Friday 28 February 2020

Is Racism Irrational?

Method In Our Madness? When a liberal-democratic society encounters racism its first impulse is to shut it down – not interrogate it. But, is this wise? Is it reasonable to assume that a phenomenon as powerful, pernicious and persistent as racism is entirely without purpose? Surely, there must be, as Shakespeare puts it: “method in [this] madness”?

IS IT TRUTHFUL and, more importantly, is it helpful, to describe racism as irrational? Intellectually speaking, isn’t characterising this form of human behaviour as irrational just a sneaky way of letting ourselves off the hook? When somebody is being irrational we tell them to calm down and come back to their senses. Our own senses being safely accounted for, we seldom think to question our own assumptions. Similarly, when a liberal-democratic society encounters racism its first impulse is to shut it down – not interrogate it. But, is this wise? Is it reasonable to assume that a phenomenon as powerful, pernicious and persistent as racism is entirely without purpose? Surely, there must be, as Shakespeare puts it: “method in [this] madness”?

Certainly there is an extremely powerful evolutionary “method” in our response to human-beings with whom we are unfamiliar. Our “reptilian” brains kick into action immediately upon encountering anyone who looks and sounds different to our own family/clan/tribe. It does this without bothering to consult the more ruminative parts of our brain. In the dangerous world of our distant human ancestors there simply wasn’t time to ruminate. Fight or flight is the only decision to be made when one’s survival is at stake, and it must to be made in a nanosecond.

This instinctive wariness of the “Other” can, of course, be socially reinforced. If a tribe has, historically, been subjected to the constant attacks of another tribe, then its children will be taught from an early age to recognise the members of that tribe and to treat them with the greatest circumspection. If circumstances permit, these enemies of the tribe may be attacked, tortured and killed. If not, then they should be fled from with all speed and the alarm raised.

Consider, though, where we now find ourselves. Already we have conceded that there are circumstances in which the Other may be viewed, quite legitimately – and perfectly rationally – in a negative light. To discriminate (i.e. to distinguish one thing from another) is no sin. Not when your life may depend on how skilled you are at distinguishing enemies from friends.

You can see where this is going – can’t you? The more complex the society, the more complicated the process of distinguishing enemies from friends becomes. The enemy formerly recognisable by the weapons he carried and/or the decoration of his body, is now to be distinguished by the house of worship he attends, or the books he keeps in his bookcase.

Such complexity is multiplied considerably when the wealth and power of one’s own people has come to depend upon the labour power and/or resources taken forcibly from people in other parts of the world. To enslave someone is to make them your enemy – if not forever, then, at the very least, until the moment you set them free.

In such fraught circumstances, is it rationality – or something else – that identifies the advantages of enslaving people who are as readily distinguishable from their masters as day is from night, and black is from white? Moreover, wouldn’t rationality also argue in favour of fearing the people you have for so long oppressed? If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you be ravenous for revenge? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to seize all the wealth and power made possible by your blood, sweat and tears? It may, or may not, be rational to hate what we fear – but it is very common.

And, in the context of our own history, wasn’t it rational for the British colonisers to first weaken the indigenous Maori (by selling them grog and muskets) then to lull them into a false sense of security (by promising to recognise the authority of their chiefs) and then to dispossess them (by unleashing war upon New Zealand’s tangata whenua the moment the Crown had built up the population and infrastructure necessary to defeat them)? And isn’t it equally rational, more than a century-and-a-half later, for the tangata whenua to seek to reverse their dispossession by challenging the Pakeha descendants of those settlers/thieves to make good the enduring harms and injustices inflicted by the colonisation process?

To describe racism as madness is to fundamentally misunderstand its method. To be a racist is to be either the protector of your people; or, the ruthless defender of everything your people has taken from others.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 February 2020.


greywarbler said...

There was reference I think to wokeness in the hate speech and Little essay. Racism has become part of this growing sensitivity to whatever is the personal fetish in fashion at the moment. People may wonder whether applying quotas to encourage new people of colour into a new area is going to be complained of as reverse-racism on top of the usual moans of the rejected from the previously advantaged set.

