The Third Accord

The final part of a three-part memorial for human rights.

Chancellor PalpatineWhat do rights look like after human rights? I do not mean here to talk about robot rights - how silly to worry about rights for robots when there are no longer rights for humans! There is no way back to the Old Republic of human rights any more than there is a path that would return us to the regime of the Rights of Man that preceded it. But this does not mean that rights are lost to us forever... it is entirely possible we can reach a third accord, a new conception of the rightful condition. Yet this remains impossible until the New Empire is dismantled, and most people still have no idea that we have traded the souls of our nations for a false promise of safety and security that will forever lie just beyond our reach...

The problem we have to solve now is how a third accord of rights could be achieved when continuity with the line of thought that gave us both the Rights of Man and the Old Republic of human rights has been entirely severed. Both these regimes were founded upon religious-inspired philosophy combined with an unprecedented breaking with prior tradition. The Rights of Man expressly reconfigured the theology of divine rule to afford a place for divine Man (again, a gender neutral term in its day). Human rights were expressly secular, which is to say, immunised from belonging to any specific religious tradition - but those who founded them were indeed religious. A common thread of universal religious thought ran through both eras, permitting the impossible task of a universality only attributable to God united with a relative judgement tied to the conscience of each individual.

This synthesis of the universal with the particular was the unique achievement that made human rights not only possible, but capable of rendering the notion of God entirely ambiguous, a kind of theological Schrodinger's cat. Human rights permitted each to follow their own conscience, which meant that each person would have their own conception of God's truth. But in allowing for both the universal and the particular, human rights permitted the godless the same privilege as the devout - equality in either the eyes of God, or his absence, whichever happened to apply. This divine cat both exists and does not exist... The trouble is, God served a far greater role in this compact than it first appeared. For once 'the One is not', the question of how to secure truth becomes problematic.

The political 'right' claims that truth is universal, and therefore that particular claims of truth must be judged against that universal truth. Put another way, they deny moral relativism, because their faith in universal moral truth transcends such equivocal allowances. But on this path there can be no human rights any more, because the freedom of conscience that these agreements depended upon has been lost - and the political right seems to have no suitable answer to their own inadequacy in this regard. In truth, the right could easily revert to the old solution - believing in the universal, but acknowledging the necessity that individual conscience must be allowed to approximate that universality. Oddly, they cannot seem do this any more. I confess to finding this comparatively recent shortfall utterly mysterious.

The same issue appears on the political 'left' in reverse. The left goes directly to moral relativism and thus rejects the universal, claiming that nothing can possess the status of absolutely true. But this too leads to a contradiction, for this amounts to claiming that the relative itself possesses universal status - such that we are obligated to accept moral relativity with the same dogmatic certainty that the religious traditions afforded to the universal. Anyone who has not drank from this poison chalice can readily see the utter certainty that now fuels the political left - far from rejecting the universal, they have made its rejection their absolute truth. For this new left, the only universal human right remaining is to be particular, and to this creed we are all expected to swear fealty.

Both sides are tied up in conceptual knots and yet between them they manage to constitute the two ironclad wings of the New Empire. What's more, each is constantly empowering the other by increasing the authority of the institutions they are fighting over. Whichever faction seizes control of this careening, uncontrolled political juggernaut has complete conviction in it. The pronouncements of the Empire's agencies become indisputable truth, even though they change all the time, despite no change in the evidence. We are living through George Orwell's fear: “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened - that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

The left wing of the Empire denies the universal yet still manages to assert it through media narratives of its own choosing - the environmental misdirection of the climate change rhetoric, the persecution of the unvaccinated, the culture war that sets classical women and trans women at each other's throats... Certainty is paradoxically being asserted by those who deny the universal. Does the new left truly believe the mad things they insist are beyond dispute...? Both possible answers are terrifying.

The right wing of the Empire denies the particular yet strangely has now decided to defend it through a renewed commitment to free speech and freedom of thought that previously seemed to scarcely matter to them. In power, such liberty was seditious; in exile, it suddenly becomes necessary. The people who gladly declared essential a literal and figurative war against the poor and racially disadvantaged both at home and abroad now paradoxically assert the ambiguity of what their opponents claim as necessary. Where was that doubt when you were wielding the bloodied sword...?

How can all these incomprehensible contradictions be? It is because the political left and the political right are the fractured remnants of the very ideal that gave us human rights. It is the ideal of the citizen who is bound to a people and belongs with them (the politics of the right), yet is also an individual free to dissent because they are permitted their own conscience (the politics of the left). Each side of the divide is at some point guilty of the sins it accuses its counterpart of perpetuating - if not today, then tomorrow, when the wind changes. Whatever one side takes up as its banner, the other must rally against. Each division is driven into its own madness through its hatred of whatever it currently happens not to be.

And if this is so, if indeed nothing has changed in the human condition except the extent of the dominion that first the right, then the left, seizes through the institutions of power, then the secret of the New Empire is exposed at last: power not only corrupts, but it accumulates. We have made a kind of political perpetual motion machine. So of course, whichever faction holds the sceptre at any given time cannot avoid doing evil, yet as long as they remain in opposition they have some hope of expressing their virtue. In this most uncivil of wars, the power the enemy accumulates is always unjust... but when it changes hands, it still will not be given up. So each Emperor permits more evil than the last.

The third accord can thus follow only from an act of forgiveness that reconciles these two bitter yet oddly interrelated camps, and in so doing restores the integrity of the common image of the human. Only this might allow some possibility of a restoration of human rights, or whatever it is that would follow instead. It is unnecessary for the factions to agree, which is just as well, as this is unthinkable. It is only necessary that they absolve one another of those crimes that have been bitterly remembered. Only then can these affronts come at last to be forgiven, such that all the good hidden in those other ways of being can once more be seen. For we can never be citizens while we are at war with our neighbours.

If you think this awesome reconciliation impossible, I sympathise - but this is the monumental task that falls to those of us who know that the Old Republic of human rights has fallen. The Rights of Man began with bloody revolution against the crown. Human rights agreements required the horrors of the World Wars. And are we not also lying amidst the ruins of a disaster worthy of forging our own new peace...? For if we are not, then know this with grim certainty: only a greater disaster yet to come can open a path to the third accord. I hope and pray that our wisdom may yet prevail against our vengeance.


The Barbed-wire Labyrinth

Part two of a three-part memorial for human rights.

Barbed Wire

Let's play a little game. Read the following text and guess the event being described:

It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened... The days before and the days after are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period, but like the day before and the day after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all others, because the quiet of sorrow which settles down after a catastrophe has never come to pass. The first explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop... Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented. Every event had the finality of a last judgment, a judgment that was passed neither by God nor by the devil, but looked rather like the expression of some unredeemably stupid fatality.

