What does “the age-old malice of the slave”* mean today?

What does “the age-old malice of the slave”* mean today?

* The phrase is from the poem “September” (1924) by the Bulgarian poet Geo Milev.

In the discussion club Marginalia, the social psychologist Rumen Petrov talks with the human rights activist Dr Dimitrina Petrova and the political scientist Prof. Antony Todorov

The original interview was published in Bulgarian in Marginalia on 17.07.2020.

Rumen Petrov: Welcome to the Marginalia Club. The topic that brings us together is racism and anti-racism in the United States and in Europe. We are together because of the interests of each of us on this topic from different angles. One of the important topics is the anxiety caused by the idea of ​​a complete revision of views, cultural stereotypes and norms today. Is there a complete revision of the values ​​and basic assumptions of democracy or liberal societies in your opinion? What do you think?

Antony Todorov: I think that talking simply about such a revision of everything is inaccurate; no such revision has taken place yet. However, there seems to be a pressure towards a total revision. I will try to turn the perspective a little. Because when we talk about a revision of everything related to liberal democracy, it is good to be clear about what “everything” means. On the one hand, it includes a set of ideas and values ​​that have acquired, since the early 1970s, the character of cultural hegemony. Things like racism, machismo, hatred expressed in public, hate speech, even the most general and initial understanding of political correctness by which we mean abstaining from stigmatizing hate speech against different minorities, and so on… All this acquired the character of cultural hegemony. But when we talk about liberal values, there is another aspect to this that we should not underestimate either. It is related to the development of global capitalism. In the late 1970s, we saw the start of what is essentially a neoconservative revolution. In economics, the imposition of a neoliberal model of understanding of the free market as free from any restrictions, any control, and self-regulating, therefore a market that should be left alone. This uncontrolled and increasingly global market has, in fact, led to an increase in all kinds of inequalities. I see these as the two pillars of what we still call “liberal democracy”. We have a pressure, on the one hand, against that ideological consensus according to which everyone is equal and any form of discrimination or exclusion form society is unacceptable. On the other hand, a mechanism in the global market that was expected to self-regulate itself: the better ones will stay, the worse will disappear. Somehow, this market was expected to lead to the same political, civil, and if you will, social equality. But that didn’t happen; indeed, just the opposite happened. And, in fact, this tension between, on the one hand, a ubiquitous global market and, on the other hand, one that has become the hegemonic ideology of liberal democracy, began to be felt as unacceptable by some people. There are people who, very successfully, unfortunately, manage to point out these weaknesses and assign blame. They blame liberal democracy and its values. Isn’t it responsible for the gigantic inequalities that this neoliberal era that has lasted for almost 50 years has created in the world and in every society? Even in the most developed ones, such as the United States. But the impression was that liberals didn’t want to touch there, that it would be indecent, especially after the collapse of Soviet communism, to criticize capitalism. Of course, no one wants a return of Soviet communism. No one. Not even those who wave Soviet flags. And then all this energy was directed at what was felt as “hypocrisy”. Hypocrisy, insofar one talks about rights and equality, while on the other hand one supports a system that constantly produces inequalities. But in addition, other actors emerged – those ultra-conservatives who swarmed the scene, saying, “Well, of course, liberal democracy is to blame. Let’s make an illiberal democracy”, etc. That’s how I see things.

