Keynote speech: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows

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As part of her curatorial residency at Midlands Arts Centre, Anna Berry hosted a public conference entitled Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows. This is Berry’s keynote speech from the conference, in full and unabridged.

Older white woman given a speech toa a packed crowd of people standing around in a semi circle

Speech being given at the launch of Anna’s exhibition Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement. Photograph: Kate Green

Thank you very much for coming today, and welcome. I’m gonna warn you I’m saying way more than I planned to at the outset – I planned to talk for 10 mins, and it’s turned into 25! this is mainly because I’m a shit editor and don’t know what to cut – and you shall all have to suffer through it as a consequence – feel free to doodle or, you know, snooze (try not to snore), and it’ll fly by, and we can all be relieved when Aaron takes the stage!

We were going to be treated to Rachel Gadsden and her team creating live art for us in response to the day, and she was very much embracing the spirit of the day, embracing risk and spontaneity, but unfortunately because of coronavirus, she can’t be here. She actually has no immune system at the moment – literally – and is also in the bracket of people who would be very seriously ill if she got it, so she can’t go anywhere right now.

Anyway, I wanted to begin by talking a bit about the ethos for the day. I’m trying to curate something at the intersection of free-thinking and disability arts.

I’ve tried to curate something a bit different from the usual by not, for example, setting topics for the panel discussions. I wanted to get away from the typical symposium thing of feeling like ‘the great and the good’ are talking at you. So I’m trying to create an experience that’s more spontaneous, and something that hopefully everyone in the room can feel some sense of ownership of. In the panel discussions, for example, each panellist will talk a bit about their own sacred cow they’d like to slaughter, and then we’ll bring in response from the floor as well. We’ll have a breakout in the afternoon where you can all talk about your own shibboleths you’d like to smash, and Tom Shakespeare and I, who are the second panel, will respond to those on the hoof.

It feels very high risk not to pin everything down to within an inch of its life beforehand, but what I hope is that together we will jointly create an interesting discussion. As with any risk, there is the possibility of failure! Perhaps it will all feel unstructured and chaotic. But nevertheless, I want to give it a try, I have faith in us all today! This is something we can all create together at this moment in time.

We are lucky to have amazing panel members who’ve agreed to participate in this crazy experiment today – but who may never speak to me again after this! So many thanks to Sonia, Aidan, Tom, and Trish. And many thanks to Manick our lovely chair, who is the greatest sport in trying to corral all this chaos into sense for us.

I think one of the trickiest elements of the day is asking people – all of us – to get our heads around the idea that this is the opposite of what we usually do. It’s not about bitching about the same old stuff we always bitch about in disability arts! I hope we can have a braver and more honest discussion than perhaps we usually feel allowed to have. And you know – maybe it’ll turn out that I’m the only person in the room with an appetite for iconoclasm – so be it – we will go with where it takes us!

I realise the title of the day sounds quite provocative! But I’m actually not trying to court controversy at all, quite the opposite, really, to try to provide a safe arena for people to feel that they can disagree without being thrown away as a person – without being cancelled. I certainly don’t feel there are many places left we can have a genuine and frank exchange of ideas these days.

So, a big part of what I’m trying to achieve with the day is to demonstrate that it’s actually okay to disagree robustly, and still know that we’re all good people and we’re all on the same side. This idea that we need to avoid things that are sensitive or protect everyone from everything they don’t want to hear, is something I’m very much trying to challenge.

I hope that people feel able to say the things that they may otherwise have been a bit afraid to say because of the current pressure of groupthink, and know that it’s ok. Dissent is ok. Because I know that the people in this room will act and communicate with a degree of good faith and decency. Hopefully we’ll strike a balance between the blandness of no cows slain at all and the chaos of all out factional war!

For me personally, today involves a huge act of trust in these people in this room, in you. I could easily make myself the pantomime villain today – and perhaps I will – because the sacred cow I’d like to talk about slaughtering is our current devotion in the arts sector to identity politics. And later with Tom, I’m sure I’ll have a pop at the social model – Where’s Tony Heaton? – he’ll have my nuts for that!

