The carnage shocked him, of course. But also surprised? “It’s nothing new,” philosopher Lewis Gordon says grimly about the terrorist who a week ago organized a massacre among mainly black visitors to a store in the American city of Buffalo. Fear of “replacing” the white population – the motive – is a well-known racist theme. Gordon: “It is not reserved for the United States either. This racism has a long history. It cannot be reduced to one variable, it has to do with colonialism, religion, gender, class.”
But the theory of conscious ‘population’ by government, isn’t it relatively new?
“It’s not about demographics or numbers of people. It’s about power. I know countries where a white minority leads a very happy life. But a racist cannot accept that, he wants total dominance. He cannot live with the idea that he is no longer entitled to everything. A racist thinks he has God on his side, nature, the economy, everything. That produces anger when it turns out not to be true. In his view, society is a zero sum game: what others get makes me a loser. This will make you feel like a victim. It’s unhealthy to spread that idea among a population.”
The right has turned ‘woke’ into a swear word, an ideology to fight
Gordon is a Spinoza professor at the University of Amsterdam, a chair that has been held annually since 1995 by a foreign philosopher. On Tuesday he will give the Spinoza lecture in Amsterdam. This year, two academics were invited to the chair, as a tribute to the American philosopher Charles Mills (1951-2021), who was to hold the chair, but passed away last autumn. The second is the Dutch Philomena Essed, known for her book Everyday racism (1984), which has recently been reissued. Gordon’s lecture focuses on ‘shifting the geography of reason’.
What Do You Mean By That?
“I reject the racist idea that only the North really thinks. Not to deny thinking there, or move it South or anything like that. My point is not to undermine reason, but to show that it is always all of humanity who thinks – a process that continues and is never finished.”
Jamaican-born Gordon, with an African-American and Jewish background, is a versatile and idiosyncratic thinker. He is influenced by twentieth-century existentialism and phenomenology, but also draws inspiration from the work of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. His publications include the French-Martinican writer, psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) and the American sociologist WEB Du Bois (1868-1963). Gordon calls himself a radical democrat and the “humanist” left. In one of his recent books, Freedom, Justice and Decolonization (2020), he denounces the ‘moralization’ of the debate on racism. In his view, the emphasis on moral purity stands in the way of political action and reform.
Where do you see that moralism?
“Everywhere. The classic liberalism starts from the erroneous idea that humans are rounded entities, rather than fragile and dependent creatures. That brings moralism with it. People find it more important not to be considered racist than to fight structural racism. But it’s not about your own moral purity. It is about changing the social order in such a way that the outcomes of our collective efforts do not benefit exclusively or primarily one racial group. Racism is a political problem.”
The aim is not for some to give up privileges, it is about rights for everyone
Gordon also refers to the growth market of books and courses for white people who discover their racism or ‘privileges’. Like the bestseller White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (translated here as White Sensitivity† He objects to that approach. “It’s not about privileges, it’s about rights. The aim should not be that others give up something they would not have earned, but that everyone gets what they are entitled to. People who pursue white supremacy also don’t want to protect their “privileges.” They want more: a license to do whatever they want without regard for non-white others.”
Is moralism also the core of what has come to be called ‘wokism’?
“Ah, that whole term is a polemical invention of the right. Just like ‘politically correct’. The word ‘woke’ was just slang for ‘being aware of something’, ‘paying attention to something’. The right has turned it into a swear word, an ideology they can fight. It has become part of law fare, struggle with words and laws. That way you can make everything suspicious. Take the term culture wars† Where does it store? We are different and think differently about things, yes. But we live in the same culture.”
Gordon is also critical of some forms of anti-racism. In particular about ‘Afropessimism’, an intellectual trend that sees anti-Black racism as an essential feature of humanity. Gordon: “It sounds crazy, but some people find comfort in the thought that there is no other way. I decline that. It absolutizes racism and puts it outside of history. It only plays into the hands of racists.”
The search for a position as an ‘exceptionally hurt group’ furthermore divides humanity, according to Gordon, into oppressors and oppressed. “That is not a tenable position. There are countless people who do not fall into one of those categories. The dichotomy is harmful, it murders humanity† People, he emphasizes, are not objects that can be classified in this way. “One human being is not a thing, being is a present participle, it expresses activity, openness and communication. Yes, this is where my existentialism speaks.”
To combat structural racism, Gordon says, political action is needed – and therefore power. On that point too, he deviates from an intellectual left that in power mere oppression. “You can use power for good or for bad. The latter is aimed at dominance, the former at growing people, opening possibilities.
“I disagree with a belief that is strong among the left, not just in the US but throughout Anglo-Saxon academia, that power is inherently bad. That is silly and is based on the naive view that power is identical to coercion. But you shouldn’t demonize power. power is necessary to live, to breathe. It is also necessary for political action and to build institutions for a healthier society. That’s more important than feeling good about yourself.”
His eye for complexity and for the open nature of human relationships also means that Gordon does not see ready-made, uniform solutions. “Political action is the answer, but no shoe fits everyone. We cannot solve everything in the same way everywhere. Humanity is a ongoing project†
The Spinoza lecture will be held on Tuesday at 8.15 pm in the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam.
A version of this article also appeared in
the newspaper of May 21, 2022