I thought I’d start this article with another ‘treasure’ from my storehouse of personal anecdotes dating back to my days as a youth worker.
One of the semi-regular chores during my time as a youth worker was the mandatory attendance at a bi-annual get-together of youth workers from the statutory sector, where I worked, and voluntary youth workers, mainly the kind of people who ran church youth clubs and uniformed groups (Scouts, Guides, etc.). These get-together were arranged for all the usual reasons; networking, sharing practice, etc., and, as one might expect, followed the traditional formula for such events. A mind-numbingly dull speech from a ‘keynote’ speaker - the keynote being flat - followed by a short pep talk from a local councillor who’d tell us we were all doing a valuable and important job while studiously avoid any reference to why we could have a decent budget to do that job, after which we’d all drift off into seminar groups, all of which had been awarded high-minded titles by the organiser, for a cup of coffee and general catch-up on events since the last time we’d all been forced into the same environment.
By and large, the most difficult task afforded by the whole event was that of finding someone stupid enough to volunteer to act as the ’scribe’ in your particular group and undertake the deeply embarrassing ritual of giving ‘feedback’ to the plenary session at the day.
On this occasion, our group was joined by a nondescript middle-aged man, a first-timer. who it transpired has taken over the running of church-based youth club a few months earlier and had desperately wanted to come to the event to ’share’ with us a ‘problem’ he was having with a young man who’d only recent began to patronise his particular youth club.
Having nothing better to do, the ‘question’ assigned to the group being one that belonged to the general category of ’stating the bleeding obvious’, we politely allowed the man to take centre stage and tell us his troubles.
The ‘problem’ such as it was, came in the former of a young Asian man who’d recently started attending the youth club with his friends, most of whom were Black. On noticing a new face in the club and, unusually for that area, one of South Asian descent, the youth leader decided that he really should take a well-intentioned interest in the young man, get to know him a little and make a conscious effort to engage with him within the context of his own, presumed, cultural identity.
By now, the more perceptive of you might have already figured out exactly what the ‘problem’ was. The youth leader undoubtedly meant well, but on encountering a South Asian youth for the first time, he unfortunately made the assumption that this young man’s sense of his own personal identity would be entirely defined by his ethnic background, and that, therefore, the correct means of engaging with him, and showing a willingness to respect his culture would lie in exhibiting and encouraging and interest in all thing South Asian. THe fact that the majority of young man’s friends were black and that he seemed perfectly happy sharing in what might be considered their cultural worldview, went sadly unnoticed.
Or to put it more simply, if the kid’s Asian, so the youth leader thought, then he must like things like Bhangra, etc.
What followed was a rather embarrassing tale of cultural misapprehension resulting in one deeply irritated young man and one well-intentioned but deeply perplexed voluntary youth leader.
And the youth leader’s question to the group? ‘What have I done wrong?’, of course.
Follwoing a brief pause and an exchange of ‘are you going to tell him, or should I’ looks with colleagues I took the bull by the horns and decided to put him out of his all too obvious misery, and gently explained that there’s rather more the concepts of identity and culture than simple where you born, your ethnic background, etc. and that by far the best approach to engaging with this young man would to be put away any preconceptions you might have and treat him as an individual. Don’t assume that his appearance and apparent ethnic background defines either his sense of identity or his personal view of what constitutes his culture, just take the time to ask him what his real interests are and listen to him.
Culture and identity are not fixed commodities, nor are they the product of a Pavlovian response to the ethnic, cultural and social background into which one is born and brought up. Not only do such change and evolve over time in response to external forces, the shifting sands of cultural values and social mores, but they are also things that one can take control of, shape and direct by means of free will.
You have a choice. You identity is your own and you can shape it, change it and developing as you see fit. Or to borrow a line from The Levellers (the musicians, not the 17th Century political movement), ‘there’s only one way of life, and that’s your own’.
