Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Symbolic gestures can be powerfully negative.
In the above 10-minute monologue, Eric Weinstein offers some insightful commentary on the ‘taking a knee’ phenomenon.
A few days ago, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, knelt during an anti-racism demonstration. Trudeau’s unremarkable CV includes a stint as an occasional drama teacher at an expensive private school. He has long been fond of dressing up. Blackface. Wigs and kilts. Multiple Bollywood costume changes during his state visit to India.
The dramatic flourish. The symbolic posture. The photo op. The performance. All of these have chased moral coherence from the stage.
Weinstein asks, at 3:15 in the video, “Are we in the middle of a worldwide shame fetish?” in which some people choose grovelling over the long standing goal of enhancing the dignity of everyone?
There’s video footage out there, he reports, of “a very bizarre group of black men who were demanding that white people kiss their shoes,” and of apparent activists requesting that people kneel. In his words:
I think this is incredibly weird. I think it’s also incredibly disturbing…Are we looking for equality?…Either we are looking for it, or we aren’t. If we are looking for it, allow me to say the following:
I may get on my knees with you if we are both moved in a moment. But if you ask, ever, for me to get on my knees before you, you’ve just killed all hope of equality…Would I, as a Jewish person, ever want a German person to kneel before me and kiss my shoes? The thought is like, it doesn’t even come up in my mind. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Weinstein doesn’t use the words ‘power’ or ‘hierarchy’ in his commentary, but that’s what this is all about. Who’s on top? In infantile fantasyland the only thing necessary to heal the world is for people at the bottom to switch places with those at the top. Like actors swapping scripts in a movie.
But life isn’t a movie. Or a game. And human dignity is hard won and precious. Weinstein urges us not to kneel. He urges us to eschew what he calls “performative guilt meant to convey that you’re willing to destroy your own dignity at the drop of a hat,” just because you understand that some people’s lives have been worse than your own.
Certain kinds of symbolism damage, rather than strengthen, social cohesion. We can’t, concludes Weinstein, “pursue equality and grovelling at the same time.”