If you're at all clued up on what's going on in the world at the moment, you might recognise this as a description of the unprecedented disaster we have all been living through. But as you may already have guessed, this is not a description of a contemporary event at all. It is Hannah Arendt's 1951 account of the aftermath of the First World War in Chapter 9 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man." Now this title may seem odd. Why in 1951 is Arendt talking about 'the end of the Rights of Man' (meaning 'humanity', for 'Man' used to be a gender neutral term)...? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed a mere three years before she was writing - so wasn't she at the beginning of human rights...? But what Arendt traces in this stunning piece of historical philosophy is the end of something that preceded the 'Old Republic' of human rights, and which in many ways prepared the way for it.

The idea of the 'Rights of Man' informed among other things the US declaration of independence's assertion that it was "self-evident" that everyone is endowed with "certain unalienable Rights" such as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These 'inalienable rights' (as the later grammar has it) were taken to be guaranteed by nations. Precisely the tragedy that Arendt explores within the chapter quoted here is that the destabilising events of the World Wars caused the collapse of many nations, such that those who belonged to these now-inexistent countries were suddenly deprived of both nation and rights:

No statesman, no political figure of any importance could possibly take them seriously; and none of the liberal or radical parties in Europe thought it necessary to incorporate into their program a new declaration of human rights. Neither before nor after the second World War have the victims themselves ever invoked these fundamental rights, which were so evidently denied them, in their many attempts to find a way out of the barbed-wire labyrinth into which events had driven them. On the contrary, the victims shared the disdain and indifference of the powers that be for any attempt of the marginal societies to enforce human rights in any elementary or general sense.

Arendt's 'barbed-wire labyrinth' is a metaphor for the desperation of these refugees with neither home nor nation. They were lost in a figurative maze, because they sought a way out that they could not find, but they were also literally lost behind barbed-wire in the many camps that were set up to hold them. These miserable victims of the destabilising effects of the First World War were treated as "the scum of the earth", and it is from this catastrophe that the Nazi party in Germany was so effectively able to mobilise, while simultaneously destroying the rhetoric of the Rights of Man that would otherwise have made the Holocaust unthinkable:

Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth - Jews, Trotskyites, etc.- actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere; those whom persecution had called undesirable became the indésirables of Europe. The official SS newspaper, the Schwarze Korps, stated explicitly in 1938 that if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were the scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers. And it is true that this kind of factual propaganda worked better than Goebbels' rhetoric, not only because it established the Jews as scum of the earth, but also because the incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demonstration of the totalitarian movements' cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed and that the affirmations of the democracies to the contrary were mere prejudice, hypocrisy, and cowardice in the face of the cruel majesty of a new world. The very phrase "human rights" became for all concerned - victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike - the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.

Here too we see the parallels between the circumstances Arendt talks about in the end of the Rights of Man, and the fall of the Old Republic that now faces us. For her remarks offer today an apt description of the terrible condition recently created for that newest of pariahs, 'the unvaccinated', who have been publicly denounced by numerous esteemed leaders of nations, and blamed for problems they are in no way responsible for. The excuses mounted for demonising the unvaccinated are made all the more vile by the fact that these new 'scum of the earth' have in almost all cases already had a natural infection of the disease they are falsely accused of exacerbating, and thus are in no plausible need of a vaccine against it.

If you have already had chickenpox, you don't need to be vaccinated against it, and the same is true for every infection - how health authorities like the CDC came to deny this basic tenet of immunisation is one of the great mysteries of our own humanitarian catastrophe. It is hard to escape the conclusion that public health agencies gave up their commitment to promoting good health and instead began advocating for the commercial agenda of the pharmaceutical companies in a grotesque inversion of their duty of care. The only other plausible explanations are that these officials distorted scientific fact for wholly political reasons, or that they were grossly incompetent - and frankly, these both seem just as unforgiveable.

To understand how the human rights of the Old Republic unravelled for us, we can learn a great deal from Arendt's account of the collapse of the proceeding regime of the Rights of Man, especially once we appreciate that the philosophical concept of 'inalienable rights' became necessary only once the common religious culture of Europe ceased to be taken for granted:

The proclamation of human rights was also meant to be a much-needed protection in the new era where individuals were no longer secure in the estates to which they were born or sure of their equality before God as Christians. In other words, in the new secularized and emancipated society, men were no longer sure of these social and human rights which until then had been outside the political order and guaranteed not by government and constitution, but by social, spiritual, and religious forces. Therefore throughout the nineteenth century, the consensus of opinion was that human rights had to be invoked whenever individuals needed protection against the new sovereignty of the state and the new arbitrariness of society...

This led to a transition in thought whereby the Rights of Man became caught up in the problem of national emancipation:

As mankind, since the French Revolution, was conceived in the image of a family of nations, it gradually became self-evident that the people, and not the individual, was the image of man... We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation. The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness, or mere tyranny, but on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any ‘uncivilized’ spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity all together.

As then, so now. The refugees created by the Great War were expunged from the World Order because their nations had collapsed, and they entered into the barbed-wire labyrinth where those who no longer belonged were forced to dwell. After the fall of the Old Republic of human rights, you don't even have to be denied a nation to be denied rights. With the outcasts known as the unvaccinated, you can still claim to be a citizen, you are just judged as a lesser kind of being. The root of these two disasters is the same - the confusion of what is right or good with the merely conditional, and from this error emerges a hateful rhetoric that has no basis in scientific or moral truth:

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for - for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number - becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the "good for" applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically - namely by majority decision - that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.

Arendt feared a base form of democracy that denied human rights and could sanction genocide as 'the will of the majority'. What we have allowed to happen instead manages to sidestep the outrage that would erupt in the face of overt mass murder - the majority decision has been made not to exterminate, but merely to abandon our equality. In our digital age, a virtual construct of exclusion can exist in the same physical space as the illusory freedom of those who co-operate with the dictates of overlords who take the name 'public health' in scandalous vain. Travel, shopping, employment, entertainment... whatever it might be that the powers in charge of the New Empire wish to withdraw from the unvaccinated, the virtual barbed-wire labyrinth rises up from the depths of the internet to deny and imprison. Freedom has become conditional upon compliance, and horrifically we too cheered as the entire edifice of human rights came crashing down around us.

Next: The Third Accord


Fall of the Old Republic

Part one of a three-part memorial for human rights.

How Liberty Dies

As divisive and unpopular as they may be, the Star Wars prequels succeed in dramatically recounting the transition of a Republic of equal citizens into an Empire of power and oppression. It is an epic narrative George Lucas expressly intended as a warning to the United States of America and the United Nations. The 'Old Republic' in Star Wars is thus allegorical for the political realm of equality that sprang out of the bloody wake of World War II. From 1948 until 2011, humanity was protected by a set of promises that were were 'inalienable', meaning 'incapable of being surrendered'. Yet today, human rights are taken to be conditional, and as such, they are no longer rights at all. The era of our own 'Old Republic' of human rights has now definitively ended.

Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Wollstonecraft  developed the idea of 'the Rights of Man' and of a rightful condition (Recht in German) that alone could make government legitimate by securing the equality of its citizens. It was the leadership and wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of the second World War that would bring this philosophy to fruition via the drafting and ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This, together with other documents emerging from the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II, such as the Nuremberg Code the following year, brought about something unprecedented. Kant's vision of a "republicanism of all states together and separately" was made possible by an international commitment to the rightful condition. The 'Old Republic' of human rights had been forged.

Humanity in this era was to be equal, entitled to freedom of speech and thought, to privacy and dignity, and, via the Nuremberg Code, to bodily integrity and the power to decline medical treatment or experimentation. The Old Republic of human rights was constituted upon these foundations, and the very idea of 'democracy' was taken during this period to be intimately bound up with the preservation of rights. It was not enough that a country allowed elections: a democracy in the terms of the Old Republic entailed a nation that had vowed to preserve the rightful condition for everyone. It would have been unthinkable during this time that a person would be denied a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, as codified in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would have been equally unthinkable that a majority of citizens would vote to declare that citizens would have to submit to medical experiments without their express consent, as forbidden by the first principle of the Nuremberg Code.

The fall of the Old Republic began with the erosion of the rightful condition in the country that had worked hardest to bring them about: the United States of America. Within the early years of the 21st century, the presidency of George Bush Jr rode roughshod over our human rights promises. The infamous prison at Guantánamo Bay grossly violated Article 5 of the Universal Declaration, which had vowed that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". But these violations had at least not been committed against citizens of Bush's own nation... the spirit of human rights had been mauled, but the rightful condition of citizens had been just barely maintained.

It was only in 2011, under President Barrack Obama, that the United States gave up its commitment to the rights of its own citizens. On September 30th 2011, the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated by a drone missile strike, along with publisher and activist Samir Khan, both of who were citizens of the United States. In the wake of these unlawful killings, US citizens were no longer entitled to the judicial protections of Article 11, nor indeed Article 3's promises of "the right to life, liberty and security of person." The US government was now entitled to declare terrorists and terrorist sympathisers exceptions to the rightful condition, utterly voiding the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thus ended the Old Republic.

At first, I had believed that those committed to liberty would not let these atrocities stand. But the loyalist media had successfully sold the idea that the extermination of those accused of terrorism could be understood as 'war', and nobody objected except for a few brave ex-soldiers who could see the manifest injustice of drone assassinations, and the stain on the honour of the US military they constituted. Yet I kept hoping that we could get back to the Old Republic, that these breaches of rightful condition were not enough to prevent us from returning to human rights some day...

But then 2020 and 2021 demonstrated that it wasn't just the United States - nobody upheld the rightful condition any more. Governments throughout the world passed emergency legislation forcing all citizens to comply with a grand medical experiment to determine whether or not a respiratory virus could be stopped by imprisoning people in their homes. (It couldn't.) Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Nuremberg Code were broken wide open. Then, as a grisly encore, it was demanded that citizens be stripped of further rights if they did not consent to injection with new medical treatments, whose claimed efficacy was based upon evidence no-one was permitted to review - even when it was revealed that this research had incorporated outright fraud.

We now live in a time when the possible exceptions to the rightful condition are fearfully multiplying. It is not only terrorists, terrorist sympathisers, or anyone else a government wishes to label as 'terrorists' who can be denied rights. Those who will not consent to giving up their bodily autonomy are equally to be excluded. Nations who had previously sworn to uphold human rights continue to persecute the unvaccinated, even while the data on the treatments being mandated veers ever further from the dubious claims of their manufacturers (a vaccine that is truly 95% effective does not require a booster in less than a year). Freedom of conscience and informed consent have been rendered meaningless, and the rightful condition lies in tatters.

The very first articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had promised that we would all be equal in dignity and rights and that no difference in status of any kind would be sufficient to deny this. Neither the colour of our skin, the particulars of our gender, our political or religious beliefs, nor our vaccination status or medical beliefs were supposed to matter when it came to the rightful condition: "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind...". The erosion of this ideal was so gradual that we barely noticed it. Indeed, if we squint at the past, it almost seems as if nothing has changed... criminals look like terrorists if we ignore due process; vaccination mandates seem well-established when we ignore the decade of safety data that used to be required. Meanwhile, we have slowly forgotten that we were all to be held equal in the Old Republic of human rights.

Now, nobody is equal and everyone is subject to exemption from their rights according to the whims of those in power. Forget the absurd justification that 'nobody is safe until everyone is safe', which offers nothing but the empty promise that our rights will return tomorrow, when these never-ending and ever-multiplying emergencies have passed... The truth is that nobody has rights unless everybody has rights, even terrorists and the unvaccinated. And so nobody has any rights any more. The Old Republic has fallen.

Next: The Barbed-wire Labyrinth


Why Inclusive Language Offends

Bette-MidlerBette Midler recently found herself at the centre of a Twitter firestorm after tweeting out her support for Pamela Paul's New York Times article, "The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don't Count" (text available here without paywall). Midler's tweet read:

WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even of our name! They don’t call us "women" anymore; they call us "birthing people" or "menstruators", and even "people with vaginas"! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!

Predictably this did not go down well on Twitter, where 'inclusive language' is beyond de rigueur. Those who do not accept the requisite interpretation of inclusivity are subject to cancellation, harassment, and hatred up to and including death threats. Midler is far from the first woman to have expressed concerns about this new terminology, of course, and she won't be the last. But what is it about this kind of 'inclusive language' that causes offense in so many people...?

To put this together requires us to understand the issue from multiple perspectives. Let's start with the circumstances that led to terms like 'birthing people', 'menstruators', or 'people with vaginas'. As perhaps has become widely known, the idea behind these categories is inclusivity. The logic runs as follows: once you acknowledge the existence of trans men, trans women, and non-binary people, you need terms that will include an acknowledgement of their existence. Since many trans men and certain kinds of non-binary person menstruate, have a vagina, and can give birth, these terms apply to people within these categories as well as women conventionally conceived (now termed 'natal' or 'cis' women, according to your prior political commitments). Hence, inclusive, on the basis that more people are included in the category.

A problem immediately appears, since the campaign to include trans women in the category of 'woman' has its own political slogan - 'trans women are women', about which I have rather cryptically offered my assent by observing likewise that 'dwarf planets are planets' (a claim, I should stress, I passionately support). But can you now spot the problem with 'people with vaginas/menstruators/birthing people'...? To anyone not versed in the small print, it seems as if trans women are women, while natal/cis women are 'people with vaginas'... It is hardly surprising that Bette Midler, Pamela Paul, JK Rowling and - let's not be in denial here - untold numbers of other women are rather annoyed that 'women with penises' are to be called 'women' while they themselves are told they are merely 'people with vaginas'.