But in all seriousness, I’m actually so anxious about it all that I’ve been feeling pretty much permanently sick for weeks and I haven’t slept for ages. I’m not a particularly robust person, and I don’t know how to prepare for people’s potentially negative reactions. But I feel such a responsibility to try to do something like this – to create a space where people feel it’s safe to be free thinking. And maybe I risk putting my own head on the block to do it!

So why I’m doing this? Well, I’ve always been fairly unclubbable – and when there’s something rotten on our side, I’d rather be the whistleblower, even if it means I get thrown off the team. I take the view that everyone should feel free to be offended. That is absolutely your right. And people do seem to really enjoy being offended these days. There’s a whole twitter industry predicated on perpetual outrage. I’m very equal opportunities about this – I’m happy to piss off pretty much everybody on all sides of the political spectrum.

But I find what was my ‘home’ on the left at the moment to be a more and more repressive place, where freedom of thought and expression are actively discouraged, and I’m trying, with today, in my own way to design an antidote to that, in our little corner of the artworld, the best way I know how.

I have always been someone who has fought for social justice. I want to see diversity, I want to see equality of opportunity. I understand that if we don’t actively challenge unconscious biases, no matter how well-meaning, we end up with a homogenous and unrepresentative workplace. I’m literally part of this DASH programme about trying to represent disabled people more in the arts. I’ve curated a whole show to advocate for it!

So, I get it. The left has a long and inglorious track record of being crap at representing anybody but straight white blokes, without the vigorous lobbying of identity groups. So, we do need some kind of identity politics, whereby people who are getting a raw deal can band together and campaign for a better one. But there has to be some place between that and where we find ourselves now – suffocated by a kind of identity politics on steroids, which to me is the bastard lovechild of the original ‘Political is Personal’ with the individualism of pure Thatcherism. It is the neoliberal wet dream.

The left I joined as a young person feels a long way away from this hard granular sectarian place, most notably in its extreme lack of kindness.

I’m going to mention something you’re not supposed to mention in these sorts of circumstances, and that’s, for want of a better term, spirituality. For me as a person, there is an absolute fundamental – you strive to keep a soft heart. People are allowed to make mistakes, people can be wrong about stuff, there is always a path to forgiveness, and we can disagree but still respect each other as human beings. On the identitarian left, it feels like what must have started out as compassion, somewhere along the way ossified to become this hard calloused plaque of ideology, which strangles the heart and sits where humanity should be.

It reminds me of that very Scottish ascetic brand of Protestantism that spread to America – full of purity and sanctimony and underpinned by a terrifying unbending unforgiving hardness.

I have found just watching it play out every day on social media that it’s broken me. Just bearing witness to the relentless cruelty and bullying. And so far I haven’t even been the target of it – I suppose it’s only a matter of time – but it’s left me feeling brutalised. And full of dismay, helplessly watching the total and utter corruption of what I had thought of as ‘my side’. I feel very ‘not in my name-ish’ about it.

I have a friend in her 60s who’s a proper old warhorse of activism. She’s done more good with actual grassroots activism that these new online puritans have had hot dinners. She, like me, has also left the left. She had this to say “purity can look like morality. I have been called a white supremacist, a supporter of patriarchal society, a victim blamer, transphobic, and a Blairite neoliberal who should fuck off and join the Tories. All very odd for someone who has been involved in left activism most of my life, been an LGBT youth worker and run group discussions on feminist issues back in the day. It’s interesting that as religion has less and less place in society, we have invented this moral purity to replace it and have online purity police to control debate.” I think she’s bang on.

I find there’s a pervading sense of terror on the left at the moment, and a greater level of self-censorship than at any point in my lifetime, by a long way. I think this is a disaster for a free society. What’s worse is that we’re leaving it to the right to be concerned about issues of free expression.

