The “Self-loathing” Argument

Tuesday, 13th March 2007 at 9:00 UTC 4 comments

I was flicking through articles yesterday, and saw one which accused FairTrade buyers of being middle-class self-loathers. I think the idea was that people who buy FT products do so out of guilt and pity rather than an actual commitment to justice, as the author of the comment didn’t seem to offer any alternative method of dealing with global poverty.

I was reminded of an essay by a favourite singer of mine, David Rovics, entitled “Journey of a (self-hating) Jew“. Its a very powerful description of his journey of someone who’s Jewish but rarely makes anything of it towards a role in the Palestinian Liberation/Solidarity movement. Where ever I look this term keeps cropping up.

The fact is, as a white, middle-class, western straight male I have a lot to feel guilty about. I’ve referred to myself on more than one occaision as a ‘Stupid White Man’ (apologies to Moore) and regularly feel a certain amount of guilt about the many and varied ways in which those I bare a striking resemblance to have ruined the world for the vast majority of its inhabitants.  As a Christian, I’m used to starting services with a confession of my guilt, perhaps another act of self-loathing I’m prone to.

I’ve even been known to have announced that ‘real justice’ for African asylum seekers would not just involve them being allowed to settle here, but the whole white population being deported to slave-labour in Africa. I understand why thats a bit extreme, and no, I don’t really believe that that would solve anything; there are different kinds of justice, and the retributive type rarely works out for the best.

Occasionally when I’m doing pro-Palestinian (or this summer, pro-Lebanese) campaigning, people tell me (usually by method of shouting across the street) to put myself in the shoes of the Israeli’s. I think the answer they want goes something like “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, oh dear, maybe the Israeli’s do have a right to attack the Palestinians for their own protection”.

There seems to be an assumption that once one starts to imagine one’s self in the situation of perpetrating injustice, one will suddenly feel the need to continue it.  Unfortunately for anyone who wants an answer to the question (many don’t feel the need to listen to one), I know I’m a self hater: I don’t need to be Jewish to feel loathing at what ‘my people’ have done: we’ve promoted slavery, racism, patriarchy, war, destruction of the environment and of indigenous livelihoods, and so much besides.  The answer to the question is simple: “I’d just feel self loathing all the same”.


Entry filed under: Activism, Freedom, Human Rights, Politics.

Monday Action: Tell your MP to vote against Nuclear Weapons Is the FairTrade Foundation settling for 2nd best?

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Unapologetic Marxist  |  Tuesday, 13th March 2007 at 12:33 UTC

    Ain’t nothing self-loathing about wanting justice! Is Mandela self-loathing? Are the Zapatistas? It’s another bonkers invention of the shoutier sort of right-winger (right-whinger?)

    (Suspicion: projecting their own latent guilt/shame to others?)

    Underpinning it (esp. the ‘self-hating Jew’ rubbish) is the notion that people *ought* to identify with a nation or ethnic group. Yay, like the former Yugoslavia, great model hm? Better to refuse such sophistry and get real, we’re all people muddling our way through life and what we have in common is more real than flags or anthems.

    To which end I personally refuse to cop the blame for slavery, my heritage is the working-class trade-union tradition that always opposed slavery along with all forms of exploitation. But the quid-pro-quo of that is recognising the way the imperialist order of which slavery was an (early) component screwed over Africa even worse than it screwed over workers here in Britain. So yes, solidarity with Africa, cancal the debts, support workers’ rights and trade unionism all over.

    I guess what I’m saying is let the guilt go and be proud to be part of a movement that fights for justice.

  • 2. Helen  |  Tuesday, 13th March 2007 at 21:34 UTC

    I do think that the middle-class self-loathing argument is the worst I’ve ever seen against fairtrade.

    I’m not much into self-loathing. Surely the whole point of anarchism is that everyone is independent and no one is superior etc. I know I am crap because I have all sorts of prejudices, I can be sort of tactless, rather thoughtless, and sometimes very smug, but I’m not crap because my ancestors tortured someone else’s ancestors. I am ashamed of things that White Middle-Class English Christians have done, but I am not ashamed to be one, it’s not good or bad, it’s just what I am.

    On this topic, I actually think I am a semi-patriot. There is an England populated by wonderful people who have a great sense of humour, welcome the stranger, embrace diversity, can smile even in a crisis, make fantastic sitcoms, wonderful music and lovely Sunday roasts. They have beautiful cities like York, glorious countryside and a very endearing personal eccentricity.

    There is also an England populated by crazed paranoid bigots who want to shoot all asylum seekers the moment they touch British soil, rule the world, rebuild the workhouses and read the Daily Express. They have beautiful towns like Chatham.

    I love the first England and am proud to be its citizen.
    I hate the second, and cue a rousing chorus of Jerusalem.

  • 3. Greg  |  Wednesday, 14th March 2007 at 21:30 UTC

    No Helen, Don’t Sing Jerusalem, NO!
    I kept sitting down all the way through it last Sunday.

    And your second paragraph shows you’ve been reading the grauniad far too much.

  • 4. Jonathan  |  Thursday, 15th March 2007 at 12:05 UTC

    The fact is, as a white, middle-class, western straight male I have a lot to feel guilty about.

    No, you don’t. The idea that somehow one shares guilt for things done by others based on completely arbitrary boundaries is identity politics bullshit and has no place in a rational political discourse.

    I don’t feel the slightest guilt for the slave trade – identities such as “white” or “British” are entirely manufactured and artificial. feeling any guilt based on the actions of those carries with it the implication of them being “my people”. which is bullshit.

    this is just the inverse of the fuckwits who claim all Muslims share responsibility for 9/11 and the London bombings simply due to them sharing a particular aspect of their identity.

    as for fair trade….

    while “self loathing” is both extreme and inaccurate, many of the most vocal proponents of fair trade/ethical consumerism do seem to tie it in to a first world guilt complex, as a release valve for people’s nagging knowledge that not all is as it seems. this IMO is a mistake – consumer choices are generally marginal at best. the true guilt lies with those at the top making the decisions, not those at the bottom who happen to purchase the end result.

    support for struggles in the majority world is – or should be – due to basic human solidarity and acknowledgement of our common status, not some vague sense of guilt for things largely outside of our control.


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