It's no good trying to defend this as a matter of medical clarity, since 'people with vaginas' could viably be replaced with 'female' in medical discourse, if this traditional reference to biological sex were not now considered verboten. I do appreciate that someone who has chosen to identify as non-binary does not want to be identified as female or any other classical gender term. Still, it is something of a mystery why, given that circumstance, they would be any happier with being called a 'person with a vagina', since the conventional understanding of that sentence remains logically identical to 'female'. So what we have here is a situation where phrases have been invented not for clarity, but to fulfil a specific interpretation of inclusivity, one in which the assumed political desires of the non-binary and trans communities have been placed above those of women in the classical sense of the term.

The root problem here is that the moral value of diversity, which I spent decades campaigning for in the videogames industry (to absolutely zero impact) has been clumsily supplanted with a rather oddly conceived value of inclusivity. Forget the implied unity of the construction 'Diversity, Equity and Inclusion': these are not three complementary moral values at all. Inclusion, at least in the form currently being practiced, is diametrically opposed to diversity. Diversity is about accepting our myriad ways of being in the world, even those we don't understand. This new form of inclusion is about grouping together, and could not be further from the openness to difference that characterises diversity.

Grouping together denies diversity. When you talk about 'people with vaginas' you are grouping trans men, non-binary people, and classical women into a single group regardless of whether any or all of these people want to be grouped in this way. I think it is abundantly clear that there are plenty of women (including Bette Midler) who are offended at being reduced to their biological functions in this manner, and to suggest that they should just shut up and accept it is inevitably and unavoidably offensive. To deny this is to open yourself up to entirely plausible accusations of misogyny, and at this time we are all being offered an absurd choice between transphobia or misogyny - what a dreadful mess!

Perhaps it will help throw some illumination upon this issue to show why attempts to combine diverse groups under a single category always carries a severe risk of offense. We only have to consider in the first case the ludicrous attempt to combine Latinos and Latinas into 'Latinx', purportedly a 'gender-neutral' way of referring to the Hispanic community. But absolutely nobody considers themselves 'Latinx', which is a product of the inclusivity nonsense that once again is manifestly insulting to the people it is attempting to 'include'. To Spanish-speaking community, 'Latino' was already inclusive, being both male and neuter. No clunky new word was required, and certainly not one forced upon them by arrogant English-speakers who were not in any way open to the actual diversity of Latino experiences.

We can take this absurdity further. Imagine combining atheists and theists into a single category called 'God-opinion-holders', or grouping Muslims and Jews as 'pork-avoiders'. For that matter, imagine suggesting we replace 'human' with an alternative description that is dryly factual but blatantly offensive, like 'anus-havers'. Why would anyone want to be called an 'anus-haver'...? Likewise, why would any woman want to be called a 'person with a vagina' when they could instead be called female or a woman? Communities that are demanding the unprecedented social privilege of choosing their own pronouns are in no position to argue that other people ought to accept membership of categories whose names they detest.

This is the not-so-secret secret of the offensiveness of 'inclusive language'. However noble its motivation might be, it plays out as forcing values upon others against their will, and this cultural violence is papered over by claiming that it's 'inclusive' because it focuses attention upon a minority. Yet how inclusive can it be when the assumed political and emotional needs of the few are being used to overrule those of the many...? This entire rhetoric strains the meaning of inclusivity beyond the point of absurdity! If we cannot come together in the peaceful co-existence made possible by a mutual cultural disarmament, we cannot come together at all. No amount of 'inclusive' language is going to do anything but perpetually block the path to peace.

It cannot be avoided any longer: it is implausible to support diversity and also support inclusivity on these kinds of blunt terms. You must choose which of these values matters to you, for you cannot have both. Is it the freedom of the many to express their manifest uniqueness in terms of their own choosing, or the tyranny of the few who would reconfigure language to forcibly include people within offensive categories they do not wish to belong to? Which is it to be: are we humans living in mutual respect of one another's differences? Or are we just oh-so-many anus-havers...?


Tech as Pyramid Scheme

Contains naughty ideas.

Susan Maxwell Schmidt.Pyramid SchemeIs technology a pyramid scheme...? No wait, don't go yet. This crazy thought is worth thinking through.

Pyramid schemes are any system of activity where the greatest benefit accrues to the first to sign up, while those who join last are unlikely to ever see any benefits. They are so named because of their triangular (pyramid) structure - the people who get the most benefit (the earliest to join) are at the apex of the pyramid, while the more numerous later joiners are arranged in tiers of ever-increasing sizes.

We do not think of technology as anything like this, yet only because we do not consider the implications of the global reach of technology coupled with the rather limited number of beneficiaries from the production and sale of technological devices. Instead, we tend to assume that we all benefit - a thought requiring a very special construction of 'we' to avoid being evidently preposterous. To get a proper handle on this, we have to understand that the division between the so-called 'First World' and the 'Third World' corresponds directly to tiers in a pyramid scheme where industrialisation and its by-products are precisely the criteria by which these 'worlds' were originally ranked. As such, the 'First World' is the top of a pyramid scheme it has been working harder and harder to maintain.

Think of this firstly in terms of the escalation of costs of living. Consider motor vehicles: once a nation adopts this form of transportation, it then becomes a requirement for its citizens to purchase motor vehicles for them to live and work - dramatically escalating the cost of living by several orders of magnitude. You can add to this the national costs associated with maintaining a road network, which are far more significant than we are permitted to admit. The car is, in many respects, the biggest step up in cost of living, since no technology thus far has demanded such a vast increase in living expenses as the automobile. (It is not coincidental that this comes first, either). Yet there are many smaller steps to follow: radio, television, telephones, mobile phones, computers, industrialised medicine... We (as in: the top of the pyramid) think we have to have all the new things because they are new. (Why?) They (as in: everyone else) will get the new things later. They are behind us according to this way of thinking. The unstated thought is that these others (whoever they are) are behind us in the pyramid scheme.

Now think of this in terms of the oh-so-magnanimous way in which the top of the pyramid views everyone else. "Those poor people in such-and-such a land... they haven't even got computers. Everyone needs to have computers, they'll be at a disadvantage if they don't have them." But this is ludicrous, because by the time 'everyone' has computers, the software and operating systems these computers require to function will require higher-powered hardware - the computers 'they' needed will have already become obsolete. They will then need new computers... the beneficiaries of our ill-advised charity will be perpetually behind the curve the moment they opt to step onto the technological treadmill behind us. Not that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg will wait, of course - they will generously invite other nations to join the pyramid schemes they benefit from at their earliest possible convenience.