There’s an implicit assumption that ideas necessarily proceed from identity, and as such ideas and identity are inextricable. This is a huge problem, because instead of defending an idea we find we are defending our very selves. Discourse becomes impossible. A lot of this proceeds from that kind of ‘stay-in-your-lane’ third-wave feminism, which has conditioned us to believe that anything that isn’t thinly-veiled biography is verboten territory for artistic exploration.

It terrifies me that for this new breed of leftists, freedom of speech is considered to be a right-wing issue. If you even have concerns about freedom of speech, then you must be right wing. I’m an artist! Concerns with freedom of expression are pretty much my bread and butter! If you poll me on any issue, I will poll left. But I am part of a dying breed of liberal leftist, who believes we can beat bad ideas with better ideas, rather than by shutting down the conversation. How quaint and old-fashioned! The left has become a very illiberal place. And very alien for someone like me, for whom leftism meant pluralism and tolerance.

One of the scary consequences of this is how the alt-right is gaining traction on the back of a free-speech movement – which it’s only being able to do because there absolutely is a free-speech problem on the left, and I would argue that the kind of young white men who would’ve turned to punk in the 80s, are now heading to the alt-right, because they see it as a space of freedom – terrifying!

I should really just leave social media – I wake up feeling sick that I’ll be cancelled and told I bleed pure evil for expressing a view that 6 months ago would be the standard progressive take. And I’m not just talking about online cancel culture and purity spirals. This stuff is very much in the real world. There are campaigns for paintings to be removed and destroyed – sometimes the galleries do remove them. There’s no-platforming of many incredible lifelong activists and human rights campaigners – by people whose activism has never stepped off twitter. There are identity interest groups who anonymously write to galleries and academic institutions telling them who they should be firing for wrong-think – and sometimes these institutions capitulate to this. People – often vulnerable people – and particularly women – are hounded out of jobs and this is seen as a great victory. It’s like the new Salem.

And the people doing it all 100% believe themselves to be on the side of the angels. They’re filled with righteousness and believe they are championing the oppressed. But perversely they don’t care about the people they destroy under the tank wheels as they forward their cause. Because in this world-view only certain types of vulnerability are deemed worthy – only identity-related vulnerability matters.

This kinda stuff is basically McCarthyism, make no bones about it, except it’s the left, and it is a stone’s throw from totalitarianism.

The climate of fear that this kind of thing has created means there’s a palpable shift in art, as in everywhere else, from caring about big ideas and addressing big issues to refocussing on not causing offence. Something I would argue has a crushing effect on creativity and leads to a poverty of ideas in art.

WHeelchair user looking at a series of oil portraits of prominent figures within the disability arts movement

Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement. Photograph: Kate Green

The idea of a safe space is conflated with just not wanting to be exposed to ideas that you’re uncomfortable with. There’s often this bizarre alliance between the far left and the theocratic far-right in no-platforming the same people because each side believes they have the right to be not offended. And they recast what is really petulance as somehow an issue of safety. I don’t know what will become of art under a generation who seem to buy into the notion that not causing offence is far more important than discussion and critique.

We have all talked for such a long time about trying to replace the gatekeepers in the art world to make things more egalitarian. But the irony is what we are succeeding in doing is replacing one set of gatekeepers with another much sterner, much more repressive and authoritarian set. And they absolutely will decide who gets to have a voice, and who doesn’t, and what you may and may not make art about – and they will decide it on the basis of a few shallow identity characteristics, and they will uphold it with public shamings and purity spirals.

For me, it’s frightening that we are starting to ban art, and that the push for that is now coming from the left. There are many ways that the far left is indistinguishable from the far right at the moment – increasing identitarianism is one, and this inclination towards censoriousness is another. People are always trying to ban ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for example – ever since it was published nearly 60 years ago – but that push for the first time now comes mostly from the left rather than the right.

I think one of the big problems is just how narrowly we have come to define what social justice is. The current left would have us believe that we can parse all of human interaction by a set of faux equations that reduces everything to several crude identity binaries. Yes, there are structural power issues around race, sexuality, and gender.

