Public gestures and symbols have always been important to our shared narratives about nation and citizenship. Controversies over the use of particular symbols often herald or accompany a reordering of political and economic power and cultural status. Ed West, the senior editor at Unherd, has recently observed that taking the knee is “perhaps the most powerful, and obviously quasi-religious, symbol of the new order.” Thus it is not surprising that, after the UK’s home secretary, Priti Patel, recently declined to criticise fans who booed England footballers for performing this symbolic act at a match, and the England footballer Tyrone Mings tweeted a criticism of Patel’s response, the resulting controversy fanned the flames of an already heated debate about this newly established symbolic gesture.
A remarkable characteristic of the new order is the primacy that it affords to such symbols and gestures. Back in the twentieth century, symbols and gestures were more likely to be seen as simply reflecting power relations that were primarily determined elsewhere. Today, parliamentary politics and government policymaking are seen as secondary. The new order accords supreme authority to the symbolic realm. It is not merely that symbols have unwarranted significance and power in an otherwise healthy public sphere, but that the new order is itself quasi-religious.
No doubt many individual footballers taking the knee understand the gesture merely as a personal protest against the racism that they and their peers have faced. But the public reaction to this—on both sides—indicates that something more is at stake. Those who supported Mings and criticised Patel tended to characterise Patel’s stance as reflective of outdated cultural norms, and Mings’ stance as reflective of new cultural norms and of a different kind of political authority, exercised through the performance of culturally symbolic gestures. This new kind of authority has been most apparent in the public persona of Mings’ England teammate, Marcus Rashford. Notably, people on both sides of the knee-taking controversy are attributing causal power to a gesture. They are incorrectly assuming that taking the knee somehow has the power to stop people from tweeting racist comments; and that not taking the knee—or being critical of that gesture—somehow has the power to make someone send racist tweets.
In her role as home secretary, Priti Patel has some political power. She can introduce policies—such as her plan to set up offshore immigration processing centres—that could be characterised as racist. And she can support the proposed Online Safety Bill, which, as currently written, could further weaken our already weak culture of open and robust debate. But her power is confined to the political sphere, and that sphere is currently having less influence on social and institutional norms than symbolic gestures are having. Political power does not necessarily translate to moral or cultural authority. Political leaders who appear to have public support probably owe that support more to their cultural performances (buffoonish Boris Johnson, sax-and-sex-playing Bill Clinton) than to their political ideas or policies. And Patel’s cultural authority is negligible.
According to Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out, 70% of the online abuse of black footballers during the past two seasons has originated from Twitter accounts outside the UK. Since there are presumably very few overseas football fans who see Priti Patel as a major opinion influencer, this statistic makes it clear that Patel’s opinion is not an important driver of racist tweets about footballers.
Echoes of the Past
We can better understand the dynamics of today’s cultural politics by looking at the various strategies that cultural elites have successfully used in the past to impose their ideologies on the political sphere.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the discipline of sociology emerged and promoted the idea that people’s actions might be motivated, not just by their economic interests or individual psychology, but by the culture they inhabit.
Then, during the twentieth century, the growth of mass media and the emergence of academic cultural studies led to the development of media effects theory, which claims that mass media have an enormous influence on culture, on people’s perception of reality, and on the range of actions that people think are open to them.
Media effects theory is attractive to the cultural elite: it describes culture as divided into producers, who are intellectually astute and high status, and consumers, who are intellectually passive and lower in social status. Cultural elites promoted this idea—and it caught on: social status and authority were allocated accordingly, and academic and cultural elites became our primary authorities on national cultural and political narratives.
We can see echoes of this in the current controversies over symbolic gestures: cultural elites have legitimised taking the knee as an expression of personal disgust at online racism. It has become a norm, and any who dissent from that norm are condemned as being beyond the pale of respectable opinion. By contrast, cultural elites have delegitimised the act of booing in response to the symbolic gesture because—whether or not it is an expression of racism—it is an expression of dissent from the norms they seek to enforce.
The promotion of moral panics that we are seeing today is also an echo of the past. Stanley Cohen’s 1972 classic, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, describes how the media exaggerated, amplified and widened a cultural dispute that originated as mere skirmishes in the music world between mods and rockers—prompting wide swaths of the general public to take sides in a conflict that did not directly involve them. Stuart Hall’s 1979 Policing the Crisis relates how the media manipulated statistics to exaggerate the extent of black youth crime, creating a moral panic that served certain political interests, rather than the search for objective truth. The unwarranted generalisations that create such moral panics are also a feature of many of today’s race-related cultural controversies.
In the mid-twentieth century, trade unions as well as both major political parties and other groups, deployed the issues of race and racism to influence laws, policies and cultural beliefs and practices. While discrimination was reduced to some extent in law and politics, old biology-based ideas about race also resurfaced; those ideas underpinned policies that discriminated against ethnic minorities, and were mobilised to try to justify them. Moral panics were also created around the issue of immigration—by framing it as a cause of economic scarcity—and they were promoted by exaggerating rates of reproduction among South Asians. And these racist ideas informed both the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, passed under Harold Wilson’s Labour government and the 1971 Immigration Act, passed under Sir Edward Heath’s Conservative government, which introduced and solidified the idea of patriality, a concept that severely restricted the rights of most non-white Commonwealth citizens to UK residency.
