The Delight in Being Right
Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books offers her thoughts on Brexit in the United Kingdom. And in doing so, hits upon the fundamental themes that are rocking the liberal consensus around the globe.
“After settling this question, we all moved on to bemoaning the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it. We were all right about that, too. But then, from the corner, on a sofa, the cleverest among us, who was at that moment feeding a new baby, waited till we’d all stopped bloviating and added: “Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.”
In the days following the result I thought about this insight a lot. I kept reading pieces by proud Londoners speaking proudly of their multicultural, outward-looking city, so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north. It sounded right, and I wanted it to be true, but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counternarrative. For the people who truly live a multicultural life in this city are those whose children are educated in mixed environments, or who live in genuinely mixed environments, in public housing or in a handful of historically mixed neighborhoods, and there are no longer as many of those as we like to believe.
For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff—nannies, cleaners—by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of ubiquitous Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools. The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave.
Amid all the hysterical characterization of those Leavers in the immediate aftermath—not least my own—I paused and thought of a young woman I had noticed in the playground the year my daughter spent in that school in special measures. She was a mother, like the rest of us, but at least fifteen years younger. After walking behind her up the hill to my house a few times I figured out she lived in the same housing project in which I myself grew up. The reason I noticed her at all was because my daughter happened to be deeply enamored of her son. A playdate was the natural next step.
But I never took that next step and neither did she. I didn’t know how to penetrate what I felt was the fear and loathing she seemed to have for me, not because I was black—I saw her speaking happily with the other black mothers—but because I was middle class. She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her housing project, just as I had seen her enter the project’s stairwell each day. I remembered these fraught episodes from childhood, when things were the other way around. Could I ask the girl in the big fine house on the park into our cramped council flat? And later, when we moved up to a perfectly nice flat on the right side of Willesden, could I then visit my friend in a rough one on the wrong side of Kilburn?
The answer was, usually, yes. Not without tension, not without occasional mortifying moments of social comedy or glimpses of domestic situations bordering on tragedy—but still it was yes. Back then, we were all still willing to take the “risk,” if risk is the right word to describe entering into the lives of others, not merely in symbol but in reality. But in this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large.
The tall, narrow Victorian house I bought fifteen years ago, though it is exactly the same kind of house my middle-class friends owned when I was growing up, is now worth an obscene amount of money, and I worried that she might think I had actually paid that obscene amount of money to own it. The distance between her flat and my house—though it is, in reality, only two hundred yards—is, in symbol, further than it has ever been. Our prospective playdate lay somewhere over this chasm, and never happened, as I never dared ask for it.
Extreme inequality fractures communities, and after a while the cracks gape so wide the whole edifice comes tumbling down. In this process everybody has been losing for some time, but perhaps no one quite as much as the white working classes who really have nothing, not even the perceived moral elevation that comes with acknowledged trauma or recognized victimhood. The left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions. This inconvenient working-class revolution we are now witnessing has been accused of stupidity—I cursed it myself the day it happened—but the longer you look at it, you realize that in another sense it has the touch of genius, for it intuited the weaknesses of its enemies and effectively exploited them. The middle-class left so delights in being right! And so much of the disenfranchised working class has chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong.”
Smith suggests that there is something about left liberal elites that wants deeply to be right. Of course closed communities of believers know they are right. But the delight in being right is deeply engrained in an educated-elite mindset, even in a bi-partisan elite mindset. What makes the elite the elite is its propensity for being right, its faith that its rightness is based upon rational and scientific inquiry.
This need to be right may have its source in the years of schooling and university—the want to please teachers and be acclaimed by fellow students. Or it may be a corollary of our uncritical belief in social science, the confidence that we can study human behavior in ways that can improve humanity. Whatever the case, the college-educated elites who have risen to positions of political and economic leadership over the last 70 years are fully convinced of their superior skills of analysis and of their rightness.
The claim of rightness may be at home in philosophy or science, but it is foreign to politics. Politics is about opinions and while there are better and worse opinions, there are no true or false opinions. Opinions differ as do the people who hold them. But politics is also about finding those common opinions that unite a people amidst their different opinions. It is the recognition of what is common that goes by the name common sense.
Hannah Arendt is known for valuing common sense judgments over the knowledge of social science. It is common sense, the “sixth sense… that fits us into, and thereby makes possible, a common world.” Common sense does not come from knowledge or science but from the living together in a common world – from sharing in a world in which facts, buildings, and acts are experienced and shared in common. It is the shared life in a built and factual world that unites people without denying their real differences.
What Smith rightly argues is that rampant inequality prevents the sharing of a common world that both reflects and nurtures a common sense.
The key to living in a common world is talking with others, even those with whom one strenuously disagrees, and learning to share a world with them. That is the importance of “Real Talk: Difficult Questions about Race, Sex, and Religion,” the 9th Annual Conference of the Hannah Arendt Center, October 20-21. Learn more about the conference and register now. —RB