Dimitrina Petrova: I do not see a “revision of stereotypes”. I see a global assault on the values ​​of liberal democracy; and I see evolutions rather than turning points in this regard. Looking at the relationship between the values ​​of liberalism and anti-racist values, we see that after World War II, it became socially unacceptable and stigmatizing for a person to identify as a “racist” – be it a biological racist like the Nazis, or a new generation of racist, i.e., understanding racism in a predominantly cultural, social, or institutional framework. Accordingly, the phenomenology of racism has been changing since World War II: racist prejudice, as well as analogous ethnocentric, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, or ageist prejudice, presents mainly as a denial of one’s own racism or similar prejudice. In 2000, I published an article that has been widely cited (unfortunately, not available in Bulgarian), entitled “The Denial of Racism”. In it, I argued that the way contemporary racism manifested itself was through various rhetorics of denial. I described about 15-20 such rhetorical forms, some of which could be seen to describe “political correctness.” Let me make it clear, however, that “political correctness” in the English-speaking world is not a valid term for liberals; it’s a term used derogatively by the right, by conservative forces, such as Trump or Farage supporters and the like, when they mean to complain against alleged self-censorship suppressing the free manifestation of their prejudice. And they ask, “Why can’t we say what we think? Why will someone restrict our freedoms?” Remarkably, this very outcry against “political correctness” assumes – and documents – the historical advancement of anti-racism, human rights, and liberalism after World War II. It is a victory of anti-racism that those who harbour racist and similar prejudice feel compelled to conceal it. At the level of collective psychology, prejudice has been driven below the surface of behaviour and limited to the realm of the mind, whilst barred from manifesting as conduct, i.e., as discrimination. It is in this sense, and for this reason, that in the last 30 or so years, “political correctness” has become a scorned target in the discourse of the anti-liberal right. And they complain that, you see, “We have to be hypocritical and not be able to say and do what we think because of those liberals who have imposed this censorship on us.” To which the answer of the liberals, with whom I proudly belong, is, “Well yes, do please be hypocritical!” I have kept repeating at seminars, in university lectures and wherever else I had the chance to do so, that my colleagues and I are fighting for a society in which the police, for example, would be “hypocritical”. This means that, in the first instance, we do not care what law enforcement or other public officials think; we care what they do. Let them think whatever they please, but let them behave properly, which means they treat all people, including blacks and Roma, as if all people were born free and equal in dignity and rights. We want them to act as if they believed this to be true. Of course, we also would have appreciated if they internalised these attitudes and really believed that people are entitled to equal treatment. In other words, we would appreciate if they were not hypocritical. However, developing such attitudes takes time. It would be great if, according to the Enlightenment paradigm, education would do its slow work and ensure that subsequent generations be free from prejudice – be it racist, ethno-nationalist, or other. But in the meantime, individual people who are victimised today, in the course of their one and only life, cannot wait for such a change of heart. No one should be insulted, humiliated, abused, or killed because of their race or ethnicity. So, I do not dismiss education, but I firmly believe that for a child, the best textbook on anti-racism is the lived experience in a society that does not tolerate hate speech or hate conduct. Let the child feel that such speech and such conduct are frowned upon and treated as shameful. By the way, while rhetorics of denying one’s own racism have been around for a long time, in recent years we have been faced with a new phenomenon, particularly after the beginning of the anti-liberal wave around the 2008 global economic crisis. This new phenomenon is that it has become less unacceptable for people with racial or ethnic prejudice to express it openly. The “cultural hegemony” of liberalism, which Antony mentioned, has ceased to be so hegemonic after all; previously marginal racist, white-supremacist movements began to raise their heads with greater temerity, and their impact on the mainstream has been a part of the global offensive against liberalism. But this process is not a reversal of stereotypes, even now that anti-liberals are complaining so much about “political correctness.”

Rumen Petrov: It’s time to ask – what are we going to do with classical music? How would you comment on these calls or reasoning that Western, such as classical, music is too white? What do you think about this? Is it dangerous or what?

Antony Todorov: I would start with the fact that classical music seems to have been forgotten for other reasons, not at all because it‘s been considered “white”. Anyway, if we are talking about works that are part of world culture and that are part of the repertoire of all operas, theatres, or symphony orchestras around the world, in all countries, regardless of whether the majority there is white or black, and if they are part of the European tradition, simply on account of their origin, there is no way to turn things around. In a film about Mozart, Mozart cannot be presented by an African-American actor, simply because it will not seem credible, not for any other reason. The actor can be otherwise brilliant in the role of Mozart. But insisting on the denial of all European classics would be an overreaction to established world domination, itself the result of developments over the last 500 years. Let’s really go back to the beginning – to Columbus. A question that has long been asked, for example, by an American geographer, author of a famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, on which an entire film has been made. The question is – well, look, it so happened that Spain conquered Mexico, not Mexico – Spain. That is, we cannot turn history around here. That’s what happened. America was not “discovered”; it was open to the Europeans of the time as a possible field of conquest.

