What are we to make of the call to ban Shakespeare and other dead white men because they are dead? It is time that those who have declared a neo-racist war on humanity be named and shamed. It is time to unite in defence of the humanities in the knowledge that they show us our shared humanity…
There is a new breed of racism rearing its ugly head which threatens to do great harm to humanity across the globe. As ugly and evil as the old racism, this neo-racism has the power to do much more damage.
Before we examine this neo-racism and the harm it is doing, let’s remind ourselves of what constitutes a racist.
A racist is someone who does not judge his fellow man on the basis of a shared humanity but on the basis of the colour of his skin. There is, for the racist, no sense of a common humanity that unites all people nor is there any belief in the dignity of the human person and the respect which that inherent dignity demands. Everything is filtered through the prejudiced perspective of race so that one refuses to treat those of other races as equals.
Keeping this understanding of racism in mind, let’s consider a speech given earlier this month in the United Kingdom by Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Dr. Bousted “criticised the national curriculum for failing to include enough black and female writers,” demanding that “[s]chools must look beyond ‘dead white men’ such as Shakespeare and Shelley to make the curriculum more diverse.” Speaking at the Bryanston Education Summit in Dorset on June 6, Dr.. Bousted made no secret of the racist criterion on which she was basing her prejudiced judgment: “If a powerful knowledge curriculum means recreating the best that has been thought by dead, white men—then I’m not very interested in it.”
So there we have it. Shakespeare is not to be banished from the curriculum because of what he wrote but because he is white—and dead and male.
At this juncture, let’s remind ourselves of what is most pernicious about racism. The worst thing about racism is its prejudice towards people for something that they cannot help being. If we judge people because they have assaulted us or stolen from us, we are at least judging them on the basis of their actions and their choices, but if we judge them for something which they cannot help being, we are incorrigible cads and scoundrels. A racist prejudges someone because of the colour of his or her skin; a sexist prejudges someone on the basis of his or her sex; an ageist prejudges someone on the basis of his or her age. Dr. Bousted manages to combine racism, sexism, and ageism in one fell swoop in her prejudice against Shakespeare and all others who, through no fault of their own, happen to have been born white and male, and who happened, whether they liked it or not, to have died.
Against this neo-racist attack on human dignity, let’s demand that people be judged as human beings and not for those human attributes over which they have no control.
Shakespeare and other great writers are to be valued for their humanity and for their profound insights into human nature. The reason that Shakespeare is still read and enjoyed is that he not only shares our common humanity but shows us our common humanity. He shows us ourselves. He holds up a mirror so that we can see who we are. Through engagement with his genius, we come to understand that all people in all ages and in all cultures share a bond of fellowship. We have the same weaknesses, the same tendency towards the pride that leads to prejudice, but also the same desire for the good, the true, and the beautiful. He shows us that selfless love is better than selfish narcissism. He shows us that mindful reason is better than reckless passion. He shows us how doing our own thing always harms others. He shows us that power tends to corrupt those who have it and those who seek it. He shows us that it takes courage to stand up to tyranny.
On the very rare occasions that Shakespeare thinks or writes about race at all, he condemns racism and those who inflame it. Take, for example, Iago’s inflammatory racism in Othello. It is the play’s worst villain, and one of the worst villains in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed in all of literature, who stoops to the incitement of racial hatred. Does Dr. Bousted know this? One has to doubt it. One has to doubt that she has ever read Othello. In assuming that Shakespeare must be a racist because he was blighted at birth with white skin is itself a racist assumption. In failing to see Shakespeare’s humanity as something that trumps and transcends his skin colour, she is exhibiting the arrogance of ignorance which is the mark of the racist and the bigot.
We could go on. The suggestion that Shakespeare must be a misogynist because he was blighted at birth with male genitalia is to ignore the strength of many of his female characters, such as Portia or Cordelia or, on the darker side, Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare loved and understood women as fellow human beings. Sharing in a common humanity, men and women share in a common equality that trumps and transcends their sex.
And what are we to make of the call to ban Shakespeare and other dead white men because they are dead? How is it multi-cultural to seek to banish the multi-culturalism of the many cultures of the past? Why can we not learn from the ancient Greeks, or the Romans, or the Anglo-Saxons, or the Elizabethans? The answer is twofold. First, we have nothing to learn from these cultures because the people had the wrong skin colour. Nothing of value can ever come from any culture in which the people have been blighted at birth with incorrect pigmentation. Second, we have nothing to learn from these cultures because all human beings who are dead, i.e. who lived in the past, are inherently inferior to the generation who have not yet died. Are we not detecting a supercilious disdain for the vast bulk of humanity in this bigoted attitude to most people who have ever lived? Are we not seeing the arrogant ignorance that is the very hallmark of true racism, sexism, and ageism? Are we not getting a sense that these neo-racists have a great deal in common with the paleo-racists?
It is time that those who have declared a neo-racist war on humanity be named and shamed. It is time to unite in defence of the humanities in the knowledge that they show us our shared humanity, and it is time to resist those who seek to impose their deadly anti-human dogmas in our schools and in the wider culture.
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