Tuesday, November 08, 2005

discriminating discrimination

Racism, ethnocentrism, prejudice/bigotry, stereotyping, generalizations, judgment. Currently, Liberals* in America seem to see “racism” everywhere, from the number of blacks in prison to the federal response to Katrina. This pisses off Conservatives to no end, because they do not see themselves as racist. Now, I don’t know if racism is prevalent in American right now or not, mostly because I’m not that good at mind-reading, but I rather think not. I also think that this problem, like so many others, is a language problem. I feel stupid having to do this, but it seems like we’re not all on the same page about this, and to try and get everyone on the same page, let’s look at some key terms.
“Racism” is “thinking one racial group inherently superior, in morals or intelligence, to another.” I think racism used to be prevalent in America; that is, I think a lot of whites used to think they were genetically superior to other racial groups. Thus the now-discredited practice of measuring the craniums of members of various racial groups in an attempt to fit the latter on an incorrectly-imagined evolutionary ladder, with the caliper-holders conveniently at the top. Because this term has a perfectly good definition, and because it plays an important role in history, I don’t like to see its scope expanded so much that its application becomes worthless. Hitler was a racist; Bush, from what I’ve read of him, is not. Liberals sling it around for its scary effect, much as pro-lifers like to appropriate the legal term “murder” for its emotional effect, rather than simply using “kill”. They also project it upon others from their own “liberal, white guilt” derived, no doubt, from perceiving the links between slavery and the SUVs in their driveways. I am aware that language changes, and I am not the “language police”, but I am a big fan of the truth, and “truth” is all about correct use of language.
“Ethnocentrism” is “thinking one’s own cultural group is superior to another.” (I switch from “ethnicity” to “culture” because the former is too slippery and because there is no word “culture-centrism”.) This is prevalent in many cultures, usually for no better reason than a lot of people have the “the sports team in my area is better than the sports team in your area” attitude found on Onion t-shirts. It shows up in history as, for example, the whole “white man’s burden” thing, and goes around today under the guise of “patriotism”. This term doesn’t get much airtime because it is perceived as too academic and, hey, who doesn’t love their country? (Well, I don’t. I don’t think a country is a morally appropriate object of love. Why should I care less about people who hold different passports? And as for pride, well, pride is always wrong. Don’t get me wrong: citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights, and national defense is one of the former. There may be many good reasons to fight a defensive war, but “love of country” is not one of them.) “Reasons” for ethnocentrism are usually lofty and vague to the point of meaninglessness (“a free way of life” or “5000 years of history,” etc.).
“Prejudice” (in this case) and “bigotry” both mean an “irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.” There seems to be a lot of this around, perhaps because in rationalizing ethnocentrism, folks often find it easier to denegrate other groups rather than to come up with real reasons why their own group is in fact superior. The key word here is “irrational”; people are often prejudiced because as kids they picked up goofy ideas from their parents or peers which make a lifelong impression on them. While I may not think there is a lot of racism in America, I do think there is a considerable amount of racial prejudice. I also think most of it is kind of low-level and barely conscious, and stems from a vague “fear of the other” rather then from any articulated considerations. Of the six or seven words I look at today, “prejudice” and/or “bigotry” connote an emotional reaction to something, whereas the others can all be purely intellectual.
A “stereotype” is “a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.” Well, okay, but I’d rather just call it “a racial generalization.” You know: Germans are fastidious, Italians are unpunctual, Jews are unusually concerned with money, that kind of thing. As such, I’d rather deal with it in the next category.
A “generalization” is “a principle, statement, or idea having general application.” Amadan says here that “All generalizations are wrong. Including this one.” He’s only half right. (That’d be the second half, for those of you not paying attention.) Liberals hate racial generalizations and we’re often told not to “perpetuate stereotypes”. But why? Now there are of course correct and incorrect generalizations, but generalizations that make it to the rank of accepted stereotype usually do so for a reason. Big deal; if they’re generally true and sometimes useful, why pretend otherwise? Obviously I will not defend all stereotypes, just as I won’t defend all generalizations, because some are simply incorrect. But I do think it is not wrong to have stereotypes and to make generalizations. Sure, there’s a “danger” that generalizations will be applied in all cases, and not just generally, as the name implies. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Generalizations are useful; they are, in fact, essential to learning. Racial generalizations do not apply to every member of the target group: that’s why they are called “generalizations”.