European civilization has been extremely aggressive and expansionist. The reaction to white European domination in the last 500 years, including the last colonization of the 19th century – that of Africa and much of Asia and Oceania, is what we are talking about. This domination has, of course, created inequalities in the world, and, of course, at some point, someone would say, “Wait, wait, who will pay for these inequalities?” I remember a visit to Senegal with students from the University of Dakar. We went to a small island near the Senegalese capital, Dakar, the island of Gore, which was once – in the 15th-16th century, the stronghold of Portuguese slaveholders who took black slaves to America. They gathered them there, loaded them on the ships. And there is a museum of colonialism and slavery. We visited this museum with the students and they showed me the handles with which slaves were locked, the rooms in which they were crowded, and the terrible conditions, you can imagine – the 16th century! And I felt a reproach in their eyes. A reprimand. I, the white man, was standing there… I told them, “You know, during the same time, white slaves from Bulgaria were being sold on the markets of the Middle East!” They were surprised. I added, “Yes, that’s right. During the time of the Ottoman conquest, and shortly afterwards, this slave trade was a fact there as well. So, my small country did not have the fortune or the misfortune to become a colonial conqueror, but here I am, born white, and there is nothing I can do about it”. But I felt this reproach in them because it was obviously an accumulated historical reproach. And now, when we talk about a European cultural tradition that has become, well, I will admit, largely hegemonic, and when it includes Mozart and Beethoven, someone may say, “Let’s put an end to it.” Well, no, we can’t put an end to it. This is not the way we can address today’s racism and today’s inequalities. But on the other hand, to use Umberto Eco’s words here, I do not accept this reaction, but I understand it. I understand its motives.

Rumen Petrov: Dimitrina, how will you save classical music?

Dimitrina Petrova: I do not worry at all that it may disappear, no am I concerned about the future of the Western cultural tradition. In fact, one’s values and political affiliation largely determine their concerns. I don’t think Antony and I share a concern about fading of Western culture. We understand calls to put an end to Western “white” cultural tradition as extreme cases of a runaway protest wave. It’s other things we worry about. We worry that, under advanced capitalism, disadvantaged people are becoming increasingly unequal and deprived, that the gap between privilege and poverty is widening. Regarding culture, it is obvious that the history of culture is not firmly fixed; for example, in the last 200 years, the literary, as well as the musical, canon has been subject to change and revision, as has been history itself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; so what if Western music built on the octave is enriched with music of the Chinese tonal system, for example…

Which is to say that I share the feelings of the critics of Western cultural dominance, insofar as they are about diversification. I have had the good fortune to spend time in multiple countries and look at the world from point of view of other regions beyond Europe. From a Chinese perspective, for example, Europe itself began at one point to appear to me like a small and diminishing speck on the map. After some time in China, Europe began to shrink, and be experienced as that faraway place, while all around me was a huge civilization of so many specific traditions. Well, there is nothing wrong if we, in our part of the world, were learning a little about these foreign traditions. In this sense, I am not worried that Western classics will disappear – be it music, literature, etc., but would rather be happy to diversify and refresh the Western tradition with knowledge of other cultures.

Rumen Petrov: I am reminded that there have been stories in the media that the mayor of London and the Commission for Diversity in the Public Environment have promised to reconsider increasing the representation of blacks and ethnic minority groups, women, LGBT people and people with disabilities. Why only now? Is it too late? Is it too politically correct, is it just good, or is it what? How would you comment on this promise?

