'Robustly plural': identity and the Dark Knight
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
The following extract is from Chapter Six, the first of the chapters looking at the major flaws of Dark Knight thinking and making the case for pluralism. The extract addresses the issue of human complexity, which is one of four issues which the myth fails to address.
To understand why it’s necessary to jettison the Dark Knight, let’s look at the myth on an issue-by-issue, group-by-group basis. The table below shows some oppositions which feature in the populist left mindset – a series of left-wing White Knights and their corresponding right-wing Dark Knights. They’re divided into a) identities people are born with, b) behaviours and roles people adopt, and c) issues, causes and institutions.
For some, being ‘on the left’ is about siding with entities in the White Knight column, whenever they come up against their counterparts in the Dark Knight column.
There are oppositions listed which, for some on the populist left, are articles of faith. Others might be fiercely rejected (e.g. Jihadist terrorists). The idea isn’t to say the populist left are tub-thumping supporters of everything in the left column or seething opponents of everything in the right. (Nor, of course, is it to correlate being a woman with being a Guardian reader with supporting nationalisation etc). The point is about how the populist left regards these oppositions. The instinct, in many cases, is to sympathise more with the entities in the White Knight column, or to give them more of the benefit of the doubt than their Dark Knight equivalents.
Imagine we saw a newspaper story about a Jihadist suicide bomber who’d killed ten people in an attack on Wall Street, and then we saw on the adjacent page a story about a white supremacist who’d killed ten people in an African American church. Would our responses be different? There’s no reason they should be. Both crimes are equally heinous. Both caused similar amounts of misery. Both perpetrators were brainwashed or unstable. We can try to understand the mentalities, to prevent future attacks, but we can’t excuse one more than the other. The same goes for many of the oppositions above, even on topics less incendiary.[i]
But the Dark Knight myth encourages us – sometimes just to a minor degree, sometimes more stridently – to take sides. And as soon as we make this transgression – as soon as we say the Jihadist’s crime was more forgivable than the white supremacist’s, or that corruption in a trade union is marginally better than equivalent corruption in a bank – we depart from Rawls’ egalitarianism, and move into the realm of ‘us and them’.
I’ll continue to refer to the above table, as we explore complexity, circumstance, depth and inexorability. These are the four qualities the Dark Knight myth fails to allow for, which make it flawed as a way of thinking.
Most on the left would agree that people are complex, and celebrate in theory the fact that everybody is different.[ii] Yet it’s sometimes unclear what this means.
To unpack the idea, let’s return to left-wing anti-Semitism. We’ve suggested already that this stems from the fact Judaism disrupts the White Knight-Dark Knight binaries with which left populists are most comfortable. The Jewish community defies the rule that a persecuted minority must also be economically deprived or a victim of ‘imperialism’.
In other words, left-wing anti-Semitism is the product of a world view which can’t cope with the idea a person or group could contain, at the same time, ‘left-wing’ traits associated with ‘goodness’ or ‘innocence’, and ‘right-wing’ traits associated with ‘badness’ or ‘power’. Hence, left-wing anti-Semites inhabit the realm of singular identities.[iii] They take one surface of a multi-faceted identity, and make assumptions about the whole.
Of course, the left populist who says an Israeli Jew is bad full-stop is rare. But what a few might say is that Israeli Jews are less likely to be decent people than Palestinian Muslims. They might regard the decent Israeli Jew as an exception to the rule.[iv]
This prejudice could equally apply to Americans, or upper-class people or many groups in the Dark Knight column. And in most instances, it would be mild. A person might, in the heat of the moment, refer to ‘upper-class scum’ and then refine this view, upon interrogation, to ‘upper-class people are more likely than average to be scum’. Let’s turn it on its head, however, and imagine we overheard somebody say ‘working-class people are more likely than average to be scum’. This would obviously be wrong – not just because it’s a vile and elitist view, but because it denigrates a vast swathe of society based on a single piece of information.