The fact of the matter is, the so-called 'Third World' cannot catch up the 'First World' because technology as we currently pursue it operates as a pyramid scheme - and any attempt to 'join' this scheme amounts to a commitment to being perpetually out-of-date, or perpetually in debt or, more likely, both. The wealthiest people on the planet (the elite citizens of the US, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France etc.) set a standard of living that the non-elites of these nations strive to emulate, and these nations then set standards of living that the other nations strive to emulate, in a grand pyramid scheme of technological lust. The assumption that more technology necessarily means a better life has not been borne out by any research I've seen, and I think it fair to say at this point that this kind of academic validation is not, in fact, ever coming, despite a plenitude of Big Tech apologists at every university. If you want to know what it's like to be at the bottom of the tech pyramid scheme, ask Indian farmers how it feels to be on the receiving end of Bill Gates' 'generosity'.

Escalating technology raises the cost of living by consistently adding new technology to the list of 'must have' items... this is not merely in terms of wants but increasingly now in terms of requirements. It seems that the nations of Europe and elsewhere look with envy upon the degree of social control the Chinese government enjoys overs its populace... They thus increasingly expect their citizens to validate their credentials with a smartphone to gain access to services. The result is that these expensive devices become another item you cannot make a living without. Public transportation compensates for absence of a car (which is probably why so many people associate it with poverty), but nothing these days compensates for failure to own a computing device that renders itself obsolete within a few years, necessitating further purchases. This Sisyphean purchasing scheme is something we have accepted for no reason other than we simply cannot be bothered to think.

What's the alternative to an ever-rising waterline of technological living?

This is a difficult question to ask, because we have adopted a position of resignation with regard to technological development. "It's going to happen, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," we say. This is basically akin to claiming "well, we're going to go extinct, so there's no point fighting it", which is to miss the only vital point: when we go extinct makes a world of difference. I personally would prefer our species lasts at least to the tenth millennium, rather than, say, exhausting the liveable environment in a few mere centuries because we were too stubborn and unforgiving to make viable political compromises in order to learn how to together.

The only way out of this finger-trap is to begin to think differently about technology. We would have to refuse to participate in technology that is framed as an endlessly moving target, because such technology will always operate globally as a pyramid scheme. If we can just manage to see this clearly, we could usurp the technological monopolies built on planned obsolescence like cars and computers (and now too, pharmaceuticals) and replace them with common standards that smaller companies (and countries) can viably create and maintain. There's a lot less money in these kinds of technology, so expect those at the top of the pyramid to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening (they have in fact been blocking this for some time). But such sustainable technology is the only way to give our species a future worth having.

The thing is: you don't want that. You might be perfectly happy to froth over the mouth about 'climate change' but you're not actually willing to change your technological habits if it means reducing our dependence upon mechanised transport or computers. Oh, the bristling anger that comment risks provoking! Am I - perish the thought - a climate change denier...? Well, I accept that human activity produces carbon dioxide that changes the composition of the atmosphere and will, at some threshold, produce a profound change in our planet's climate. That much has been clear since the 1970s. The relevant scientific question remains: what level of carbon dioxide is required...? And on this topic, the research seems to have stalled in an all-too-familiar way. Politics once again usurps the sciences, and frankly Blue Team corporations (e.g. media and Big Tech) just love the idea that all our environmental problems can be blamed solely upon those naughty Red Team corporations (e.g. Big Oil and motor vehicles), as if they were all just innocent bystanders and not in fact the beneficiaries of huge advertising revenues provided by the automotive industries.

Besides, my scepticism about this specific political skirmish seriously doesn't deserve the name 'climate change denial' half as much as the rhetoric itself does. After all, 'climate change' has become our favourite way to utterly avoid thinking about our atrocious environmental impact - to ignore every aspect of our global environment except one single atmospheric gas, carbon dioxide. Could there be any greater denial than this misdirection from the key environmental issues of land usage and material consumption rates...? But land ownership and resource acquisition are how the wealthy elites fuel their empires, so don't expect any changes here. Instead, witness yet another case of passing the blame to our political rivals instead of facing up to the truth of the matter: we're all responsible, but none of us want to change.

What if securing the future of our species means giving up the endless treadmill of computer upgrades...? What if it means going back to cars with parts that anyone can replace...? Or even giving up the illusion of freedom the automobile seductively offers...? What if it means prudent medical policies, rather than endlessly escalating pharmaceutical solutions...? What, in short, if it means dismantling the tech pyramid scheme entirely...? Well, it won't happen, of course. Not just because those with the power and the money do not want to give up either of these precious commodities, but also because you don't want to give up your technological conveniences either. And until we are willing to confront this self-deception, we're all just members of the same pyramid scheme that puts Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so many others at the pinnacle of wealth, influence, global impoverishment, industrial greed, and endless environmental denial. We'll never be on top of the pyramid but hey, at least we're not at the bottom, right...?

You want to save the world? Escape the tech pyramid scheme. Nothing else has the power to do it.

The opening image is Pyramid Scheme by Susan Maxwell Schmidt, which I found at her website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.. 


Pity the Googs

Hypnogoog

May contain traces of humour.

The Googs are everywhere now. You will see them, walking down the street, their eyes transfixed by a small glowing screen that tells them where to go. You will find them on the internet, regurgitating claims they have lifted out of search engines. You will find them at the heart of every contemporary political non-movement (for nothing moves in politics any more), despising all the non-Googs who are wrong and evil and must be destroyed... the Googs are the newest form of life to pretend to be human, as we all have done at some point in our lives. The question we might ask is: are Googs good humans...?

When Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 that we were "always already cyborgs", her point was largely ignored, despite the popularity of her famous essay. It is a theme I put right at the heart of my book The Virtuous Cyborg: if we are beings comprised not only of our biological bodies but also of the network of technologies we are embedded within, then we owe it to ourselves to ask the question: what would make us a good cyborg? But 'good' has ceased to do the philosophical work it once did... we are not interested in being good, becoming good, discovering or understanding the good. The Googs have made it all so much simpler: either you are good or you aren't - and if you are good, then you can do anything you like and it's okay, because you are automatically good as long as you're a Goog.

To be a 'good cyborg' is to fulfil our human capabilities within the network of things that we exist within. Today, these networks are vast - you do not get through a day without being interconnected with billions of other cyborgs in the global network we call the internet. But human existence was not always this way. A peasant in Middle Ages Europe subsisted in a situation with just a few dozen objects, most of them farm or domestic equipment... a cooking pot, a flint and steel, a hoe, a plough, a harness. Over the centuries, the networks became more complicated - by the twentieth century, these connectivities were global, and it became almost impossible to be a human without being embedded in a network spanning the planet. Yet it becomes harder and harder to say what is good the greater the reach of the network of things connected to the human being considered.

For me personally, the quintessential 'good cyborg' is represented by the librarians. Not necessarily those who are paid to maintain a library (although almost all the professional librarians I've met have been good cyborgs) but someone who maintains a library in any unspecified medium. I am partial to books, but a library of videos, or of music, or of games, or of visual artworks... everything counts when it comes to libraries. It is the very act of maintaining the library that gives such people a shot at being good cyborgs, at least in the sense that maintaining a library is a means of showing the excellences of being human. And one of the reasons that I can say this is that libraries are a sign of human flourishing, they are in some respects the epitome of human culture.