Today, the ideas that there is institutional racism in society and unconscious racial bias in individuals and groups are being amplified and disseminated to all classes, but most consistently—and with the most emotional intensity—to working class people. As the example of Priti Patel shows, the demand for conformity to new rituals for demonstrating moral purity can be directed at anyone, irrespective of class or skin colour. But professionals with university degrees, who are used to using these cultural symbols, are least likely to fall foul of the new race advisory experts in HR departments and their mandatory anti-racist training courses. The attitude of today’s ideologues may be characterised thus: You may not be intentionally racist, but you are giving a green light to all those out there whose intrinsic racism is but a tweet away from erupting. That is why it would be a mistake to interpret taking the knee as a sign of an attempted Marxist takeover. What this new order aims to break is not capitalism, but culture: the opinions and norms of ordinary people.
Today’s cultural and political elites have a new way delimiting what it is acceptable to think, say and do. They are taking this new approach, not because they have superior moral sensibilities, but because of the changed role, place and status of today’s working class—with all its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. During the post-war social democratic era of the last century, the British working class, through its unions, its civic groups and the Labour Party, enjoyed increased political and social status, due in part to its members’ own struggles and efforts and in part to the political elites’ appreciation of their role in World War II.
This enhanced status was reflected in the fact that some sections of the working class secured greater economic advantages than they had in the past. And their increased cultural influence was reflected in a range of phenomena, such as the Woodfall Studio films, the Beatles and the trend in popular media towards more morally nuanced representations of working-class people. In academia, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and others argued compellingly that popular culture should be taken seriously—without suggesting that the working class would be uninterested in high culture.
The Prominence of Symbolic Gestures and Their Unwanted Effects
The symbolic gestures that pervade our culture have real power, but it is the power to communicate rather than to directly cause behaviour—which explains why facts are often irrelevant to the controversies these gestures inspire: the controversies are not about facts, but about which set of beliefs will be normative in our culture. The newly introduced definitions of race, racism and anti-racism are rooted in a particular set of beliefs about individuals and their social relationships—and those beliefs are unconnected to traditional beliefs about class and to liberal humanism.
The new beliefs include a new definition of what it means to be courageous and honest. Like today’s anti-racist groups, the anti-racist groups of my youth encouraged people to take a stand against racism. Back then, this often entailed arguing openly in order to win people to your cause, as well having the physical courage to face violent racist groups or hostile police presences at picket lines and marches. Today, by contrast, we are being told that courage means kneeling down, reporting on others and reciting one’s lived experiences to an audience that has been rendered dumb—paralysed by self-doubt, lest in asking an honest question they inadvertently betray themselves as unconsciously racist.
Demands that statues be removed, or that historical events be reinterpreted (as in the 1619 Project in America) suggest that today’s identitarian cultural elites often condemn popular understandings of and feelings about history. They also have little mercy on those who fail to keep up with ever-changing norms. UCL, a top British university, has advised its lecturers to avoid telling students that they marched against racism in their youth, because feeling a wish to relate this is a sign of “white fragility.” Both memories and language are being policed in this new symbolic order.
In this divisive and futile utopian attempt to change human nature—and this failure to allow individuals to make their own judgements about appropriate social relationships and conduct the new symbolic order corrodes individual morality and social solidarity. In making us more atomised than ever, it comes close to Hannah Arendt’s description of totalitarianism.
Not everyone has an equal role in determining how the people of a nation understand themselves and their public institutions. But in the past, more people, including those representing the working class, had a larger presence and greater influence. They were able, to some degree, to influence public discourse and sometimes fight back against the elites. They have lost this ability: with far-reaching effects. Academics, for example, often deal in abstractions, but, in the social sciences and humanities, academic ideas used to be judged by the extent to which they described social reality. Today when Sabina Vaught claims, at an event at one of Britain’s top universities, that to ask for evidence of systematic racism is itself proof of racism, she reveals that sections of academia feel most confident when they are furthest from any connection to that reality.
Today’s more ethnically diverse working class has less presence and status in the public sphere. Majority opinions and norms are stigmatised in the name of anti-racism. In insisting that there can only be one interpretation of booing footballers taking the knee, for example, Steve Baker, Albie Amankona and others fail to afford the benefit of the doubt to those fans who boo. Those fans may boo because they are angry at the slow political and cultural marginalisation of their class and tired of being told that they are racist if they don’t support a gesture imposed on them from above by the new middle-class elites.
Racism was once used to ensure that the working class remained divided. In today’s new symbolic world order, a strange new religion in the secular garb of modern anti-racism performs the same function. It is difficult to say whether the UK is systematically racist today, not least because the widely accepted psychologised definition of racism makes it very difficult to conduct robust empirical social scientific research on the topic. But there are sufficient examples to suggest that, today, the idea that some people are racially inferior is targeted less often at ethnic minorities and more often at those who hold the majority opinion. As yet the new secular religion faces little or no resistance from the only social group—ordinary citizens—who have historically been able to achieve widespread social, political, cultural and ethical progress. It is this absence of resistance that makes the new secular religion so terrifying.