The point is that, while the ‘Dark Knight versus White Knight’ mentality prevails, there will always be complex people cast as heroes or as villains through a single group allegiance. There will be the white working-class person cast as an ‘oppressor’;[v] the hard-up pensioner who still uses the term “half caste”; the banker donating to charity; the Polish waitress saving to go to Ascot; the Express-reading immigrant. These and all the other category-defying people are beyond the grasp of the Dark Knight imagination.[vi] Even if our suspicion evaporates the second we’ve begun speaking to them, we’re still judging the whole by a part.
Of course, we can believe this is a superior form of prejudice. And perhaps it is better to be prejudiced against upper-class people than working-class people, or against Americans than Europeans. But surely it’s better still to avoid moral assumptions and collective guilt wherever you see them; to object to the term ‘toff’ as well as the term ‘chav’.
Amartya Sen’s book Identity and Violence is the best text for making this case. Sen’s premise is that humans have myriad identities, and that to categorise on the basis of one facilitates extremism.[vii] “Identities are robustly plural, and the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others.” He rejects theories which assume “any person pre-eminently belongs, for all practical purposes, to one collectivity.” Even Karl Marx, Sen points out, disliked the word ‘workers’, due to what Sen calls its “crude presumption that any person belongs to one group and one group only.”[viii] The real world is anomalous: “A person can be a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer etc – and all at the same time.”
The same goes when applying the above table of oppositions. A person could be a bisexual, Christian, BME woman from a working-class background, who’s employed by the police, reads The Guardian, votes Tory, and is an inconsiderate next-door neighbour. Judging her morals by who she votes for or the paper she reads would be reductive.
The character in question may be rare. But, thanks to the disruption of many orthodoxies, she’s less rare than she once was.[ix] Given the myriad identities people now hold, a belief in singular, right-left identifications is more redundant than ever.
Tony Blair describes how this impending pluralism influenced his political thinking:[x]
Sedgefield was a ‘northern working-class constituency’. Except that when you scratched even a little beneath the surface, the definitions didn’t quite fit. Yes, of course you could go into the old mining villages … and find the stereotype if you looked for it. But increasingly it wasn’t like that… They drank beer; they also drank wine. They went to the chippy; they also went to restaurants… There had been an article – usual Daily Mail stuff – about how I as a poseur and fraud because I said I liked fish and chips, but when in London living in Islington it was well-known I had eaten pasta (shock-horror). Plainly you couldn’t conceivably like both since these were indications of distinct and incompatible cultures. The Britain of the late 1990s was of course actually one in which people ate a variety of foods, had a multiplicity of cultural experiences, and rather enjoyed it. This was as true ‘up North’ as it was ‘down South’.
Blair may have struggled to design a policy agenda that matched this recognition, but it is hard to argue with his basic case that binaries were disintegrating. This is why the political fragmentation since 2008, into political groups driven by single issues, burning preoccupations and narrow interpretations of ‘the good’, is so destructive.
Of course, most on the populist left – who’ve contributed to this – pride themselves on not being judgemental or binary in their thinking. In principle, many eschew collective blame. But it’s alarming the extent to which this doesn’t happen in practice – with certain identities excluded from the pluralist society we’re talking about.[xi]
Hence, when a situation arises like the one discussed earlier, where a Tory-voting benefit recipient cries on Question Time, many left populists judge her as a Tory and nothing else. Likewise, the Mail or Sun readerships are tarred with a single brush by the populist left, ignoring the complex truth that a minority, even among these apparently homogenous right-wing groupings, vote for progressive parties.[xii]
A more specific example is Ken Livingstone’ suggestion, in 2016, that a donation to Labour MP Dan Jarvis from hedge fund manager Martin Taylor was like “Jimmy Saville funding a children’s group” – and was proof that Jarvis was not “genuinely Labour.”[xiii] Livingstone’s Dark Knight mentality meant he used Jarvis’s connection to someone from an ‘Out-group’ (a figure from the financial sector) to call into question his membership of the Labour ‘In-group’ – making no allowance for the fact someone can be both a financier and a left-winger.