But there are also pretty much infinite ways in which to be disempowered by society or by other people. Those who are bullied and abused vs those who aren’t. Those who have mental health issues vs those who haven’t. Those who’ve just had a shit life vs. those who have rather a nice one. it’s infinite. Looking only at 3 identity variables in an individual tells you not very much about the actual person – who they are, what their life experience is, and how empowered or otherwise they are.

Helen Lewis talks quite poignantly about reducing people to simple labels in The New Statesmen, saying “Here are some of the things I know that the kind of feminists regularly decried for their privilege have had to deal with, in private: eating disorder relapses; rape; the stalking of their children; redundancy; clinical depression; the sectioning of a family member”.

When these skewed optics are blanket applied over everything, we find only some pain matters. Only some types of vulnerability matter. And if your pain and vulnerability is not related to a particular identity metric, then your pain and vulnerability are judged to be naught. The apotheosis of this was the article last autumn The Guardian rightly pulled about how David Cameron’s grief at the death of his 6-year-old son was merely ‘privileged grief’. I’m not exactly a Cameron fan, but that is a lack of empathy bordering on psychopathic, which no one spotted before publication because this kind of thing been so normalised by this new powerful identitarian branch of the left.

This is what I see every day on my social media timelines – the relentless dehumanisation of people for having the wrong opinion or even worse being the wrong identity (as if that’s something they can help!), and this complete cessation of compassion. And it’s propagated by entirely well-intentioned people who really do believe that they’re making the world a better place – that’s what is so chilling to me – this is a form of fascism that being ushered in not by the right, but by a braying sanctimonious left, with a complete lack of self-awareness, under the false flag of progressivism.

Just generally, as an artist and as a person, I’m fascinated in where that tipping point is between the person who’s defending the weak and the person who becomes the bully. Because they all start out being on the side of the angels and – it’s the old proverb that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s so horribly true in this case.

So – I find so little kindness in today’s identity politics – it’s all unbending ideology and hard-heartedness and zero tolerance. It tends towards fundamentalism, and I find it indivisible from the highly individualistic, self-interested right. Exactly the stone from which the Thatcherite-neoliberal philosophy was hewn.

The collapse of the left into neoliberal ideology is interesting – Adam Curtis speculates that a utopian idea in the 60s that we could change the world by changing ourselves, became thwarted and collapsed in on itself to become a kind of toxic pursuit of self-expression through consumerism.

Then the Blair/Clinton third-way-ism – the same old growth-focussed economics with a bit more public spending and a smilier face. And it’s all led to this fragmentation. The more we bow to this great individualist god of identity, the more alienated we become from each other. This self the left is obsessed with could not be a more right-wing expression.

And in the same way that Brexit jock-blocked anything actually important getting done for 3 years because there was just no discussion about any other issue, identity politics has jock-blocked the left from being able to contend with the issues that need to be addressed. Climate change, capitalism, welfare, health, social inequality. All of that is considered comparatively unimportant in the face of the new identitarian first-commandment: all must bow to the ultimate right to expression of selfhood above all else and at any price.

This is such a strong instinctive fabric of the universe thing, for millennials particularly I think, that they can’t conceive of, nor emotionally withstand, the questioning of it at all. And I think that’s a consequence of being raised under Clinton/Blair ‘third way’ leftism, which finally did away with any idea of the collective, and capitulated to a kind of extreme individualism, in service to an unfettered capitalism.

Another facet of the new moral puritanism is the total flattening of complexity. In this world, there is no distinction between being 1 mm off message and full-on nazi – you learn very quickly in the new identity politics that almost everyone is a nazi – it’s not a place for nuance or free-thought or intelligent discussion – it is a place of black and white, and you’re either all pure and on-message, or irredeemably evil.

And the worst thing about all of this is that the right are laughing. Laughing all the way to populism and to – you know – actual nazis – actual white supremacists and white ethnonationalists. It’s terrifying. And what are the left doing? Absolutely fuck-all. We’re toothless. We’re too busy cannibalising ourselves in divide-and-rule zero-sum identity-politics games, and accusing everyone else on the left of being a nazi because their shade of red is a tiny degree different from your shade of red. And you know who’s winning? The actual nazis!