The library is such a potent symbol of what is good in humanity's relationship with technology, of our biological relationship with the non-biological, because the library has its own excellences. It has its own order that is tailored to its purposes. And if it is truly a library, rather than say a private treasure horde, it is something that is shared with others. Thus the DJs, who I genuinely believe are among the greatest of the good cyborgs, maintain a library of music that they share with others when they perform. True, they are typically paid for this service, but a professional librarian does not cease to be a good cyborg simply because they are paid for their job. And I have never met a DJ who was so miserly with their library that they did not manage to share their music with those around them irrespective of the exchange of money. One way or another, good libraries exist to be shared.

The library cyborg is the antithesis of the Goog, despite the fact the Goog does in fact spend much of their time being led around online libraries and archives. Every time you Google the answer to a question (even if you Google it on Bing, or Yahoo, or even Qwant), you are a Goog and nothing more, for 'Google' is the verb for which 'Goog' is the noun. Google the company is nothing more than the largest profit centre for the network connecting billions of Googs on our planet... You and I are all Googs from time to time, but nobody is a Goog all the time (thankfully). You still have to sleep, after all, and Silicon Valley does not yet know how to monetise our dreams, although I'm sure someone is working on that - and that millions of Googs will sign up for it as soon as it is available.

Alas, the Goog is not a good cyborg, because the Goog is not a good human, and to be a good cyborg is to be a good human despite being a cyborg... Technology is not just a means to an end, it is always also a potential hindrance to human flourishing, a subtle point that we have completely lost sight of today. To be a 'good Goog' is far, far simpler than the immense challenges entailed in being a good cyborg or a good human. All you have to do is to accept the beliefs of all the other Googs, the beliefs that you will be fed whenever you Google a question. Those answers are the true beliefs of all Googs. You either accept whichever answers the machine feeds you, or you think for yourself, and therefore cease to be a Goog.

This is why the library cyborg is the antithesis of the Goog: the library cyborg invariably knows how to think. Maintaining a library requires you to think, although I confess a fear that some librarians might simply be rule-followers, executing the Gospel according to Dewey Decimal, or what have you. Still, all the librarians I have met have been excellent, but perhaps I have merely been fortunate. Perish the thought, but there might already be people employed as librarians who are merely Googs pretending to by library cyborgs....

Pity the Goog, for it cannot think for itself, it requires the internet to tell it what to think. It is in the same sorry state as those people in centuries past who professed their Christianity, or their devoutness to some other creed, or their patronage to the Emperor or what have you, but were really just glad that somebody else was doing the thinking for them. You cannot be a good Christian, a good Muslim, a good Hindu, a good Jew, a good Rastafari and not think, because any and all of these traditions expect you to pursue your excellences as a human, and that necessarily includes thinking. We associate religion with non-thinking for the same reason we mistake being a Goog for being clever: we are not very good at being human, or at being clever. We wouldn't know most human excellences even if we witnessed them... although perhaps if there was a video of "Top Ten Human Excellences" we might have a slim chance of noticing, but only if it was three minutes or shorter.

The Goog is pitiable because it is intolerable smug with the thought of how clever it is! For it can get the answer to any question, it just types it into that little box - et voila, answers! Look how clever I am, getting answers that anyone can get. But a library cyborg does not produce answers in this way... a library cyborg has to have the knowledge to get the answers - the knowledge of how the answers can be derived, or the knowledge to discern the legitimacy of those who claim to have the answer. Without such knowledge, you cannot be clever in any meaningful sense. You can only be one of those empty vessels that make the most noise - and oh, the noise the Googs make! It is deafening.

Please do not hold it against them. The Googs don't know any better... all their answers come from the search box. It's practically the twenty first century's version of 'only following orders': all the brutality of dogma dressed up as the bliss of ignorance... responsibility, digitally devolved to the newest higher authority. "Forgive them, Google, for they know not what they do." Ah, but Google is the Googiest of all the Googs. It takes smart people to manufacture ignorance on such a grand scale. It takes faith in both blunt technology and blind ideology to choose a path that prevents human flourishing and declare it the only way to be good. And Google is only the most successful of the Goog-making tech companies.

I want to give them a chance, truly I do... I listen to what they have to say. But I can find what they are going to say the same way they do, by typing it into a search box, so what is there to listen to? I want to find the good in what they do... but when all they do is align with the ideology of the search engine, what good is there to find...? We cannot even judge their ability to be a 'good Goog', because it seems readily apparent that a Goog cannot express any excellences of its own. It borrows technological abilities and then spuriously claims these stolen capabilities as its own. That's why Googs have to own all the latest digital toys... it is the only way one Goog can distinguish itself (however briefly) from the identical capabilities of all the other Googs.

We are all Googs now, alas. There's no escaping it. We all feel clever because we can type a question into a search box, or watch a video, or regurgitate dogma. And so we all condemn traditional religions for having got it wrong - they were looking for answers in a book, in a tradition, in virtue, in honour, in family, in a community... but the answers were never there, the Googs assure us. They were in that blank search box, waiting for you to type your question. All the questions are already known to the Googs, and all the answers are already prescribed. There is nothing left to do, but submit to the one true way, the way of the Goog, the path of utter technological dependence.


Fabrication Doctrines

Image of Unknown OriginWhat is the opposite of a 'conspiracy theory'...? If we say it is an antonym of the truth, we are assuming that conspiracy theories are always false, which would be unwise. But we certainly don't want to say that falsehood is the opposite of a conspiracy theory either. In our current usage of this term, we are tacitly assuming something more than we are willing to recognise...

This term, 'conspiracy theory', has steadily gained currency as a means of discrediting certain ways of viewing events. The unstated assumption is that if something is a 'conspiracy theory' it isn't true and can be ignored. "Oh, that's just a conspiracy theory..." But of course, just because someone theorises about a conspiracy, it doesn't necessarily mean that they theorise in error. It was a conspiracy theory that Emily Dickinson could be understood as a lesbian, a view that is now essentially mainstream. Likewise, it was a conspiracy theory that Edith Wilson, the wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was running the country after her husband suffered a stroke. However, this is now accepted as an entirely credible account of what actually happened.

In terms of scientific parlance, 'conspiracy theories' are hypotheses as to what may have happened, which could be validated be the appearance of further evidence. In the lexicon of the sciences, 'theory' is the contrast case with 'hypothesis', but since that word is baked into 'conspiracy theory' we can scarcely use that to construct an alternative term! Besides, 'theory' is a word that is simultaneously too strong and too weak for our purposes... we forget when it comes to scientific theories that these models of events, much like conspiracy theories, can be validated or invalidated by future evidence. We mistake them for truth, something we humans are especially good at doing.

