The Vicarious Martyrdom of Olivetti Otele

Bristol merchants financed more than 2,000 slaving voyages between 1698 and 1807. Their ships carried more than 500,000 Africans to labor as slaves in the Americas. Olivetti Otele, the “first black history professor in Great Britain,” is keen on researching Britol’s slave trade. She will do so based at the University of Bristol. According to The Guardian (“UK’s first black female history professor to research Bristol’s slavery links”), Otele has been charged with undertaking a two-year research project on the involvement of the University of Bristol and the wider city in the transatlantic slave trade. According to Otele, “I hope to bring together Bristolians from all communities, and scholars, artists and educators who are willing to contribute to a stronger and fairer society.”

Reflecting the cosmology of identity politics, which fetishizes collective guilt based on race and other imaginaries, Judith Squires, provost and deputy vice-chancellor at Bristol, clarifies: “As an institution founded in 1909, we are not a direct beneficiary of the slave trade, but we fully acknowledge that we financially benefited indirectly via philanthropic support from families who had made money from businesses involved in the transatlantic slave trade.” Otele presence, Squires continues, “provides us with a unique and important opportunity to interrogate our history, working with staff, students and local communities to explore the university’s historical links to slavery and to debate how we should best respond to our past in order to shape our future as an inclusive university community.” Note the jargon. What could possibly remedy something that happened more than 210 years ago? Even if we can imagine something, how would it make for a more inclusive community?

Olivetti Otele, University of Bristol

In no way am I suggesting we should not react in revulsion to the extent and cruelty of the practice of chattel slavery. Nor would I suggest we should fail to rejoice in the overthrow of chattel slavey and the creation of societies in which persons are equal before the law regardless of skin color. Horror and ecstasy both speak to the importance of historical study. The stories and lessons of history explain the present and help prepare the future. However, while grievances may, in the span of a lifetime, be redressed, the intergenerational past is inaccessible to remedy. Justice exists at the level of concrete (and obvious living) individuals. It is profoundly immoral to advocate consequences for people on the grounds that others with their skin color—past or present. Collective punishment is barbaric. When it is based on skin color is it racist. The fact of the matter is that no person alive in Great Britain today is responsible for the historic trade in slaves.

Otele’s career is a paradigm of the way history is marshaled by those who bash Western civilization. (See the piece on Otele “The privileged don’t get to tell us when slavery stops hurting” in The Times.) Moreover, her case demonstrates how race has become a fetish in contemporary society; it is representative of the nonsense of identity politics that people are celebrated (or condemned) on the basis of their skin color. One can see clearly Otele’s standpoint in the titles of her essays (for example, “Within and outside Western feminism and grand narratives”) and the books in which her work appears (Unsettling Eurocentrism in the Westernized University). This is the work of postcolonialism, a framework heavily influenced by the rot of postmodernism, a politics that fractures the epistemology of truth-seeking into standpoints based on gender, race, and other sociocultural categories. Otele holds a PhD in history from Sorbonne University in France (the university where Michel Foucault earned his).

Postcolonialism is a political agenda that aims to delegitimize Western societies—societies based on civil and human rights, equality, liberalism, and secularism—in order to retribalize the populations that dwell in there and establish a de jure hierarchy of privilege based on an ever expanding plethora of imagined communities. Central to this politics is the demonization of Europeans, typically those identified as white and especially males, by hanging around their necks an historical albatross, namely the sins of colonialism and slavery, practices perpetrated for thousands of years by a myriad of societies, including African. With the practice of selectively reaching into the past for perpetrators from which to extract some good or service, Bristol University becomes responsible in some special manner for a wrong they did not perpetrate—even if we reckon the dead among the defendants.

Wielding this cosmology, Otele is like a religious zealot. When you read her words you are imbibing religious-like dogma full of spooky jargon.
It’s from this standpoint that Otele feels it is appropriate to claim a higher moral plane that permits her to tell others who do not share the sacred stigma of skin color that they are because of their privileged ancestry not in a position to make judgments about the present with respect to other groups—on just about any matter, for that matter, even their own realities, since the deeds of their ancestors disqualifies them from claiming equal measures of agency and humanity. But people who were never slaves have no special claim to make on the matter. I’m quite sure Otele was never a slave. Nor was she raised by parents who were. Nor were her grandparents or great grandparents slaves. Slavery is not in her realm of possible experience. Certainly skin color gives her no claim to the pains of slavery. Ancestry provides no special platform from which to preach a gospel of racial resentment. I’m just as qualified as Otele is to make judgements about whether it is wise to dwell in the past or move on from it.

Ironically, Otele is claiming a privilege based on ancestry, a privilege she claims white people collectively enjoy. Apparently hypocrisy is not a sin in her religion. When people claim skin-color privilege they confirm the racial bias that lies at the heart of their worldview, a worldview that drives the grievance industry. To be sure, there are those who enable this dogma, chief among them those “woke” whites who have been convinced of the fiction of inherited guilt. But this mythology should have no hold on those who reject the dogma—which we must if we want to keep a society based on individual rights and personal freedom. Of course, the dogma will continue to enthrall those who see benefit in a society organized around the unjust redistribution of resources (which should in any case be determined on a material basis, not on the basis of imagined communities).

There is a fundamental truth here: You cannot really be hurt by something that never happened to you. Of course you can feel for those who have suffered. And you can regret the loss and pain of a loved one. This is empathy. But you can only imagine that embody a past historical person, a person you never knew, a person who has become an group abstraction. Imagining somebody else’s suffering entitles you to some thing—such as a claim to emotional privilege—is an exercise of manufactured victimhood. It’s shamefully laying claim to the suffering of others, in this case those who do not suffer in their graves. Akin to stolen valor, this is vicarious martyrdom.

Why are so many people enabling this practice? And at their expense? Does this mass psychology speak to the diminishment of organized religion in the secular nation-state? The alienated clamoring for the transcendent? All the more reason to promote humanism and reason as the basis of ethical and moral understanding.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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