Antony Todorov: I will start with the topic of representation. What does representation mean? It means a system in which everyone finds among representatives someone who represents them. That is someone like them. Someone who speaks on their behalf, acts on their behalf, and can be trusted. This is an old question. I’m not saying that blacks will necessarily represent other blacks better. When you see the top managers of big companies, when you see the composition of governments in countries that are otherwise diverse, according to what you see walking around in their big cities and noticing what kind of people are walking by, you realize that there may be a problem. This is furthermore the old issue of women’s representation in government. Why are such efforts being made in many places to strengthen this representation? Because for centuries, for millennia, you have a system from which women, for example, have been completely excluded. Just to remind you – in Switzerland, so often given as an example of an old democracy, women received suffrage in 1971! It’s in my lifetime! This is absurd. In France, women have received the vote in 1944. This is an endless conversation that must be had all the time. And, by the way, it’s not a question of having certain percentages in government, in parliament. This arithmetic is not so important. However, it is important to have the visibility of such a representation. Visibility, so that when people look at a public body, they say, “Yeah, there are people like me there.” This applies to electoral bodies, government, and so on, but it also applies to the media, culture and so on. People expect to see people like them included. The mayor of London said it well. If we compare to Sofia, we can’t be proud.

Dimitrina Petrova:

England is a country where I have lived and worked for many years. There, the call for ethnic diversity is periodically re-launched. It dates way back and is by no means the invention of the current mayor of London. As early as the third and fourth generations of equality law in the UK, the concepts of positive action and positive duty were introduced, corresponding to the American concept of affirmative action. Remarkably, European Union discrimination law, both related to race and gender and well as other protected characteristics, comes mainly from the UK. In the UK, there have been six generations of equality law (an area of law that has no adequate translation into Bulgarian language to date). But what does positive action mean? Those who have no knowledge of equality law misconceive positive action as a privilege; they say, “Ah, you want to give blacks the privilege to be admitted at university with priority.” Is this positive (affirmative) action? It is not. Usually, positive action is meant to create equal conditions for some subsequent competition. There are many forms of positive action, but no one understands it as a privilege except those who criticize it. We understand it as fairness, as creating level ground. For example, positive action can involve students from an unequal community (such as Black Caribbean boys who, in the UK, have had the lowest school performance) receiving some additional training before applying to university. In this way, there is no compromising academic requirement of the exam itself, as during the exam, Black Caribbean boys compete on an equal footing with others. When I worked in Budapest, we introduced a similar policy regarding the admission of Roma to the Central European University. They could not be admitted with a lower score, but were able to receive help to prepare for the admission procedure and then enter by meeting the same requirements as other students. People who do not understand the meaning of discrimination often make the mistake of calling positive action “reverse discrimination.” In fact, positive action is not only far from being discrimination but is an essential element of equal treatment. This idea is very old, coming from Aristotle, who understood that same treatment of unequal is unfair. It is not good for a person who starts from a very privileged position and a person who starts from a non-privileged position to be treated identically as this would simply mean reproducing the original inequality. In the modern law of the UK and the European Union – and of Bulgaria, but only on paper – there is the so-called positive obligation on the government, the authorities, on all so-called public sector bodies (including hospitals, schools, local authorities and so on) to take such steps addressing inequalities based on protected characteristics – race, sex, ethnic origin, etc. There is a debate as to whether status equality can be achieved with quotas. For example, if the number of ethnic minorities, or women, in government is to be increased, the question is, “Is it fair to have quotas?” And on this issue, the world of human rights defenders is divided. There are many outspoken supporters as well as opponents of quotas, but in modern human rights law and anti-discrimination law, it is generally accepted that some form of positive action is mandatory. I personally do not have a firm opinion about quotas. There are contexts in which, without a quota, equality will not happen any time soon. In England today, people continue to be dissatisfied because long pursued gender or ethnic parity is not yet achieved in government. In order to achieve parity, some want to see in government numbers that, roughly speaking, reflect the relative percentages of group in the population. In my opinion, with regard to representation in government, parity should not be sought mechanically by quotas. I think a more evolutionary path is preferrable. This would mean active policies of enabling underrepresented groups, monitoring of progress, analysing the root causes of equality, and making gradual targeted interventions in the direction of numerical parity. I am afraid radical intervention such as quotas may backfire. There have been cases in which affirmative action has been expeditiously ensured through law enforcement, running counter to the prevailing public sentiment, but laeding to significant backlash, sometimes years later. Some argue that this is what has happened with school desegregation in the United States.