I want to propose as an antonym for 'conspiracy theory' the term 'fabrication doctrine'. It is a fabrication doctrine that Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and a conspiracy theory that this event was faked. It is a fabrication doctrine that the world is a sphere, and a conspiracy theory that it is not. It was also a fabrication doctrine that Emily Dickinson was a lonely poet who didn't show her poems to anyone, and a conspiracy theory that she loved women and shared her poetry with them. In this regards, I note that Dickinson had ten poems published in her lifetime... this fabrication doctrine did not even reflect the available facts at the time it was circulating.

Now the objection that will come in at this point is that the word 'fabrication' implies 'lie'. But frankly, these days, so does 'conspiracy theory', even though neither 'conspiracy' nor 'theory' entail this meaning when used alone. On similar lines, 'fabrication doctrine' can take on whatever inference we need it to. It is strictly true that our majority viewpoints of events are indeed fabricated - just like every other understanding of the logical truth or falsehood of the world. Furthermore, as long as we are intolerant of other ways of understanding any given issue, then these fabricated understandings are also doctrines, which is to say, accepted ways of thinking. And we have always been hostile to alternative points of view.

What appeals to me in contrasting 'fabrication doctrine' to 'conspiracy theory', is that it makes it clearer that both these ways of understanding can be doubted. The increasing tendency to associate 'conspiracy theory' with falsehood obfuscates the vital knowledge that our consensual understandings of the world will be incorrect in ways we are not aware of. We need them to be challenged if we want to be open to the possibility of truth.

Let me provide a simple example. I mentioned above that it is a fabrication doctrine that our planet is a sphere. You might prefer to consider this as absolutely true. But this instinct is driven primarily by the desire to avoid concluding that it is flat (the most popular conspiracy theory offered as contrast). Nonetheless, the Earth is not in fact a sphere in anything other than an approximate sense, and  a more accurate description of the shape of our planet would be 'oblate spheroid'. Furthermore, whether our planet should be understood as a sphere depends entirely upon the frame of perception we are dealing with. If we render our solar system in a four dimensional model of Minkowski spacetime, say, the Earth is no longer anything like a sphere. We could approximate its 'shape' in this context as a cylinder, but even this would be inaccurate. The fact is, humans can only think in four dimensions by analogy, and so our language breaks down in this particular perceptual framework. If we accept that Minkowski spacetime is indeed a more accurate description of reality, then we must also accept that 'the Earth is a sphere' is merely a fabrication doctrine.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou advanced a view of truth that he associated with Plato: the truth exceeds our ability to express it in language or thought. Every time we try to grasp an understanding of any situation - every time we build a fabrication doctrine - the truth exceeds that situation. Truth, therefore, is nothing so dry and dull as a statement... rather truth punctures our experience of reality, it breaks through, as if from the outside. For Badiou, this is a description of scientific revolution - the excess of reality overwhelms the old model; Einstein's understanding replaces Newton's, which replaced Aristotle's physics. Badiou also sees this excess in art, politics, and indeed, in love... the truth punctures our understanding and reveals something hitherto unrecognised.

It is, alas, far easier to live life within the fabrication doctrines we are offered. The less you question, the less resistance you will meet from the world around you. But this is not to suggest there is anything good about this state of affairs. It is merely to claim that life is easier when you become indifferent to lies. That statement is logically true. But that does not make it an expression of the truth, nor ethically desirable. On the contrary, when we become indifferent to lies, we permit terrible things to happen. We have, in fact, all permitted terrible things to happen precisely because we prefer to live inside our fabrication doctrines rather than seek out the truth.

Likewise and conversely, if we try to shut out the conspiracy theories, we do not become closer to truth... on the contrary, we will then find ourselves accepting lies as if they were true because we the enforce our fabrication doctrines as inviolable and deny that they could be in error. All this obsessive commitment to ensuring "harmful disinformation myths are stopped in their tracks", as BBC Director-General pontificated at the foundation of its political power bloc with Google et al, is self-deception. If what is being defended are fabrication doctrines - and this is the only thing they can be - then stopping 'disinformation' necessarily means enforcing dogma. We have seen this error so many times before, and yet still we blame it on religion and not on the inherent fallibility of our nature as humans.

To be open to truth is to be open to error. To attempt to prevent error from being spoken is not just pernicious and unjust censorship, it is to turn our fabrication doctrines into quasi-religious dogma. Regrettably, there is just as vast an appetite for this today as their was in the Middle Ages... we just don't recognise it, because - then as now - our fabrication doctrines are misunderstood as truth. Only when we accept the fallibility of human knowledge can we hope to remain open to that rare possibility of encountering a truth that inevitably exceeds the limits of our understanding.


17 Today

Birthday-cake

Today, Only a game is an astonishing 17 years old. That's old enough to drive in some places in the world, although actually, there are many countries where nobody regulates driving, so I guess any age would be old enough to drive somewhere. It's been a long strange journey, and it's still a long strange journey, and who knows how long this long strange journey will continue. Thanks to everyone who has read the blog over its long history, and most especially to everyone who has commented - it is always good to know there is still something approaching intelligent life on our planet.


The Appropriate Appropriation of Doctor Who

Russell T DaviesIn 2021, former and future Doctor Who showrunner, Russell T. Davies stated that only gay actors and actresses should play gay roles in TV and films. His justification? "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up."

Now I don't want to make this entirely about Davies, whose commitment to reviving Doctor Who I greatly admire, because this issue isn't about any one person and goes to the heart of the zeitgeist. Critics on the right side of our increasingly outdated political divide now call these kinds of attitudes 'woke', and are flatly resistant to them - often for bad, kneejerk reasons, sometimes (although the left refuse to admit it) for well-considered, principled reasons. The question of principle is, at heart, the important one here. What principle is Davies and the many others who object to 'cultural appropriation' and its kin trying to act upon here?

I must confess I do not find it clear.

If we were to construct a maxim from Davies' formulation, the obvious choice might be 'do not cast someone in a role that does not match the performer's identity characteristics'. But this formula is nonsense. When casting Nazi characters, must we cast Nazis? Are schizophrenics required to play schizophrenics? Can only a genius painter play Van Gogh? Likewise, if gay performers must play gay characters, does that mean straight performers must play straight characters...? The entire principle of the acting profession is to take on roles that are different from who you are in life. So isn't the key question of casting 'can this person deliver a engaging performance in this role?' not 'do the background circumstances of this character match the circumstances of this performer'? Have we forgotten than acting is entirely a game about consensual deception...?

In terms of Davies analogy with blackface, while it certainly is the case that this practice is now judged utterly scandalous (although Justin Trudeau seems to have weathered this faux pas surprisingly well), it's not always clear which point of offense is supposed to be in play here. Is it meant to be a kind of 'inappropriate appropriation' - i.e. non-black people should not pretend to be black people nor borrow their cultural heritage - or is it that black characters require black performers? Because if so, does this also mean that white roles must only be played by white performers...?

