Thursday, August 1, 2013

Musings on Racism

Recently I took part in a very interesting conversation about racism (tribalism, factionism, whatever it is that makes people pick a side to defend or attack in social situations where something important seems to be at stake).  Here are some scraps of ideas I was not willing to throw away into the dark bowels of the NSA's storage crypts.  Comments adapted from people other than me are in bold.

[A] Some amount of inter-tribal animosity is human nature: we can't change that, and thinking we can is a dangerous utopian illusion (that plays out badly in history, as people claim to transcend their tribalism only to come up very short). On the other hand, the harm and injustice caused by this unfortunate trait is magnified hugely if there's a macro-level system in which some tribes hold disproportionate amounts of power.

[B] As one who typically has no answers, I must wonder about education.  But I am not sure what that means. The phrase walk a mile in another's shoes rings in my mind, but I am tilting at windmills. 

Walking in another's shoes is a good exercise, until one thinks one has done it and discovered the one true road for someone else to walk.

The problem I see with all "naive" attempts at liberalism is that they fail to see how they set themselves up to devolve into more and more restrictive tyranny (as the people's champions encounter tribalism and fight to eradicate it rather than minimize its capacity to do damage). Any attempt to build a heaven in which humanity responds to one good (one universal Platonic Form of goodness) in one way (the way of the philosopher-king) will always produce damaging authoritarianism, even when we call that one good "liberty" and the way we choose to pursue it "democracy" (vel sim.). The words don't matter as much as what they signify, and that is always going to be something bad to the extent that we imagine situations in which I tell you what to do, how to behave, etc., without leaving you clear, legal, respectable options for protest, rebellion, and dissent. Every person is tribalist. Every person will reach a point at which she breaks and goes for the jugular. The utopians (liberals, Marxists, religious fundamentalists, supremacists, fascists, it matters not what they call themselves) who imagine that this can be bred out of us, that we can be effectively broken and domesticated out of our humanity, are dangerous lunatics--most especially when they manage to appear sane.

What is dangerous is not their individual motives, which may be excellent (indeed it is always best to give them the benefit of the doubt here), but the dangerous practical imbalance these motives historically create when they become implemented as public policy.

I can learn to suppress my tribalism where it appears obnoxious to me and society. I cannot learn to unmake it (and transform myself into the holy saint that the utopians require to make their pie in the sky edible). Note that tribalism as I use it here is more than any historical instance of racism: it is the general category behind all particular instances of racism. Human beings have always been divided into competing hostile factions. We can improve relations between factions, enlarge factions, redefine factions, etc., and we have done so repeatedly in history. We cannot erase the faction as the bedrock of humanity--a source of both good and evil, both of which are requisite for our survival. Another way to say this: the evil that we call "racism" (or "tribalism" or "faction") is the same thing as the good that we call "community" (or "family" or "tribe" or "culture"). We can get better at prescribing the drug of culture (modifying its content and varying the dosage with historical circumstances), but we cannot engineer it to be utterly non-lethal. That would destroy its utility (and doom us to destruction).

[A] On a genetic level, ideas of "race" are pretty much noise. In terms of cultural and historical identities, however, they are very relevant. My appearance does affect how people will react to me on an everyday basis, and the appearance of my ancestors affected the future opportunities of their progeny since it was a factor in what society gave them economically.

Whether it's "socially programmed" or not doesn't matter, because whether I personally ignore people's "race" or not does not change that there existed at some point biases and chain-reactions (their parents were given less opportunity, so they themselves grew up less affluent) with a significant influence on where they stand now.

There are males who see "us and them" when it comes to females. But I call BS on "male culture" as something coherent. Of course hormones influence behavior (in generically categorizable ways even), but I don't share any meaningful culture with some other dude merely because we both have balls (and/or elevated testosterone levels).

