Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

Identity politics is consuming us all, at home and abroad.  It is dominating our daily discourse on all fronts. Minorities are on the march everywhere, seeking a space and voice for their particular grievances.  They demand respect and recognition, and some are quick to take offence at even slight criticism or reasoned disagreement.  

I may be coming across as a reactionary old fart, but let me at least play the devil`s advocate!  So what is the big picture?  Protest is in the air all around. In British academia, there is continuing controversy about the so-called `no platforming` and its allied `safe space` phenomena, both American imports. `No platform(ing)` is basically defined as to prevent or preventing a person holding views, considered unacceptable or offensive (to those in charge), from contributing or articulating them at a public meeting or debate, leading sometimes to cancellation of invitations or scheduled programmes. `Safe space` is a physical or metaphorical home for people, usually of marginalised communities, where they feel free of judgment or attack for who, or what, they are.  What it does however is insulate both budding and mature intellectuals from receiving ideas and opinions that may be contrary to their preconceived beliefs or liking but which they could challenge and debate, thus depriving them of the opportunity to broaden their horizons.  Safe spaces too have become a burning topic in the national conversation.  And there is a third species of what may be fairly termed political correctness, namely `hate speech`, more about which later.

The official policy of the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom (NUS), for example, is to bar anyone deemed `racist or fascist` from attending or speaking at an NUS function or conference. The prohibition also extends to deniers of LGBT rights. NUS officers and trustees may not also share a platform with any such people.  As a result, there have been many cases of high profile or controversial figures being `de-platformed` amidst, or in moves to pre-empt, student protests.

What all this amounts to is a closed shop mentality, which surely is contrary to the principle of freedom of expression, a basic tenet of liberal democracy?  The whole arena of public debate both on and off university campuses has been poisoned by the antics of pro-and-anti campaigners and activists of every persuasion.  This is currently most evident in relation to the transgender issue.  How so?

Under our Gender Recognition Act (GRA) of 2004, a person with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria can, after a two year period, obtain a new birth certificate confirming their change of gender identity.  The process involves, among other things, medical evidence, proof of living in the desired category and an evaluation of the relevant documentation by a statutory panel – so it is not a straightforward exercise.

But it is now commonplace for a person (to use a neutral term) to say `I am who I say I am`!  Self-identification, in other words, has become the name of the game.  Men defy biology to proclaim themselves (as) women.  This goes beyond mere cross-dressing. They insist they have a right to access what may be designated or traditionally regarded as exclusive female spaces, whether or not they still possess male genitalia or have gone through a physical transition process. This has caused much alarm and legitimate disquiet among many feminist groups because of their concerns over safety and privacy in women only toilets, changing rooms, swimming pools, prisons, refuges and so on. What it boils down to really is that while transwomen may define their gender identity in a purely subjective sense, the real test is whether society at large is prepared to grant them full membership of their coveted group. On the other hand, women who have transitioned to the male gender are seen as much less of a threat to the social order and thus more readily acceptable in that role.

The militancy of the transgender brigade has however reached such heights that even to question the definition of who or who is not a woman is now pitched as `hate speech` - surely a form of bigoted or reverse sexism?  As widely reported on the web, when the Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy recently tweeted “men aren`t women” and asked: “What is the difference between a man and a trans woman?”, Twitter apparently locked her out of her account for `violating [our] rules against hateful conduct`, after forcing her to delete several of her posts.  `Hate speech` is thus being weaponised in all sorts of ways – both as a defence mechanism and as an aggressive tool to deter free speech!

And here is a variant of that: according to a newspaper report of 18 November, the London Ambulance Service (LBS), in a drive for LGBT inclusion, has introduced unisex toilets and changing facilities. Other institutions and corporate employers too have adopted measures to make their public profile gender neutral, which is fine, but the LBS have also instructed its emergency call operators to stop calling patients 'Sir' or 'Madam' and 'Mr' or 'Mrs`!