Rumen Petrov: Let’s talk a little about monuments. Even in our sanctuary, the Boyana Church, there is a mural depicting Christians destroying a statue of Aphrodite. At the same time, along with the monuments, the call for removing the statue of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University raised the question of whether there is a pandemic of anti-racism. Can these two facts be combined? My spontaneous reaction is that the monument is connected to memory. Is there a memory crisis in the attack on the monuments or is something else happening?

The spiritual leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi also did not prove to be infallible

Antony Todorov: I think there are several aspects to this gesture. On one hand, as in the case of the mural showing the destruction of the statue of Aphrodite, monuments may be seen by some as unacceptable idols that attract idolatry. Therefore, as something to be destroyed. As the Taliban destroyed Buddha statues preceding Islam. When we look at monuments today, many problems emerge, of course. It is well known that in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, many statues of Stalin disappeared after 1956, while after 1989, statues of Lenin began to disappear. These are long histories at stake, and the question is what do we do today with statues of long-established historical personalities. Would mere removal of these statues solve the problem? Wouldn’t it be preferrable to de-contextualize them? To interpret them from today’s point of view? To add some kind of explanation? Or, what if some statues in public places are totally unacceptable for parts of the public? We need to have this conversation. On one hand, there is the urge that can certainly be driven by all kinds of emotions as well as by ordinary vandalism. There is the urge, and the question is how public authorities respond and how the conversation and the debate on this issue is happening in the community. It is clear that there can be no monument of Hitler in Germany, Europe, or the world. No way. Maria Luiza street in Sofia was named Georgi Dimitrova in the past, and prior to that – Hitler. So, on certain issues we have a consensus. However, when no such consensus exists, there need to be a public conversation. And as a result of such a conversation, people would act reasonably, in a civilized manner, without offending the feelings of any part of society, particularly racial groups, while at the same time they would not turn history into a tabula rasa. Removing monuments solves nothing. Can we rewrite Gone with the Wind? Or, can there be a story about slavery and the Civil war in the United States written from the perspective of the South, so that the story persists in the history of literature and is somehow interpreted? I believe this is possible. There was a strong criticism of a film by two German directors about the end of the Third Reich in which Hitler is presented as rather humane. I was very impressed when I first saw the film showing the last week of Hitler’s life in Berlin, and I leaned a lot. Hitler is indeed presented as a human being, not unlike many of us, and this is exactly the point we should remember forever. Hitler didn’t fall from Mars, he was not an alien, he was not a monster. Maybe we don’t want racists’ monuments in today public places, but we should not delete the memory about them.

Dimitrina Petrova: I agree with Antony on monuments, but would call the approach contextualization, rather than de-contextualization. This would mean giving the monument a museum existence, taking the monument out of the world we inhabit, out of our everyday life, and placing it in its proper historical context. As did Hungarians with Communist monuments, and Bulgarians, too, by creating a special museum of communism to house such statues. Wherever we touch, everyone is a person of their time. Jefferson was a slaveowner. There are things in his life that are not OK from the point of view of our time. We should neither justify nor delete them. Such facts need to be presented in their historical context and it is the job of historians to do this.  

Antony Todorov: I have always feared purists. And a purism that wants to cleanse everything. It’ a kind of fundamentalist thinking in my view. It can lead to an Orwellian world. Rewriting history on a daily basis. Today you demolished a few monuments, for such and such reasons. What guarantees that in 40 years, someone in the future would not condemn you?

Dimitrina Petrova: It’s guaranteed that someone will.

Antony Todorov: Yes, of course. This is it about rewriting history: you fall into the trap of those who rewrite. If you wish to be a historian, you should know that history is at every point our current understanding of the past. And if someone who lived in late 19th century wrote a history book, you shouldn’t burn his book, no matter how incompatible it may be with today’s interpretation of history. Rather, you can contextualize it, as Dimitrina said. Otherwise, we would fall into a vicious cycle we can never leave, a cycle within which we will demolish, remove and cleanse, and put ourselves in the same situation – when someone will demolish, remove and cleanse us. In the end, we would be forever in a present and there would be no history.