This from an article below on the arts in The Telegraph about wokeness in Britain. It seems to tap into the shallow neo liberal values that are commonly spouted.

Everyone must have issues, every drama must have a feminist message, and Brexit lingers like a bad smell. So Ebenezer Scrooge is mean because he was sexually abused as a boy, and offers to pay for Tiny Tim’s medical bills in return for forced sex with Mrs Cratchit.

Odysseus said...

Race is a red herring. Culture, including language, social organization, technology and religion, is the major determinant of differences between groups. The British largely admired Maori and aspired to transform Maori into "brown Britishers" - race was irrelevant, "Britishness" was the key. Many Maori leaders went along with that aspiration, viewing service to the Crown in two world wars as a way of proving their worth as citizens. The British were reluctant colonizers in New Zealand's case - the Colonial Office in London was not keen in 1840 to take on further, onerous responsibilities. Their eventual agreement to the establishment of British sovereignty was intended to protect Maori and establish law and order. The guns and rum that had caused massive loss among Maori in tribal warfare had been traded well before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed - their supply was not an act of British policy. European technology introduced by settlers and taken up by some Maori went on to transform the landscape of this country and generated unprecedented production and wealth. Most land was sold, not confiscated, during this transformation. Since the 1970s we have trying to address those injustices which did occur. Unfortunately however it seems history has been overtaken by Marxist revisionism and an ugly ethno-nationalism among some who claim an "indigenous" ancestor somewhere in their family history, however fleeting or distant that link might be. They are of course responding rationally to incentives to claim "racial" preference. The outlook is not hopeful.

John Hurley said...

How do you account for "The reason [the myth of Moriori extinction] became so powerfully ingrained in the psyche of New Zealanders is because, if Māori could push Moriori out of NZ, then later European migrants could push Māori off their land," he says.

"It suited the narrative, and it was a justification of European colonisation of Māori land"

Despite his people being enslaved, ritually slaughtered etc his vitriol is for Pakeha?
All this is covered by genetic similarity theory although it could also be that he is demonstrating in-group loyalty (in-group being Media Party etc)?

pat said...

except that our reptilian brain is inaccurate...the real threat is often from within and unseen (in time)

sumsuch said...

From reading your below-photo. Racism is natural scape-goatism and how power treats the defeated. We on the Left understand implicitly Maori are victims rather than the malefactors of Pakeha who don't think enough, though enough to feel for their privilege.

I've never banished someone for racism. Yes, it's an interrogation. I'm always afraid to veer near 'Maori' with my dear customers, racism springs up full strong from nowhere, even from people who I view as treasures. If I feel close I talk about my good experiences and how no native populations conquered are on the bounce. I remember a very compatible Gay NZ Irish couple I worked for who also needed someone to kick and did so without reflection.

sumsuch said...

Our understanding of others. The dairy cat over the road, in a housing corp suburb, is perfectly at home with people. Her experience of many people hasn't alienated her at all. Everyone is all good, til not, to her. With my native reserve I have to defer to her understanding of her experience. Oh, suspicion, kills so much.

David George said...

Our instinctive responses have evolved over millions of years; a fascinating field of study - evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.
We have a strong aversion to snakes and crocodiles for a very good reason, failure to instantaneously recognise them as a threat meant death and no offspring. These fears are so deep they manifest themselves in our mythology - the dragon in Europe or the Taniwha here; the archetypal predator, the underworld, the unknown and the emblem of chaos itself.
"What's common across all predators equals dragon"

Anonymous said...

The casual racism of white women has gone on long enough! It's time to call it out! Most of you have by now seen the video of the white woman Ebony Bowden laughing and making fun of a veteran long term Indian white house reporter Raghubir Goyal. But the racism of the average white woman has been ignored for far too long and it's time to start calling it out.

We have talked endlessly about how "young white males" are being radicalized online but what about white women? The alt-right is full of white women who make extremely racist statements casually. I won't repeat their quotes here, but we should not ignore the fact that while the alt-right is made up mostly of young white men, it also has a large percent of young white women, and considering that the alt-right has beliefs shared by tens of millions of Americans, that is millions of white American women who are racist.

