pointed out, even assuming this was true, it would be to partake in the naturalistic fallacy, where the so-called ‘natural’ is good, and the artificial evil.
This fear and revulsion of homosexuality were deep-seated in American life. The FBI, who were surveilling Baldwin, speculated about his sexual orientation, and deemed him a ‘pervert’. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, referred in private to Baldwin as ‘Martin Luther Queen’. As one of Baldwin’s biographers, James Campbell, puts it, ‘colour and sex are the defining preoccupations of the American mind’.
Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement was launched, America has undoubtedly made immense cultural progress. Intolerance towards homosexuality and racial minorities has not only become unacceptable but baffling to most Americans in the 21st century. Yet, a danger lies in replacing radical rhetoric and direct action with platitudes and self-congratulatory sloganeering. Baldwin’s evident radicalism cannot be sanitised for the modern age: ‘There is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure’.
Has such change occurred? Electoral politics is still dominated by big donors who retain an inordinate amount of political power, with corporations free to not only exploit the domestic economy but an ever-expanding global market. What would Baldwin think of the expansion of American capitalism and the development of what many scholars have termed neo-colonialism? It is not completely evident that change is always progressive, or that there are no backwards or sidewards steps along the road of history. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 are only two of the most ominous signs of such regression.
The Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 are also emblematic of the continuing suspicion and hostility between large segments of African American communities and the police. ‘Race relations’, the term we often use to talk about this subject, is itself evidence of failure. The hope of transcending race has seemingly crumbled and, along with it, James Baldwin’s promise of redemption.
However, this is not where the story ends. Baldwin was born in 1924, poor, black and gay. He was dealt one of the worst hands America had to offer. Despite this, he was able, through extraordinary intellectual and rhetorical power, to unravel the nature of the American mind and show us that where there is dark there is also light, that where there is hate there can also be love, and that belief in such redemption is not merely desirable, but necessary.