Elsewhere, primary school children and even younger are being taught about gender fluidity, and neutral forms of dress and address, and to explore where they fit in. Now I am a most liberal, open minded person and welcome diversity, whether sexual or of any other variety, but this seems to be going a step too far!  Of course early understanding and acceptance of differences of whatever kind can only breed good behaviour, but the blurring of long established boundaries can also cause confusion.  However, I concede that we are in an age of shifting new realities which have to be accommodated, if not heartily embraced.  

To revert to the GRA, then, the government has just carried out a public consultation exercise on how best to reform it in the light of complaints about its cumbersome procedures, and no doubt the views of those who oppose it will also be taken into account.

So much for the T in LGBT.  On the lesbian and gay scene, a fundamental social transformation has taken place in the last two decades.  Not only was male homosexuality decriminalised (lesbianism was never an offence) many years ago, but since then same-sex marriages have become legal and so now when men talk of their `husbands` and women of their `wives`, it is not a novelty any more, even if this new applied terminology may sound strange at first.  As for bi-sexuality, it is in general subsumed into the other traits and has never really featured much in the public imagination.

But I was struck by how different the position is in Kenya when I saw `Rafiki` at the London Film Festival in October. It was a packed performance, where the director of the film, Wanuri Kahiu, was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the audience who showed their appreciation by prolonged applause both before and after the show.  The story line centred on the lesbian love affair between the youthful Kena and Ziki, but the underlying social tensions affecting their families and neighbourhood community also formed an integral part of the narrative.   

Kenya is of course not alone in this respect.  In Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere in the continent, homosexuality is taboo and a crime, though the proponents of LGBT rights in all these countries have become very vocal and daring and it is only a matter of time before it is legalised, as has happened recently in India where the Supreme Court decriminalised private homosexual activity between consenting adults and where, incidentally, there has been a long history of `hijra` transgenderism, which has been legally recognised as a `third sex` with important constitutional rights.

Another area of current minority agitation is historical monuments dating back to the imperial era and there have been strident demands, often accompanied by violent demonstrations, for pulling down statues of people like Cecil Rhodes and others from that period. What is overlooked in this context however is that all through successive civilisations such tangible memorials have served to record the national importance of the figures in question in that moment in time.  Whether or not their significance may endure in eternity is certainly a question that may be revisited from time to time.  Old timers may recall that the statue of Lord Delamere, which used to be on the roundabout in front of the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, was unceremoniously removed and the road renamed Kenyatta Avenue soon after independence. That was perfectly in order, as are umpteen examples of all manner of statues being forcibly pulled down in the wake of revolutionary changes of government every now and again across the world.   

But, that said, should history be rewritten on the whim of a passing generation? The trajectory of the Rhodes Must Fall movement is well known, with a string of international casualties stretching from South Africa to North America, but despite a concerted bitter campaign seeking to remove his statue at the Oxford University campus, the authorities there decided in 2016 that it would remain in place because `[t]he past is the past … [y]ou can`t rewrite history`!  In the same vein, if imperial glory was indeed the sole criterion, then that does not square with the erection of the statues of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi in key positions, in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, which in the past would have been unthinkable and in the future may well fall foul of popular approval.

The fact is, given the present state of the country, there does seem to be too much emphasis on minority issues, groups and individuals both in the mainstream and social media. What is happening is that the interests of minorities (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual) - in terms of their presence, their voice, their visibility, their aspirations, their place and participation in society - are seen as highlighted at every opportunity in the public sphere.

In the news bulletins, for instance, it has become almost de rigueur for any interviews conducted among a supposedly random selection of people to begin with someone who is readily identifiable as belonging to an ethnic or other minority.

There is also a constant cry for greater black or minority ethnic representation in sports management, university admissions, police and fire rescue services, armed forces, in the visual and performing arts of every description, in the judiciary, professions, broadcasting and journalism, and all other fields of activity and endeavour – the whole spectrum.  Quite right too, you may say, but to many indigenous Britons this may strike as special or preferential treatment at the expense of their majoritarian culture or interests, which can only lead to a build-up of antipathy and resentment with dire consequences in the long run. 

Have I turned this into a rant?  I hope not, though it may make uncomfortable reading.  Be that as it may, we are indeed facing bleak times (and I haven`t even mentioned Trump or Brexit).  Happy New Year!    

Ramnik Shah




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