Thursday, April 26, 2012

How Wrong is Racism?

According to Geoffrey Pullum at the Language Log, ‘there really isn't anything I despise and abhor more than racism.’ He also says, ‘Racism is the great evil of the past two centuries, the absolute worst social scourge of modern times, the very first thing I would get rid of if I could be made ruler of the universe for a quarter of an hour.

These are extreme and definitive assertions, presumably sincerely meant. He is a man who expresses himself well. And it’s not an exaggeration intended to serve as a defence against what’s to come. So, without any intention to criticise, I shall take it at face value and respond.

Racism of any kind is a peculiarly unpleasant business because it exposes the baseness of the human mind. Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiastic armchair anthropologist. I love discovering the ways in which we are different and trying to understand them. Which doesn’t mean that many of those customs and mores aren’t abhorrent by any standards. Plenty of tribes, even today, would kill you as soon as look at you, for not being one of them, and think nothing of it. There is an instinct deep within us, a part of being human, which tells us not only to despise but to deny the very humanity of anyone who is not part of our social group. Can any reader tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi? No, neither can I, but they can, and it matters so much to them that they murdered each other by the million a few years ago.

We want to believe that civilization and the enlightenment of broadened experience have placed us far above these primitive instincts, and enabled us to replace them with other, better ways of interpreting our relations with others. But the casual dismissal of strangers who are in some way not like us can be constantly seen even in people who genuinely believe they are above it.

Whether it is the worst thing there is, the greatest scourge of our time, is a matter of perspective. Most Eastern Europeans would doubtless disagree, as would most of the Chinese and a lot of sub-Saharan Africans. The French of the late 18th and 19th C would probably disagree as well, as would the homosexuals of Uganda and Iran and the women of Saudi Arabia. There have been many societies in recent times in which the crudest hatreds were expressed in terms of political or socio-economic identities rather than racial ones. The greatest scourge is the hatred that is threatening your life or condemning you to misery.

The post is worth a read, if only to get you thinking about exactly where one man’s freedom ends and another starts. Certain things go unclarified, such as whether the tweets in question did in fact cause anyone to be attacked or otherwise harmed, and whether the people at whom the remarks were aimed were participating freely in a conversation with Stacey, or were unilaterally targeted by him. It seems to me that this makes a very big difference.


Vincent said...
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Vincent said...

Yes, I agree with you. Pullum, who I've never agreed with anyway, errs in my view in pontificating on behalf of everyone, whereas you wisely point out that "the greatest scourge" can only be judged subjectively. I've said in other contexts that one calls evil is in fact the thing which threatens one, not some force like Satan with an energy all its own. So that the greatest of evils may have been accomplished thoughtlessly without malevolence. And yet malevolence is not necessarily the greatest evil. I mean if it is kept in one's own heart and struggled against it isn't evil at all, unless one presents it to a priest in confession.

CIngram said...

Since he has no financial or political interest (as far as I know) in defending that position, and he is too intelligent to use it as an artificial lead into the article he was writing, I can only assume that it was a sincere state of a belief derived from his particular experience of what is worst in humanity.

Evil is, in Christian theology (as I vaguely recall) simply the absence of God. Evil in the human heart comes from rejecting God. But in normal human terms evil is something that strikes us as so bad that we cannot imagine doing it ourselves (or possibly we can and recoil in horror at the possibility). Presumably Geoff Pullum's heart recoils in horror from racism more than from any other any other base human failing, but he is wrong to attribute that experience to everyone.

For whatever reason I have not directly, in my own person or in that of those around me, experienced racism as the profoundest of horrors. Perhaps this is a question of luck. But certainly the greatest evil to which I , personally, have been exposed, is that of Basque terrorism. When living in the region I saw what the deliberate dehumanisation of those held to be the enemy (anyone who isn't with you) looks like, in the faces, words and actions of some of the people with whom I came into contact.

The Basques are in general a fine, outward-looking, hardworking, business-like people, hospitable, generous friendly, almost exhaustingly so at times, deeply human in the noblest sense of the word. Sadly there is in their midst a small group of men and women who attempt to sew pure inhuman hatred, with some very limited but horrifyingly real success.

Perhaps that hatred is racism of sorts, but it has nothing to do with colour or origin. It's about ideas, and a different kind of tribalism.