Talking about "male culture" as something particularly real--something responsible for coherent causes operating on a discrete individual, such that my opening the door for somebody with a vagina means that I must endorse your intention of raping her--is ludicrous, obscene, and the opposite of empowering (for anyone). "Black culture" is the same. As is "white culture." (I utterly reject the idea that I must share sympathy with someone because we both have relatively low melanin levels. How are Beethoven and Eminem alike? How is their likeness more important, more real, than their unlikeness?) And of course "American culture" (vomit). These are words people like to burp out, words that occasionally even seem to mean something--an unfortunate semblance when we confuse it with verity (enshrining it in statistics, where it can live on in the mind of the faithful determined to see me as nothing more than a pawn in the invisible hand of "the media" or "the neo-con movement" or "the Tea Party" or "corporate Mormonism" or "right-wing America" or some other impossible chimaera).

[A] I agree with some of your points, but I'm wondering if you're suggesting that all distinctive cultures are bullshit.

I don't think they are. But I do think people mischaracterize (misgeneralize, jump from true particular instances to false general conclusions). When people say the words "white culture" or "male culture" or "black culture," they are referring to something individually, particularly real (something they know from their experience). When they look at me as a stranger and assume I must match their experience (i.e. when they generalize from the particular), they go wrong. Attempts to correct what is wrong with their particular experience via generic conversations that rely on unexamined false identities are doomed (when blacks aren't black, whites aren't white, and I am not a male). 

To me it seems that many invocations of racism (whether by proud neo-Nazis or penitent progressives) come from a perspective antithetical to justice.

It isn't unjust if 100% of prison inmates in some random locale are white, or I
rish, or Catholic, or left-handed, or male, or 6 feet tall, or illiterate, or whatever. It is unjust if one of those inmates is falsely accused, negligently tried, and fraudulently convicted--no matter what he looks like and/or who finds him creepy (criminal: "kill the creeps!") or socially maladjusted (pitiful: "but this little guy was only a small boy looking for some harmless fun!").

That said, people who cry "racism!" are not always bad (working against justice) or wrong (misperceiving what justice should be): there are legitimate times to push back against people making unfair and unnecessary generalizations, generalizations that hurt innocent individuals.

Rosa Parks had a point, a good one, and she made it well. I hope I would have been brave enough back in the day to stand with her when idiots made the argument that black people (or brown people or yellow people or tall people or short people or skinny people or fat people, etc. ad nauseam) should be refused common human courtesy (e.g. a seat on the bus that you pay for and occupy peacefully to the obvious pain and detriment of nobody who isn't perfectly willing and able to bear it) merely because they carry some external characteristic (melanin, a tattoo, a turban, a mustache, balls, birth defects, etc.) that some fool associates with criminal activity or social ickiness ("You're on your period? Unclean! No menstruating women allowed in grocery stores! Where's my congressman! Where's the police! Somebody pass a law and give me the hand-cuffs!").

The Civil Rights Movement, in my eyes, was about pushing past stupid barriers blocking our political and civil discourse--stupid barriers like the idea that all black people are evil hooligans and/or lesser forms of life that shouldn't be allowed to mingle peacefully with "decent folk" (as though such a category were clearly defined in reality: "Please collect your 'decent human being badge' at Window 8, citizen, and remember to display it prominently on your person at all times!"). The Civil Rights Movement aimed to get us past seeing a guy and thinking, "Ooh! He's wearing a turban! Must be an evil Arab terrorist! Attack!" It was about process (treating all folk as equally innocent until proven guilty), not results (counting up the 'proven guilty' at the end of the day and making sure each demographic in society is appropriately represented: we all know that criminals get together with Satan every Tuesday down at Larry's nightclub and determine how many blacks, Latinos, and whites are going to commit felonies that week, making sure that there are no communities where any single 'race' is ever responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime).

I support the Civil Rights Movement (as outlined above). I do not support people whose idea of it is diametrically opposed to mine, such that we become more focused on results than process, more keen to entrench stupid notions of collective culture as something permanent--and diagnosable: "I see you have some white culture there, my friend! Let me help you carry this burden!" The point is that the burden is impossible, idiotic, and immoral. There is no white culture that applies universally to all of us (Irish, Scottish, English, French, German: my ancestors hated each other every bit as much as competing African tribes). There never was, not even when a bunch of nitwits got together recently in the Deep South and tried to claim "the Bible says so!" (my Bible says you are full of crap, idiots). There should not be. Individual people should not be presumed guilty because of some random characteristic they share with other people whom somebody else finds threatening (for whatever reason: some reasons are good, and some are total garbage).