Peter Tatchell, who, like a good malt whisky, seems to improve with age as his obviously passionate beliefs come to be tempered by experience, understands:
Given that homophobia still exists, we need to challenge prejudice and defend our right to be gay. But in the long term, lesbian and gay identity is doomed. And a good thing, too.
Like every other expression of human culture, homosexual and heterosexual identities are historically transient. They haven’t always existed, and they won’t last forever. Indeed, the weakening, blurring and eventual dissolution of the labels queer and straight will be final proof of the demise of homophobia.
One has to suspect that Tatchell is being a touch over-optimistic in his unashamedly utopian vision of a future society in which cultural notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality are entirely meaningless:
In a future, more enlightened epoch, homophobia will be vanquished. Anti-gay attitudes will be deemed as ridiculous as flat-earth theories and opposition to votes for women. In this non-homophobic society, the present separate, exclusive sexualities of straight and queer are likely to be eventually supplanted by a more inclusive, polymorphous sexuality. This dissolution of rigid hetero and homo orientations and identities is thus both the precondition for, and the proof of, queer emancipation - for without differentiation and polarity, there can be no conflict and prejudice.
But as Utopian visions go, this is undoubtedly a good one, and one worth aspiring to.
It is also a view that is underpinned by an all too important and contemporary message about both the importance of respecting individuals and their personal sense of identity while, equally, recognising the divisive effects of efforts to constrain individuals and individuality into large-scale homogeneous (and amorphous) blocks of ‘humanity’ defined solely by crude general characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, culture, etc.
Meanwhile, CiF also throws up (literally, as in ‘vomits’) an absolutely abysmal article by the editor of the New Nation, Michael Eboda, on the subject of Tony Blair’s non-apology for the slave trade, one that is badly hampered by possibly the worst analogy I’ve seen in a long time:
Imagine if, today, Africans came to Europe and started kidnapping the fittest young men and women they could find. Let’s say they took them from Norfolk, for example, dragged them down to Bristol in chains, put them on a ship and transported them to Africa, a place they didn’t even know existed.
And I’m expected to respond to that how? Fuck ‘em, they’re a bunch of morons? Kidnapping the fittest young men and women is not trading in slaves, its trading in idiots… and speaking of idiots, why the fuck would you capture slaves in Norfolk and then drag them 250-300 miles overland to Bristol in order to ship them out to Africa, when you could just ship them out of Lowestoft or Harwich? Norfolk is on the coast, you do realise?
Okay, so I’m being facetious in the face of a Daily Mail-style personalised exposition of the slave trade contrived to deliberately engage ones personal sympathies for a scenario than hasn’t been seen in Britain for almost 200 years, one that complete with the obligatory shock revelation at the end.
And these unimaginable horrors would continue for not 10, or 20 or even 30 years, but 450. Yes, four and a half centuries.
And your point is..?
Now where do you think Europe, in terms of development, would be, at the end of that period, compared with Africa? You don’t need to be a great historian to work it out. Neither do you need to be a great psychiatrist to deduce that there are likely to be long-lasting psychological consequences of any such suffering.
Two statements there, both of them equally stupid and banal.
Let’s take history as our starter for ten.
Eboda’s clear contention here is that its was the economic proceeds and benefits of slavery that drove Europe’s rapid cultural, technological and economic development during the period from around 1500 right through to the early to mid 19th Century, the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, resulting in the impoverishment of Africa at the same time.
There are a couple of serious problems with a such a view.
First, Europe’s great period of cultural, scientific and technological expansion didn’t coincide neatly with the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but began some 200 or so years earlier - this first great phase of European expansion, the Renaissance, was pretty much done and dusted by the time we’d discovered the America’s, let alone started to exploit that region and make extensive use of slave labour from Africa.
European economic, and subsequently, colonial power was built first and foremost on trade - slavery only entered the picture at later stage and coincided with Europe’s first great period of Imperial expansion.
Second, Europe was not the only culture to make extensive use of African slave labour during this same period. Slaves were widely used in the Arab world, and indeed, the majority of slave trading in Africa prior to the 16th Century was carried out by Arab slavers operating out of Zanzibar - one estimate, included in the Encyclopedia Britannica, gives the number of African slaves delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905 as totally some 18 million.