In a letter responding to Livingstone, Taylor contested this dichotomy:[xiv]
You may find it hard to believe, but I am a hedge fund manager who actively WANTS the amount of tax that I pay to go up… That is why I have always donated to the Party and have continued to vote for and support it long after it transparently became against my financial interests to do so.
As another example, let’s look at a 2013 article by Laurie Penny, in which she claimed “all men, not some men” are responsible for the abuse of women.[xv] The piece is an eloquent defence of collective guilt, suggesting that “men as a group, men as a structure … hate and hurt” women. Penny rejects the idea that you shouldn’t “generalise” – which she says is a way of “getting women to shut up.” She ends her article with a direct address to men as individuals: “You can choose to stand up and say no and, every day, more men and boys are making that choice. The question is – will you be one of them?” Her argument is that males should have the autonomy to escape their group, but that women retain the right to judge them en masse – even if the men in question are no more misogynistic than Penny herself.
There are many comparisons to be drawn here, of the ‘Do we blame X as a group for the crimes of Y as an individual?’ kind. And these lead us back to the door of Penny herself, a privately-educated Oxbridge alumni. Is she culpable for the behaviour of privately-educated or middle-class people ‘as a group’? I’d say she’s not, and her 2012 article ‘Yes, Mr Gove, I enjoyed an expensive education, but I’m still not on your team’ suggests she feels the same way.[xvi] Indeed, Penny complains that “everyone is divided up into warring tribes” based on their background. She rightly argues against judging people by the “class in which [they] were born.”
So, appraising the Laurie Penny ‘polygon’ by one side, she’s part of the female ‘In-group’, against the oppressive male ‘Out-group’.[xvii] But looking at another side we can judge her by her social class, and conclude that she’s part of the privately-schooled ‘Out-group’ (along with Boris Johnson and David Cameron) – juxtaposed against a state-educated ‘In-group’ who she hates and hurts.
This latter suggestion may be ridiculous. But it’s no more so than the idea that “all men,” from Billy Bragg through to Ike Turner, hold equal responsibility for the abuse of women.
Human complexity, then, is the view that people are multi-faceted, and that it’s an error to judge them solely as members of one group or another. There are clear electoral implications here. Indeed, left populist accusations of ‘triangulation’ (that is, taking your electoral base for granted and moving to the centre to win votes) are themselves steeped in the Dark Knight idea that by broadening your appeal you capitulate.
If we look at two of the most electorally successful progressive campaigns in recent years, Justin Trudeau’s in 2015 and Barack Obama’s in 2008, both embraced human complexity. Trudeau declared “the Conservatives are not our enemies, they’re our neighbours.”[xviii] And Obama’s ‘more perfect union’ speech asked for politics to look for the good in people[xix] – even those behaving wrongly.[xx] Both based their campaigns on moral pluralism rather than moral tribalism.
The ‘big tent’ strategies promoted by Trudeau or Obama cannot come about via a ‘White Knight versus Dark Knight’ world view, where politics doubles as a moral spectrum. They cannot even come about through a dilution of this moral tribalism. A genuine understanding of human complexity is different from a mere watering down of Dark Knight thinking (i.e. the move from thinking ‘All Tories are evil’ to just thinking ‘Most Tories are bad’).
The three spectrums above show three versions of how the ‘White Knight versus Dark Knight’ dynamic translates into electoral strategy. In each version, the White Knight represents the left-of-centre party.
Strategy 1 is a purist dynamic, with a morally good White Knight ‘In-group’ and a morally corrupt Dark Knight ‘Out-group’. Within it, even a single dividing issue, such as having backed the Iraq War 15 years ago, is enough to ‘Out-group’ someone.
Strategy 2 is also a ‘White Knight versus Dark Knight’ dynamic, but a more moderate one. The White Knight is several degrees less good and the Dark Knight several degrees less bad. This is exemplified by Ed Miliband’s failed ‘35% strategy’ in 2015 (mobilising Labour plus attracting Lib Dems), or by the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’. In effect, it’s a Get Out The Vote tactic, where all the basically good, progressive people line up for one side.
