There was an interesting BBC article this week on whether conflict or harmony is the best way forward for societies. The article highlighted the traditional French approach to human diversity, and compared it to the challenges that that approach faces as different ideas enter French society from the United States. It made me think again about the minorities’ movements in the U.S., and how they have developed their own paths. This is a complicated topic, and there are at least as many opinions as there are thinkers, politicians, activists and minority groups combined. However, the subject does bear close analysis, even if any conclusion is fraught with controversy, not to mention danger to anyone attempting to address the issue publicly.
The article I read was entitled “France resists U.S. challenge to its values”. It reported that campaigners, with ideas borrowed from the U.S., argue that France is years behind the U.S. on a number of human rights issues. However, the French government warns of a new cultural totalitarianism creeping in from the “Anglosphere”. The French education minister has even set up a Laboratory of the Republic, dubbed an “anti-woke think tank”, to co-ordinate the fightback.
For good or bad, France has so far resisted what is seen as a left-wing cultural movement dedicated to the promotion of minorities. That concept originated in American universities, and now exerts considerable influence in the public sphere of the English-speaking world. “Don’t preach to us about protecting racial and sexual minorities” is the instinctive French response. We do it in our sleep.” Conflict or Harmony, which is better in terms of equality?
This conflict raises the issue I described above. Do you promote equality by creating an atmosphere that accepts minorities as part of the national scenery, or do you emphasize their differences so that the national scenery is confronted by their presence? I am not arguing the morals of this question – morals are subject to national and political restraints as well. I am discussing the practical issue of which approach is most effective in producing equality. A difficult question, to which there is no easy answer. Again, which produces a better result, conflict or harmony.
An American philosophy professor at Paris University, Justin EH Smith, is quoted as saying,
“Personally I find it liberating to teach here. I don’t have to mind my every word, like I did with American students. Here, there is still a presumption that universities are a place to learn, and the staff is not there to cushion the subject matter.” The American ideas, currently identified as “wokeism” faces a big difficulty in France, he believes, “because one of the cornerstones of French Republicanism is a principle that has become anathema in the context of US-style wokeism – and that is colour-blindness”.
France’s answer to protecting minorities is “universalism” – the notion that everyone is the same and should be treated the same. But so-called “woke” thinkers have a different set of values. They say race, color, gender do matter, because people have lived different experiences depending on those factors, and so public policies need to differentiate between different groups.
That is indeed precisely what the anti-woke movement in France believes is a threat: that via universities, pressure groups and social media, the U.S. is exporting a cultural virus into France that poses an existential threat to French society.
For the writer Brice Couturier, a member of the Laboratory for the Republic think tank, “wokeism puts people into tribes in order to control them. It says you belong in my tribe, and the leaders of my tribe will tell you how to behave. This is foreign to French mentality. We are in a country where the freedom to talk about anything and everything is taken for granted. When you have minorities who say a particular subject is off-limits, people instinctively say that’s censorship, and we can’t accept it,” he says. For Couturier, France has the chance to be a beacon of inspiration against such ideas: “In the U.S., opposition to wokeism was monopolised by the conservatives under Trump. To say the least, that is not an attractive example,” he says. France is different, he argues: “Here opposition comes from across the political spectrum, and there are cultural antibodies to the virus of wokeism. France can lead the fight.”
Obviously, the two movements are on a collision course, if they are nor already at war. However, I think we can separate the two basic concepts for achieving equality from the nationalistic cultural and tribal wars; allowing those wars to take center stage, merely makes any practical advances almost impossible.
I don’t presume to know the answer to this dilemma, but I have always thought that in the United States, some of the senior black leadership’s attempts to create a counter-culture, have been detrimental to the advance of equality in the black population. The Hispanic population has done a better job of advancement toward the goal of equality by not trying to emphasize the differences.
My leaning is toward the French model rather than the American one. In a war of conflict or harmony, harmony stands a better chance of success.