If the economic benefits of slavery were the sole or primary determinant of progress, then one might reasonably expect to see the advancement of the Arab World parallel, if not outstrip, that of Europe - prior to the Renaissance, the Arab World was culturally and scientifically considerably more advance than Europe. This didn’t happen, there was no Arabic Reformation, nor was there an Arabic Enlightenment. The Arab world moved instead into first stasis and then a slow decline.
This alone suggest that the key factor in European advancement during the period was something other than economics, in fact the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment are all developments on from Europe’s prevailing Judeo-Christian worldview and all dependent on that worldview, to varying degrees, for their motive force.
It is impossible to say quite how Africa might have developed in the absence of the slave trade, but what one can say is that such development, had they happened, would not have mirrored those in Europe, as Africa lacked the cultural pre-conditions necessary to spawn a European-style period of rapid development, and might easily not have happened at all.
The very reason why the once-common racist trope that suggested that were it not for European colonisation, then African’s might still be living in mud huts and scratching out a subsistence living is a hurtful one for Black people, not because it presents a completely false picture of Africa but because it contains a grain of truth at its centre. Left entirely to its own devices, much of Africa might well exist in precisely such a state. However, its also true that progress is not necessarily all its cracked up to be and that the inhabitants on such a mythical ‘unspoiled’ Africa might very well be entirely content with living in conditions, much as is the case with other remote tribal cultures in the Amazon basin or the rainforests of Papua New Guinea.
Even given the hypothetical scenario in which roles are reversed and African slavers were exploiting Europe, there is no guarantee either that Africa would have attained either a European-style state of cultural, social and technological development or have undergone a European-style period of Imperial expansion.
Moving on to psychiatry, Eboda’s suggestion of that slavery has produced long-lasting psychological consequences is similarly an absurd notion, for all that he cites the work of Dr Joy DeGruy-Leary and her formulation of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as authority for his suggestion.
Psychology, like all social sciences, is prone to throw up more that its fair share of pseudo-intellectual clap-trap, but even by the general standards of the discipline, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome stands out a particularly tendentious piece of old tosh.
Look, let me explain by due reference to a description of the foundations of her ‘theory’.
Leary’s concept is based on the theory of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is firmly accepted by the psychiatric establishment. It’s now taken as a given that there are people who will need treatment for the ongoing damage they suffered psychologically from the trauma of experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, a terrorist attack, natural disaster, serious accident or a violent personal assault, including rape. People afflicted with PTSD, Leary explained, often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks. They may have difficulty sleeping, be irritable, have outbursts of anger, exaggerated startle responses and feel estranged from others. Their ability to function in social, work or family life is also impaired. This includes having trouble holding down a job, marital problems and difficulties in parenting.
And, okay, PTSD is firmly accepted and fairly well understood psychological condition in which direct experience of a traumatic event can trigger a range of psychological problems. No problem there, but then…
The Theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome suggest that centuries of slavery followed by systemic racism and oppression have resulted in multigenerational adaptive behaviors, some of which have been positive and reflective of resilience, and others that are detrimental and destructive. In brief, Dr. Leary presents facts; statistics and documents that illustrate how varying levels of both clinically induced and socially learned residual stress related issues were passed along through generations as a result of slavery.
True to form, if one searches for the key term ‘multigenerational adaptive behaviors‘ in an effort to find independent evaluations of Leary’s theory, one find that the only name that comes up alongside this term is that of Dr Leary, herself.
That, in itself, does not invalidate Dr Leary’s theory, it just means that no one else has yet found it sufficiently interesting to bother putting it to the test. The real problem with her theory is rather that its not really personal psychology at all, in talking about multigenerational adaptive behaviors she’s not describing a psychological disorder she’s talking about cultural values and received wisdom, her theory is no more than sociology dressed up in the borrowed clothing of psychology.
