Tomiwa Owolade On Social And Moral Movements


Uri: I’m delighted to be here today with writer and critic Tomiwa Owolade. Tomiwa, you seem to have an ongoing interest in social and moral movements and how they happen. In one piece, you write “the means through which our moral norms spread will always be somewhat imperfect, haphazard, bungling,” which I really respect. But still I want to ask you – do you have an overall model of social change? When moral movements do succeed, what makes the difference?

Tomiwa: I espouse the view expressed by the French social theorist and literary critic René Girard that we are mimetic creatures; we like to imitate other people. Which raises the question: who do we often imitate in particular? I think, as Thorstein Veblein noted, we imitate the fashions of high-status people.

I think moral movements typically succeed when they are adopted by high-status people. This is why I’m not opposed, in principle, to virtue signaling - sometimes virtue signaling constitutes the means by which important political change is achieved.

A case in point is the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Many factors constributed to this, but a very important one was the use of the anti-slavery medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood. This was worn by many influential people to signal opposition to the slave trade, and their views gradually trickled down to the rest of society.

Another example is Christianity. Christianity spreads more powerfully in a society when it is adopted by a high status person, such as a King, and trickles down to the rest of society. This is even true of splinter Christain movements - such as the Porotestant Reformation in 16th Century England.

The Great Moral Movements Of The Future

Uri: There’s this parlour game of predicting the Great Moral Movements of the future, what our descendants will judge us for, that kind of thing. An example that comes up a lot is factory farming, and I think it’s pretty plausible that in the future people will look back on factory farming as abhorrent. What would you advise such a movement, if you wanted them to succeed? What will make or break them, in practice?

Tomiwa: They need to make opposition to factory farming look like commonsense. They need to appeal to the intuitions of people - to show that it’s not only a cruel practice, but also not necessary. And they need to demonstrate this is a high-status belief. They can do this by persuading celebrities to endorse this, but not in a forced and gauche way, but rather in the most naturalistic way possible. They should do this by appealing to celebrities who already think factory farming is evil and unnecessary.

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Uri: Interesting. I think there’s always a component of good discretion, that any piece of advice like “get celebrities to endorse” only works if you do a good job of it.

For a certain kind of contrast: you’ve written about Prohibition, and how (contrary to modern stereotypes), at the time it felt like a Great Moral Movement too – you explain that “most abolitionists, suffragists, and civil rights leaders in the nineteenth century supported prohibition.” What can we take away from that? The fact that a thing that looked to its participants like a great moral movement is now usually remembered (I think) as a kind of oppressive folly?

We Should Be Humble About Moral Crusades

Tomiwa: That illustrates why we should be humble and critical-minded about moral crusades. Eugenics was also seen by many intellectuals in the early 20th century as a great moral movement. They viewed it as the next phase in human progress, an extension of the Enlightenment principle that we can use reason and planning to cultivate a better - or at least less imperfect - form of humanity. Now it is largely seen as an evil doctrine.

This is why I’m weary of phrases like “the right side of history” or “the moral arc of history bends towards justice”. There is an arrogance in those phrases belied by the reality that some movements we now roundly condemn invoked the same concepts we use to justify progress: reason, justice, science. This doesn’t mean we should ditch these concepts; they are extremely valuable. It means rather that we shouldn’t assume that anyone who simply invokes them is good.

On the topic of alcohol prohibitionism, although I do like a drink and wouldn’t ban pubs and alcoholic drinks, I nevertheless recognise that the view of prohibtionism that we have - as simply a reactionary movement - is too insular: many prohibitionists, for instance, were feminists who saw the connection between drinking and violence against women. Surely that’s not something we can just dismiss?

Maybe they were reactionary in the very literal sense of the term - they were reacting to something they thought was abhorrent - but by that definition we also have to call slave abolitionists reactionary.

Uri: This might sound strange but…. How often do people actually change their minds, about anything? Do you think that social changes generally happen because people change their minds, or because a secret majority become willing and able to express beliefs they already held, or because (there’s no nice way to put this) a generation who had one set of beliefs dies off, and a new generation has a new set of beliefs?

Tomiwa: I’m going to give a boring answer and say it’s a mixture of all these things. I think many people do genuinely change their minds on certain issues, but I still maintain a large part of shifting opinions is adherence to social norms: it used to be permissible to believe this, now it is taboo to believe this: it used to be socially permissible to think homosexuality is perverse, now it is taboo to do so publicly. Sex after marriage was once the professed norm - even though many might have privately thought otherwise - and now it is not.

Can Writing Change Society?

Uri: Do you think writing can serve some purpose to change society? Or just to observe?

Tomiwa: I don’t write to change society. That’s too grandiose for me, and for any writer, to aim for. I can only speak for myself on this: my aim is to try to make sense of the world. Wherever I approach a certain topic, I try to do so with an open-mind. Inevitably, some of my biases creep in. But the aim is to approach a given topic with an open mind, to do justice to the topic, whether by exposing an underlying tension, or making a hidden connection between two seemingly different things.

By doing justice, then, I mean squeezing, as much as I can, the full complexity of  a given topic like a lemon to season a dry meal. This won’t change society, and it may not even change the mind of the individual reading my work, but I hope it will at least provoke them to think more rigorously.

Uri: I love that, “squeezing a lemon on a dry meal,” that feels just right.

Do you have any favourite examples, though, of writing that did end up mattering in one way or another? What do you think happened in those cases, why did it work?

Tomiwa: There are certain pieces of writing that mattered, and continue to matter, because they had, and continue to have, the powerful glow of prescience. The classic example is George Orwell’s 1984, a novel so twisted by bitterness, paralysis, sexual frustration, and betrayal that it could just have been a sour and vicious thriller. But Orwell’s political acumen made it a dystopian masterpiece.

During the Cold War, many American conservatives and neoconservatives idolised it as the key text against Soviet totalitarianism. It is that, but Orwell was also very hostile to capitalism and imperialism. The fact that the novel's concepts have so infiltrated our language – Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, Room 101 – speaks to its transcendent rhetorical force.

Uri: Interesting example – I was imagining a piece of non-fiction, the fact you chose a work of fiction seems telling in itself!

Christianity And The Great Moral Movements

Moving on, I’d like to ask you also about religion. From your writing, I think one strand that comes up repeatedly is a feeling that many people currently underestimate the place of Christianity in the great moral movements of the last centuries, and in the bedrocks of liberalism more broadly, possibly even in our conception of secularism. What do you think is going on there?

Tomiwa: I think Nietzsche is useful here. He diagnosed Christainity as a religion with a slave morality - a set of doctrines that emphasised self-abnegation. But his criticism of Christianity also extended to its egalitarian ethos.The reason we underestimate the role of Christianity is itself a legacy of Christianity.

The principle of secularism, for instance - render unto God what is God’s and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s - is a product of Christanity, and this separation of Church and State has led to Christinanity receding in terms of its influence on society at large.

It is a religion, to invoke Nietzsche again,  that emphasizes self-sacrifice and self-abnegation and disdains pride: I think this has made its cultural descendents more reluctant to be proud of the roots of the particular values they claim to be universal. And universalism - all children are made in the image of God - is itself another Christian inheritance. All of which is a very long-winded way of saying read Tom Holland’s book Dominion.

Uri: Well Tomiwa, it’s been an absolute pleasure – where can people find you online?

Tomiwa: Thanks a lot Uri. My twitter handle is @tomowolade and my instagram handle is @tomowolade


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