[C] There is no white culture but there is undeniable white privilege. As long as you "pass" you are afforded it. 

I think we should make a point of sending young people abroad somewhere they cannot pass. I spent two years in northern Spain doing obnoxious door-to-door saleswork at a time when many people over there were very angry at Americans. My skin color was not an issue, but I did not pass, and it was not fun. It was a really good learning experience. 

[C] Agreed. I spent a very uncomfortable week in the West Bank and not knowing the language, looking different (and evil), can definitely afford some perspective.

Personally, I think outcomes are most likely to improve systemically as we consciously refute and throw mud on the human tendency to draw lines in the sand that are unnecessarily harmful.

The existence of "black culture" as something actionable, something that se
ts "young blacks" apart from the rest of America (with whatever intention), seems to me fundamentally evil. Sure, some people will separate them. Some people will say they are creeps who should be shunned (or shot when seen "acting suspicious" and/or physically confronting somebody in a threatening way). Others will say they are poor persecuted infants who should be kissed and hugged and cradled. I say no to both parties. If I were black, I wouldn't want your irrational hatred or your irrational love: I would want the freedom to live as free of you and your misconceived notions about me as possible. Keep your love and your hate, and let me be. I would want some human decency, some respect, something more than a beat-down or a hand-out "because you're black." This, incidentally, is precisely what I wanted from the Spanish people, in real time. I don't care if they hate Americans or love them, personally: all I want is the freedom to do my work in their society without having to be the poster-boy for America (whether that means taking a physical beating because of my Americanism or getting a pat on the back and a rousing speech about how great George W. Bush is).

[D]  Personally, I found out rather late in life that I had a black great-grandfather. Does this mean that I'm "black"? Does this mean that I'm not "white"? The reality is that I was brought up thinking I was entirely white (inspite of only having to look at my mother and grandfather to see the obvious), when I really am partially black.  I think that we're talking about random, irrationally created thought constructs that have nothing to do with reality. Why can't we allow each individual's experience to be their own?  

People will profile you. They have to. Life has built profiling into our DNA (with good reason: I fear gangs of young people hanging about in public places to this day because I was physically assaulted by one such mob and threatened by others). But this reality doesn't have to be destructive. I can learn to hold back my feelings of irrational anger when I see teenagers together at the mall. I can refrain from following them around waiting for something, with a gun in my pocket. I can even be nice to them when occasion offers (as I was, in fact, when attacked: I think that may be part of what saved me from getting some serious injuries).

PTSD is real. People who are raped or otherwise violated have issues, justifiably and unavoidably. But the solution is not to mark and remove anything that might be a trigger to those issues. We have to deal with them--as individuals more than as communities, it seems to me. The community helps best when it emphasizes solidarity ("we are all in this together!") rather than factionism ("look at those awful/pitiful weirdos over there! kill/kiss them!"), and process ("you do X in this town, and the result is Y--no ifs ands or buts") over results ("well, you are a special case, since people take a shine to you: the rules don't apply any more!"). That is my opinion, which I don't expect anyone else to hold (necessarily) or blame anyone else for not holding. Life would be boring if we all thought the same way.

[A] How can the individual feel that society denies him access to his own identity? 

In Spain, I was an American. In Spain, all Americans hate Iraq. That's why we all got together and appointed Bush II absolute dictator and then took voluntary tours of duty with the Army to kill Iraqi babies. People didn't see me. They saw this thuggish G.I. Joe stereotype and reacted with disgust, hatred, and occasionally violence.

(And of course not all Spaniards saw me this way. Far from it! I would go back if given the chance, and I find many things to love about Spanish culture, not least among them the fact that there is no such thing that all legal Spaniards agree on.)

[D] Personal experience is all we have and the only thing that counts. Everything else is the narrative fallacy. We have to get back to this ultimate reality, since that's the only thing that really matters. All of this discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin doesn't matter at all. 

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