Finally, “judgment” is “the formation of an opinion after consideration or deliberation.” This is also something that we’re often counseled against: in the common coin, “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Mt.7.1; though, to be fair, there are loads of places in this text that say the opposite). But this is just stupid. Making moral judgments is the essense of morality. I think this is precisely what CUNY prof. Timothy Shortell was saying with his assertion that people who derive their morality from revelation are “moral retards”. (It is not that religious folk are immoral, but rather that reliance on revealed morality delays the growth of morality by relieving the person of the duty of making rational morality claims themselves.) Broadly speaking, judgment is necessary to function as a human; morally speaking, it is imperative for morality construction. There are bad judgments, just as there are incorrect generalizations, but it does not follow from recognizing this that we should not engage in generalizing and judging.
Why am I getting into this now? Three things. The first is Majikthise calling a teenager a racist when he insisted he was not. He wore a KKK t-shirt to school and got beat up for it. He is quoted here thus: “‘I'm not racist or anything,’ he said. ‘It's just, some people I hate, some people I don't get along with. And black people just happen to be the ones because they think they're better than everyone else.’” The particulars of this 29 Aug 05 incident do not interest me very much, but several Liberal blogger’s responses to it does. Steve Gilliard asks “Does he even know what the word means?” Do you, Steve? Okay, at this point maybe you think I’m just being too literal, that yes, racism technically has the meaning as defined above, but that it is now used to simply mean “making derogatory statements against a racial group.” (Unless, of course, the target group is Caucasian.) Since in my experience black people do not “think they’re better than everyone else,” I would call the teenager’s reason for hating blacks “irrational” and call him “prejudiced” or a “bigot”. I also suspect that, if he were asked, he would admit that his “I hate blacks” rhetoric is rather poor code for “I hate the black kids at my school who’ve been mean to me,” though I certainly could be wrong.
Let’s take a hypothetical situation. A college student from an unspecified east Asian country comes to Chicago for university. She has no prior thoughts about black America. After arriving, her only personal experience with black people is in the form of threatening beggars on the street and rude check-out clerks at the local stores. She notes that all the crime commited in her mostly white neighborhood and reported in the local paper is done by blacks. She repeatedly witnesses black kids vandalizing cars. She sees black culture represented on TV via mainly via rap videos. She forms a decidedly unfavorable opinion. Perhaps she says “I hate black people.” Perhaps someone asks her to clarify a bit, and it turns out that what she really meant was “I hate current, American, black, youth culture.” Is this a racist statement? Is it even prejudicial?
Second, Chris Clarke called this cartoon by John McPherson racist. I don’t see how it is.
Last, what really made me pick up my pencil, was reading this post by Michael Berube on 05 Nov 05 and then reading this article by Christopher Hitchens on 07 Nov 05. The first is a Liberal blog that criticizes Conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh for saying, in 2003, that “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.” Berube counters by saying this makes no sense as there were ten black quarterbacks in the NFL that year, and why would the NFL single out only one for extra hype? Well, I don’t know, not being a serious American football fan, but I might guess that the difference was this particular quarterback was on a more winning team that year and was therefore more in the public eye? Whatever, I don’t really care; what caught my attention was my reading a Liberal blog going on about Conservative racism, and then reading an article by someone whom Liberals count as a Conservative that was all about 400,000 blacks getting killed in Darfur over the last year or two, while Liberals counseled “diplomacy” and “no war”. I know, I know: bloggers can write about whatever the hell they want to write about, we can’t all talk about the big issues all the time, etc. It just struck me as odd: reading a presumably liberal piece trying (and in my opinion, not really succeeding) to paint a Conservative as racist for saying that that a black quarterback two years ago got a bit of extra hype because blacks are underrepresented in the quarterback position. And then reading a presumably conservative piece lamenting the deaths of 400,000 blacks that could have been prevented if “liberals” were actually committed to spreading liberalism.

I use “Liberal” to denote the current, American, stereotypical “left”, which in some rather important political aspects do not appear “liberal” to me. I think Berube is a "Liberal” and Hitchens is a “liberal”. And I use “Conservative” conversely. Yes, I know what a “neo-conservative” is, thank you.)


Blogger Cliff said...

But surely you're aware that I actually favor international intervention in Darfur?

So much for that juxtaposition with Hitchens.

4:36 AM  
Blogger ostranenie said...

Okay. But doesn't everybody? The key qualifier "international" kind of guarantees that no actual "intervention" will ever occur. Hitchens implies in that article that he would support a "unilateral" invervention. If you would not, then it seems to me the juxtaposition still stands.

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