I feel like there has to be a middle way. I feel like there’s a way for us to acknowledge particular structural barriers, whilst also acknowledging all the other barriers people face in 360 degrees of life; without reducing every interaction to a weird equation of specific oppressions, and then going with the cock-eyed solution of turning identity itself into a kind of sacred cow.

On the one hand, parts of the right are still a way away from understanding or caring that there are structural power issues at all, whilst the left has careered out other side to a place where actual reality is irrelevant in the face of a bludgeoning identity ideology.

There must be a way for us to acknowledge that yes, the context of something does matter, and who’s saying it matters, we acknowledge the existence of a narrative. But it is also still the case that what’s said matters as well. Content is not rendered null-and-void because of who’s delivering it. Identity is routinely used to dismiss someone’s opinion or argument – ‘I’m not listening to you because you’re a straight white bloke’, for example. And that’s what logically follows from an extreme identity-rooted position. It’s all about who’s talking and nothing about what they’re saying. But at the end of the day that’s tantamount to an ad-hominem attack. There really has to be a middle way – where the intrinsic merits of what is actually said is balanced with an awareness of who is saying it, and what their perspective is.

I have a thing at the moment about trying to bring back decency, as you have probably gathered. I feel like this is an underrated and utterly devalued quality. Watching this last few years, the left cannibalising its own for failing ideological purity tests – everybody blindly falling foul of the stuff they’re so desperate to virtue-signal their way out of… I miss basic good faith between humans – kindness and true tolerance, and civil discourse even with those whose views you abhor. Where people tried to understand the thrust of the point you’re trying to make, rather than pulling apart your language to find something to be outraged by.

Group of people clapping whilst stood at an exhibition opening

People clapping at the launch of Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement. Photograph: Kate Green

It’s not the same as pacifism – we should fight for what we believe in. But it’s about the rules of the game and where the lines are drawn in terms of the ends justifying the means. Even in war there are crimes and rules.

We’re mired in hopelessly divided groups of people, just perpetually shouting past each other. I think one of the things that’s led to this is that the left won’t engage with what they consider to be unacceptable. I understand that – we make it clear that certain opinions aren’t acceptable by not even engaging with arguments from those with that opinion.

But if you never engage with what the people you disagree with are saying, then you never address their points, and nobody ever changes their mind – all that happens is that a flame is fanned. People feel patronised and frustrated and dismissed. This stuff is why the idea that there’s a ‘liberal elite’ gains traction. It has huge knock-on effects – fuckin Brexit!

This is something I’ve definitely changed my mind about. I also used to be very zero-tolerance. If we are an army of zero-tolerance allies, then this is how we will change society. People will get the message that what they think is unacceptable. The trouble is – that hasn’t changed society. People still think the unacceptable things. In fact, more people are thinking more unacceptable things than ever! Again – terrifying rise of far-right!

There are two directions we can go: we can carry on doing what we’re doing now – we can throw away person after person because we find them to be flawed. Or we can try to change society by, you know, actually changing society. We engage. Showing people, for example, why sexism is wrong instead of shaming them for their personal flaw of being sexist.

Demonstrably the first route isn’t working – more and more of us fail the ideological purity test every day – even the bloody Dalai Lama made some crass comment about how if there was a female Dalai Lama she’d have to be pretty!

And then, after the cannibalism of call-out culture, there’s nobody left to fight the good fight because, guess what? Nobody’s a saint.

Keeping a civil discourse doesn’t mean you condone sexism, racism, or homophobia. It just means you don’t regard the person to whom those views belong as an irredeemable human being. We separate the idea from the whole person. Ideas are not identity. I’m not a Christian, but it’s quite a Christian idea that I’m subscribing to – that there is a redemption for everybody. Or at least almost everybody!