No one, today, is personally traumatised by slavery in the manner of PTSD, unless they either experience it directly or witness it first hand, which entirely rules out amost the entire Black population of the US and Europe - sub-Saharan Africa is, sadly, still a different matter in some places. One can, of course, still be legitimately traumatised is this fashion by one’s personal experience of racism, but that’s NOT slavery, for all that modern notions of racism were contrived to justify the practice of slavery.
So all she’s really saying is that Black culture has internalised certain values, ideas and behaviours, some positive, some negative, as a consequence of slavery (and latterly racism) which are passed down from generation to generation as Black culture is transmitted between those generations. This, as sociological concepts go, is perfectly reasonable, but its still not psychology, its sociology. So why dress this idea up as psychology.
The answer is nicely illustrated by perhaps the most stupid remark I’ve seen in a long time:
Racism is a direct result of slavery. The idea that black people were inferior was concocted in a bid to justify its brutality. It was OK to treat them like animals because they were sub-human, went the argument.
As a result, many African and Caribbean people to this day have a lack of self-love or self-belief that is directly related to what their ancestors endured during those centuries of enforced terror. It’s why, for example, black boys find it so easy to shoot one another (but very rarely boys of other ethnicities). They see in front of them someone who reminds them of what they hate and regard as worthless - themselves!
>That’s Michael Eboda, again, talking utter rubbish - Black-on-Black gang violence is the product of slavery, okay?
No, Michael, it isn’t. But it does explain why Leary, and yourself, seeming, are so keen to pretend that a sociological theory about culture is actually a psychological ‘disorder’. It’s a blame, responsibility and self-exculpation.
If, using Eboda’s example, Black-on-Black gang violence is the product of aberrant social values within Black culture, or that portion of such a culture accepted by gangs, then for all that it may, historically speaking, be rooted in values that arose out of slavery and, then, racism, it is still a Black ‘problem’ for which the appropriate response, and only prescription, is ‘physician, heal thyself’.
That is not an unacceptable view of the problem, by any means, and in fact its one widely accepted by the vast majority of Black youth and community workers who work in gang-ridden urban districts. Our Community. Our culture. Our problem. Our Solutions.
If, however, the cause is not sociological but psychological, such violence is the product of ’stress-induced disorder’ then culpability is more or removed from the perpetrator - it’s not my fault, I have a mental health problem caused by my ancestors having been slaves.
Yeah right - just try and get off death row with that excuse.
A cultural explanation for such violence leaves the concept of moral agency firmly in place - the individual has a choice whether to pull the trigger or not and a choice as to whether to accept of reject those aspects of their culture they deem negative or destructive. By reconfiguring a cultural problem as a psychological disorder, Leary is attempting to minimise, if not remove entirely, any considerations of moral agency, destructive behaviour is not longer a matter of choice but a pre-conditioned response arising from a stress-induced condition.
What this illustrates is perhaps the most unsavoury and unsettling undercurrent within the whole debate surrounding next year’s anniversary of the end of the slave trade in Britain, the fact that for at least some of those most vociferously demands apologies and reparations for slavery, the primary reason why the events of 200 and more years ago remain such an issue for them is no more than the fact that continue to define their own existence, cultural and identity in relation to slavery and the slave trade, even though the majority of people in this country have long since ceased to do view them through that particular distorting lens.
And worse still, they actually do this by choice and, therefore, at a psychological level, create their own slavery.
No one in Britain, today, has to define themselves by reference to historical events in which they and their recent ancestors had no direct part. No one has to think of themselves as a slave or a descendent of slaves, nor define their own sense of idenity on such a basis. You have a choice to be something, and someone, other than the sum of your received cultural background and history, if only you choose to exercise that choice and think for yourself.
If there’s cure for so-called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then its not counselling and it certainly doesn’t lie in the realms of psychology.
A good dose of Malcolm X - that’s a different matter. That makes sense.
Or you could just take a bit of advice from the late, great, Bob Marley:
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.