Rumen Petrov: Mass protests against racism we see today are being compared with the “malice of the slave”, we are being reminded of Geo Milev’s verse, “Night gives birth from its dead womb to the age-old malice of the slave.” What do you think? How appropriate are these analogies? Can we speak of barbarity, or radicalism of all totalitarian gestures, pointing in the end at acts as the destruction shown in the Boyana murals?

Antony Todorov: Today’s antiracist protests have also been compared to new cultural revolution Chinese style, new Stalinism, etc. But in history, analogy is always tricky. How could we even compare the era of Stalin, or that of the cultural revolution in China of the 1960s, with today’s situation? But the “age-old malice of the slave” merits a comment. In Geo Milev’ poem, this malice is a very positive thing. The poet means that malice has been growing for a very long time. Why? Because nothing ha changed, because the slave has remained a slave and this has lasted for centuries. We are well advised to think about this.

Dimitrina Petrova: We are not going to defend vandalism, but it is not OK to put the emphasis exclusively on acts of vandalism when covering today’s movements in the United States and Europe protesting against racism and police brutality. From the Bulgarian media covering these protests, one would be left with the impression that vandalism is the main story. From the main Russian TV Channels, one would not understand at all what was going on in the U.S. apart from smashing shop windows. There was no context from which the viewer could comprehend that there has been oppression, rebellion against oppression, a mass movement, and that acts of vandalism have remained marginal to the movement. Nor would the viewer understand that demonstrators were brutally attacked by police using a number of questionable tactics, such as deafening sonic waves of over 120 decibels. Moreover, something important needs to be noted regarding the “age-old malice of the slave”. Age-old oppression of groups such as Blacks, Roma and other minorities leads to a particular sociopsychological pathology on the side of the recipients of degrading and humiliating treatment. This is the pathology of victimhood, which consists in seeing the world entirely and only from the perspective of a victim. There is also the correlative pathology on the side of the oppressor. Both the slave and the master develop a mental condition by interiorization of the oppression. In the mind of the victim, the interiorization of violence leads to certain mental health consequences. We gain nothing by pretending that victims of violence are merely pure and innocent angelic souls. 

Rumen Petrov: Is thinking in terms of class relevant to Black Lives Matter and similar movements? Are these class conflicts or not?

Antony Todorov: Since at least 2008, class and class conflict have enjoyed increased analytical interest. An American author’s book title: The Global Class War. Another book title I am looking at right now: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Also, La mondialisation malheureuse by Thomas Guénolé. Numerous titles that question global capitalism and speak about class war. Conflicts are not just purely racial or ethnic. These are social conflicts that have their deep roots in some kind of deep social injustice. Blacks are no unhappy just because someone tells them, “Look, you are black and I am white.” They are unhappy because both in society and in the world, they are in a disadvantaged position, lacking equal rights. And this has been the case for a very long time. And they see no quick fix. No prospect. So, in brief, yes, we can say that yes, race and ethnic conflicts are in essence class conflicts, if by this we mean a conflict related to deep social structural inequalities and not a conflict in the extremely vulgarized terms of Soviet Marxism.

Dimitrina Petrova: I think current race conflicts are class conflict only in part, only in a limited way. I do recognize a connection between race and ethnic inequalities on one hand and class inequalities on the other. Historically these two types of inequality have overlapped in certain ways, so that ethnic or racial group occupying one segment in society can be of a certain socioeconomic description as well. Nonetheless, if we attempt to analyze today’s developments solely in terms of class, leaving to one side a racial or ethnic analysis, we will get a useless reductionism. The opposite is true too. According to evolutionary psychology, we humans are cognitively built to divide into groups: us and them. We tend to think of ourselves and our group as being superior, we attribute “essence” to groups. We humans are natural essentialists. The cognitive preconditions of racism and other group prejudice are based on evolutionary causes. So, in a way, group prejudice is inbuilt in society. However, why is it that in today’s society, it is the Black in the U.S., or the Roma in Europe, who are the oppressed groups, and not, for example, people of white European heritage. It is on this question that we need to refer to the history of capitalism. 

Editor: Marta Metodieva

Stenographer: Stanka Georgieva