Supporters of Strategy 1 fear we’ll have to dilute our ‘In-group’ too much to become the majority – that we’ll become ‘Tory Lite’. Strategy 2 advocates, meanwhile, point to the irrelevance of Strategy 1. Diluting to a darker shade of grey would be better than having The Dark Knight in government, they argue. The shared craving, of course, is for the large, working-class ‘In-group’ that Labour leaders relied on five or six decades ago.
The implication of both Strategy 1 and Strategy 2 is that every member of the population has a sort of percentage score for how left-wing they are. The question for a political movement, this logic argues, is simply where you draw the line. True Corbynites might want Labour to rely only on voters with a left-wing score of 80% or more. Soft-leftists might go lower, to 65% and above. ‘Blairites’, the notion says, would happily go further still – to those with scores as low as 40% or 30%, thus bringing immoral right-wingers into the big tent. Compass chair Neal Lawson’s criticism of New Labour followed this logic: “The wrong people were voting Labour… What meaningful [political] project includes everyone?”[xxi]
Strategy 3 is different. It’s a model where all the individuals in a society are complex – be they rich or poor, black or white, young or old, working- or middle-class – with some progressiveness and some conservatism within them. The role of left-of-centre politicians is to identify these progressive traits, as politicians like Obama and Trudeau did. Tony Blair’s success came through the view that his government would “serve people of all ages and backgrounds, including those who didn’t vote for us at all.”[xxii]
This is the Rawlsian approach, rather than the Manichean one. It sets aside Dark Knight ideas, and seeks a settlement with which everyone is satisfied, and where the different needs of individuals are fulfilled in a progressive way (so far as they don’t come at the expense of others).[xxiii] This would involve sacrifices from more privileged people. But it wouldn’t set itself in opposition to any group, because its aspiration would be to represent everyone.
[i] The Jihadist-White Supremacist comparison may be an extreme. But a real life example of how the binaries can go wrong was Len McClusky and Unite’s decision to back Lutfur Rahman, the corrupt Tower Hamlets Mayor, in 2014, and to accuse his critics of Islamophobia. Rahman’s crimes were well-documented, and he was subsequently found guilty of fraud and banned from politics for seven years. Unite’s endorsement appeared to be automatic rather than considered, and they retracted their support as the murkiness of the case became clear. But their eagerness to look at the issue through a left-right prism – in this case ethnic minority versus white candidate – ultimately put them on the wrong side.
[ii] This said, a few true believers in the Dark Knight feel these words are synonyms for capitulation. Owen Jones, for example, complains that “nuanced” has become a word people use to justify “acquiescence” to the right.
[iii] It should be said that, as with any conflict like that in the Middle East, the sense of ‘us and them’ exists on both sides. Supporters of Israel often themselves subscribe, in very unpleasant ways, to a Dark Knight view of the world in relation to Palestine. So, just to reiterate, the point is not that the Palestinians are actually the bad guys, but that taking the side of any group unwaveringly can be dangerous.
[iv] This isn’t unique to left-wing strains of Dark Knight thinking. There are countless Ukippers or Mail readers who like their West Indian neighbour or the Pole who runs the local cafe, but who nevertheless regard immigrants per se as the ‘other’.
[v] Nick Cohen has long-complained about the use, by the left, of language suggesting “collective punishment”: “Imagine how it must feel for a worker in Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown to hear college-educated liberals condemn ‘white privilege’ when you have a shit job and a miserable life. Or Google the number of times ‘straight white males’ are denounced by public-school-educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing up his guts in a Yorkshire Council Flat.”
[vi] Co-founder of Quilliam, Maajid Nawaz, makes the point that, by seeing things through the prism of struggle between rival groups, the left lets down the minorities within the minority (“every feminist Muslim, every gay Muslim, lesbian Muslim, every liberal Muslim, every dissenting voice).”
[vii] Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen, Penguin, 2006, p.19-26.
[viii] Identity and Violence, p.26.