I do understand that attitude of no tolerance. We will be the army that stands up for the oppressed. But I’m so, so weary of looking out on a cultural landscape where I can’t see simple kindness and empathy on any horizon. We need to build something else. Like restoring the environment – we replant the trees. We must replant kindness and good faith and tolerance in the discourse, even for the almost-irredeemable.

And you may be wondering why am I saying this here and now today in front of a room full of people who are interested in disability arts. Probably an audience of, in many cases, quite disenfranchised people, like myself, who absolutely should be advocating for their interests. I know that there may not be a single other person in this room who agrees with what I’m saying. I’m quite possibly committing career suicide, and I’m scared shitless saying this today. But that’s exactly why. Because it’s our sector – it’s the arts that seems to be most vulnerable to these ideas – more than any other sector we have disappeared down this rabbit hole, and have absolutely bought into identity politics as the be-all-and-end-all of what it is to be a good actor in the world. And that’s because it’s so full of good and well-intentioned people who want to change the world for the better. But I fear we have somewhat lost our way.

And I fear we are not at the nadir yet. It’ll be a long time before every second arts opportunity you read about doesn’t have an identity characteristic attached. It’ll be some time yet before we can shake off this zombification, and somebody somewhere says: ‘hang on – maybe, just maybe, there are other optics through which to interpret the world beyond identity’. It’ll be like walking out of Plato’s cave and blinking in the sunlight.

I get that nobody here came today expecting some mouthy Scottish disabled bitch saying ‘but fascism…’, ‘but thin end of the wedge…’ And I hope you’ll all forgive me for starting the day in quite such an intense fashion. But I want us in the arts world to strive towards a place beyond petty identity politics. To be reminded that the best art tells us something about universal experience. To make us want to fight for all of humanity, to find commonality, to rise beyond this granular fraught battleground of identity.

I’m a wholescale believer in the underlying aims of this stuff – I believe in social justice, I believe in representation, I’m committed to those things. But at the moment I’ve come to believe that the way we’re going about this is absolutely making the world a worse place. It’s bad for us as humans. And it’s absolutely suicidal for the left. I will stay divorced from the left until such time as it is released from the stranglehold of identitarianism, and a diversity of viewpoints is acceptable, until intelligent discussion is again possible, and until we go back to being more interested in what someone is saying rather than the crude identity markers of the person saying it.

I find myself in an unexpected and weird position – a very different type of activist. I’m less fight-the-power and more hug-a-Tory now! Because that’s the ultimate subversive act in these times. Finding the softness in your heart for those whom you’ve allowed yourself to cast as enemies. For me that’s the most radical thing we can do at the moment – radical kindness.

We live in dark times, I think, when a plea for tolerance for a spectrum of viewpoints feels like a hot take, and a plea for kindness is nothing short of iconoclastic.

I think trying to make the world better with extremes of identity politics is like trying to cure an illness with a medicine whose side effects make you more ill than you were in the first place. It’s self-defeating.

I’ll leave you with a quick quote from someone who couldn’t be here today, who I’m sure you all know – Jo Verrent – and whom I have no doubt would thoroughly disagree with much of what I’ve just said! But when I asked her months ago what her sacred cow in the disability arts sector was, she said:

“The main thing for me to ‘kill’ is the sense that we all have to think the same. I’d love a sector that allowed for a more diverse range of opinions without bad-mouthing anyone who happens to think differently. I’ve lost count of the times people have been dismissed or told they are ‘wrong’ by others when they simply have a different opinion. I think in this increasingly complex world we have to accept that our world view is simply that: ours. And that it is informed by what we have experienced – and as we all have different experiences, it’s understandable that these will all differ – and that’s not a bad thing.”

I want to thank everyone in the room for bearing with me through ideas that you probably didn’t expect or want to hear today. I am crossing my fingers that I have escaped being called a nazi on twitter! I’m done and I promise the rest of the day will be so much more light-hearted. I believe together we can create a lively and interesting and, most of all, free discussion. Thank you again for your tolerance, I leave you with the wonderful Aaron Williamson, who will be much less scary than me!