To my knowledge there was no major political firestorm about casting the excellent Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes, who in the original book of Dune has "long sandy hair", is tall and thin, possesses "a sparse beard" and has "fathomless blue eyes under heavy brows". It's absolutely certain that this character is male in the book, and most plausible to assume he is light-skinned. So was this an example of, shall we say, 'appropriate appropriation'? Or is this just a creative casting of a talented actress in a role that the latitude of adaptation leaves open the possibility of a different gender and ethnicity? But if this was not an instance of 'inappropriate appropriation', we ought to ask: why not?

The answer seems to be that the inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation are not underwritten by a positive moral value at all, as clearly indicated by the fact that 'appropriation' is an accusation. What we are dealing with here is a kind of cultural reparations by the backdoor, which is to say, white guilt and its myriad middle class cousins. Because straight, white, males are taken to have had the most power in the past, you can never be considered to have appropriated 'straight', 'white', or 'male' culture. Recasting these identity traits is always fair game. But 'gay' roles must go to gay acting talent, 'black' characters to black performers... in other words, minorities are to be granted privileges that majorities are excluded from. This is what is now sometimes called 'equity', but a more honest name for it might be 'partisan inequality'.

This entire situation is a complete mess. White ethnicities only make up 10% of the humans on this planet - they're not a majority at all. Rather, white people are seen as privileged because European colonial empires (which the United States is now very sadly perpetuating) gathered so much global power. Nowadays, the identity characteristics associated with the most powerful citizens of these historical empires (straight, white, male, and let's not forget Christian) are to be excluded in the name of what amounts to ad hoc reparations. And on this line, I must point out that since it is the former colonial nations where gay people have finally and thankfully won acceptance, those representing gay identities are guaranteed to be beneficiaries of significant degrees of structural privilege as well. It's just not something we notice because we only really pay attention to our shared culture (the colonial culture whose centre of gravity now lies with the United States). We perpetually and wilfully ignore what's going on in Africa, Oceania, the majority of Asia, South America and so on and so forth.

I don't want to harp on Davies too much here... I actually think it was fabulous that his show, It's a Sin, used gay performers for its key roles. But I don't for one second think that a straight actor or actress can't play a gay role, nor that a character written as one ethnicity can't be played as another - the Royal Shakespeare Company has repeatedly demonstrated the tremendous breadth of artistry that can be drawn out by experimenting with casting choices. Yet whenever I try to sympathise with Davies' view that the casting policy he adopted ought to be everyone's moral principle, I have to ask myself the same awkward question: why is a white man being brought in to follow on from the two previous white men, who followed on from the same white man who is being brought back? If we are trying to adopt cultural values that embed some bizarre concept of reparations, why are the relevant positions of power still tending to end up in the hands of white men (even allowing that we might have managed some movement on the 'straight'). Whatever might be happening with the casting of the Doctor, the actual power over this franchise is undeniably still being passed around between white men.

Here's the truth of the situation. Davies is being brought back because the role of showrunner on Doctor Who has become a near impossible job, and there's literally nobody else in a plausible position to take it on. This is a desperation move on the part of the BBC, a kind of metaphorical parachute. I'm sure the BBC would put an ethnic minority in charge if they could, but there's no non-white, non-male showrunner willing and able to do so. Frankly, it wasn't until Chris Chibnall took over the reins that there were non-white writers working on the show. Chibnall opened up the writing pool, but still ended up writing most of the episodes himself, and as a result nobody has gained enough experience to have a hope of mastering the requirements of the top role. It is also relevant here that Doctor Who fandom borders on being a cult, and the membership of this particular congregation is vastly white, male, and English-speaking, myself included.

The absence of anyone who wasn't white and male that could be trusted to take over the most difficult franchise job in global television reflects the structural privileges that allowed Davies to get the job in the first place (and in the political landscape of the BBC of 2005, I can assure you that Davis' being gay was most definitely a selling point, not a liability). The truth is, sadly, Davies might pragmatically be the only person in a position to take over this perilous job right now - and that reflects the very same ethical issue that Davies is attempting to address with his 'gay jobs for gay performers' maxim. We feel a powerful moral pull towards being open to cultural diversity, but we absolutely stink at it because no individual is culturally diverse. Diversity, by its very definition, is a quality of collectives, not of individuals, and no matter how many boxes an individual ticks, they still possess a singular cultural background - their own.

Now take care when we stray into this topic, because nonsense lies just a short distance from the path we want to walk upon. We don't want certain identity characteristics to afford economic and cultural advantages, even though they do. But neither do we apparently want to give up the economic and cultural advantages we in fact all possess to enormous and unprecedented degrees. Gay people, finally accepted after a rather rough millennia or two, are recipients of very similar degrees of structural privilege as straight people because our nations' histories as colonial powers has given us all vast degrees of inherited privilege, an issue to which we are largely blind. It is easy to look up and complain at what the 'haves' have got, but very difficult to look down and recognise that globally you are one of the haves.

When we, the privileged minority of our planet, let either guilt or bias govern our ethical principles concerning culture, gender, sexuality and so forth, we disrespect everyone. Any hiring policy that favours minorities invites the criticism that they were hired for something other than their talent, which fosters greater resentment between our cultural factions. I have no doubt the new performer taking on the role of the Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, will excel in the role - I can't wait to have a chance to discover his Doctor! But let's not pretend that the decision to cast a black actor wasn't political. This just happened to be a situation that middle class guilt will permit as appropriate appropriation.

Likewise, Jodie Whittaker has been a joy as the Doctor, despite all the grumblings this evoked in the corners of the fandom. Moving to a black male actor undoubtedly seemed like the logical succession from the previous appropriate appropriation of casting a woman. But I can't avoid looking at the Dalek in the room: does anyone seriously think that the franchise could have cast another white male as the next lead given the state of the culture wars...? We could quite reasonably ask when or if it will ever be considered permissible to put another white male in this role without it being considering some kind of inappropriate appropriation, despite the fact this is who the character was for half a century. As long as partisan inequality masquerading as equity governs our ethical thinking about society, we are not really addressing our social problems at all, we're simply moving air bubbles around under a sheet of plastic.

Here's a novel thought that's only a few hundred years old: how about we try to approach these issues from the idea that we are all, as humans, equally deserving of respect. This means we should endeavour to respect the differences and similarities of people who are black, brown, gay, trans, Muslim, Zoroastrian and every other quote-unquote minority you might care to mention. But we also have to respect white, straight, Christian, and yes, even unambiguously male people too. Then we don't need to wring our hands at Davies going back to running Doctor Who because, after all, who else at this point is both qualified and willing to take the poison chalice...? But at the same time, we might, if we can just get this right, ensure that the conditions for working on that venerable and wonderful show might come to allow writers, directors and producers from any and all cultural backgrounds a decent shot at getting enough experience working on high-budget television shows that we might, within our lifetimes, have a Doctor Who showrunner who can manage fewer than two out of three of straight, white, male.