[ix] One account from the last election describes the sheer multiplicity of the electorate, following canvassing in Peterborough: “We knocked on doors along a monotone Victorian terrace, which in a bygone decade would have been home to an equally monotonous set of voters, but now we found a different universe behind every door: white guys with bellies and tattoos; shy Muslim teenagers in religious dress; nurses who were sleeping off a night shift; recent graduates angry at tuition fees; and families with two kids, two jobs and two cars. A man of South Asian extraction, wearing a red polo T-shirt with the Spanish flag and designer trainers.” Meanwhile, the conventional emblems of Dark Knight social badness are a dying breed. Figures like Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls – white, male, straight, upper-class, pro-business, Tory-voting, patriarchal etc – were always rarer than the populist left imagines. But they’re now fading entirely.
[x] Tony Blair: A journey, p.135.
[xi] See, for example, a 2018 dispute between Daniel Finkelstein and Abi Wilkinson (written up here by a blogger sympathetic to the former). Wilkinson called Finkelstein a “racist scumbag” who was “chill with ethnic cleansing” because of a tenuous link to an anti-Muslim think tank, for which he had apologised, distancing himself from the organisation and its views, and explaining why he’d been listed on its website. The incident was at odds with the rest of Finkelstein’s record, and the subsequent furore showed the risk of building an entire character appraisal around a single association.
[xii] Post-election surveys in 2015 found that 14% of Mail-readers voted Labour, 5% Lib Dem and 4% Green. Among Sun-readers, meanwhile, the percentages were 24%, 4% and 1% respectively – meaning three in ten backed left-of-centre parties.
[xiii] ‘Ken Livingstone stands by Dan Jarvis hedge fund comments’, The Guardian, 2016.
[xiv] Taylor goes on “I was born into and love the Labour party. I believe wealthy people, such as myself, should pay higher rates of tax to help fund the NHS, our public services, the armed forces and reduce inequality.”
[xv] ‘Of course all men don’t hate women. But all men must know they benefit from sexism’, New Statesman, 2013.
[xvii] When it comes to gender and sexuality, for example, Penny writes that “I still identify, politically, as a woman. My identity is more complex than simply female or male, but … I’m still on the girls’ team.”
[xviii] Justin Trudeau, for the record: ‘We beat fear with hope’, Macleans, 2015.
[xix] ‘Text of Obama’s Speech: A More Perfect Union’, The Wall Street Journal, 2008. Elsewhere, Obama emphasised the importance of understanding “the reality of people who are different than us”: “You can't do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white, or because they’re male ... that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
[xx] Bill Clinton, similarly, built his 2012 DNC speech endorsing Obama around consensus rather than conflict: “Though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls our party seems to hate our president.”
[xxi] Lawson, writing in an open letter to Tony Blair in 2015, adds: “If he had lived, John Smith would have won in 1997 – not by as much as you, granted – but then your majority was too big, wasn’t it? … The tent was too big and you spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it.” The implication, is that Tories are from Mars and Labour voters from Venus, and that you must merely recruit enough earthlings from in between to win a majority. Politics, by this logic, can only be meaningful if it’s non-inclusive. ‘Dear Tony Blair, maybe it’s your fault if the electorate hasn’t shifted to the left’, The Guardian, Neal Lawson, 2015.
[xxiii] Progress have dubbed this ‘permission politics’ – the idea being that politics is about winning the confidence of all voters on bread and butter issues like national security before you’re given the permission to do more radical things. Labour MP Jon Ashworth spells out the pluralist reality of this: “Just because someone voted Conservative the last time, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It doesn’t mean their values or their instincts are not respectable... Sometimes people think ‘oh they voted Conservative, so they will only ever want very right-wing policies’. So, if we say we want to win them over that’s a code for saying the Labour party has to be right-wing. Not at all. If you speak to people who voted Conservative, it’s because they thought at the time the Conservatives were offering them security for their family and local community... I don’t think they voted Conservative because they want to see the NHS undermined, or more zero hours’ contracts or widening inequality.” The average person, Ashworth’s argument implies, isn’t a fixed mark out of 100, but an individual with a tissue of different needs.