On neo-nazi websites like GAB, or on lesser known sites like "FreeSpeechExtremist", white women both young and old shamelessly make racist, hateful statements and some even do it in their real legal name, not even hiding behind fake annoymous names. This is what entitled racism looks like, and white women are the epitome of it, because we refuse to call out white women's racism and hold them accountable.

Do I even need to remind you that 52% of white women voted for an openly racist white supremacist President in 2016?

David George said...

Pat: "the real threat is often from within and unseen"
I think that's right Pat, there's always a snake in the garden. You can build a wall, excessively protect yourself or your children from the outside threat but reality, nature is not a simple, benign good; you will be challenged.
We see this truth in mythology and religion; the snake in the Garden of Eden or, more symbolically, in the black or white dot in the yin yang symbol.
If you have the time, perhaps this winter, set some aside to watch "The psychological significance of the biblical stories" free on you tube. It's very good, life changing even.

Geoff Fischer said...

The Covid-19 outbreak exposes the practical value of xenophobia. If Maori and Polynesians generally had been more consistently hostile to strangers, they would not have been so quickly decimated by European diseases.
New products that come with cultural assimilation, such as muskets, rum and tobacco, also had a detrimental impact on indigenous populations, as do cultural practices, right up to and including systems of government.
So there are valid reasons to fear the stranger, just as there may be valid reasons to welcome him.
The situation is complicated in New Zealand because so many of those condemning "xenophobia" and "racism" who hide behind protestations of altruism actually have a vested interest in exploiting aliens, immigrants and those of other races as well as their own people.
If we are to make well-reasoned moral judgements, it will be on the basis of "whakaaro pai ki nga tangata katoa" and and a tikanga of social justice for all who live within the motu regardless of colour or creed.
There is no place for racism or xenophobia but we do need to be honest about race. For example we should not pretend that all ethnic populations share the same physical, mental or social characteristics, and we should not assume that all cultures are morally equivalent.
We need to look at the world honestly objectively while treating individuals with aroha and manaakitanga. Sadly the colonial political establishment seems incapable of doing either.

AB said...

Racism is the belief in race. The scientific world and United nations have dismissed 'race' as a concept since WWII. If we accept that racism is rational, we are accepting that race is a scientific fact, which it is not. Racism is, therefore, the belief in something that does not exist. The conclusion is that it is irrational. This does not mean racism is not a powerful force, indeed, the belief in race is racism. If we are to be a safe and progressive society, we have to counter racism at the source, that is the belief in race.

Mike Grimshaw said...

AB is correct; what is really under discussion is how people respond to a combination of ethnicity, culture, class, religion, history and claims of essentialism. The real issue is that of claims of power and identity and who gets to participate in society and how.
The problem with claims it is 'rational' to do x or y is that such decision are hardly - if ever- 'rational'. Rather a 'rational decision tends to be one that has feelings, prejudice, self-interest, power relations, culture, religion or anti-religious positions, identity, history etc all caught up in it, but is called 'rational as an act of power...

Shane McDowall said...

If you have not read US radio personality Howard Stern's hilarious autobiography "Private Parts", then you need to.

I just loved his chapter on immigration. The subtitle of the chapter was "If you are not like me I hate you".

His views on immigration - but especially immigrants who refuse to assimilate - are much like mine.

Multiculturalism and The Rainbow come in for a dose of his reality.

John Hurley said...

AB rubbish. Race is "bio-social". There are biological markers.
What matters is the tribal integrity of who is "us" and how they get to be in "our" territory. Those assessments are made regardless of what elites or Antifa thinks.
And there is a neglected side to the question which is national integrity. There is no nation without an ethnic majority (and culture) yet this is what Labour set out to dismantle in 1987. The cooling of relations between Australia and NZ is due to anti-racist zelots and Indian and Chinese immigration (Paul Spoonley was offered a job in Melbourne so it doesn't matter though?) .

AB said...

John, I can only repeat, the belief in race is racism. I also repeat that the United Nations and all credible scientists have rejected race as supported by science since WWII. If you use loose phases like 'biological markers' you should be prepared to define these in alignment to what you consider a 'race'. Are these 'biological markers' visual or behavioral? I am sorry John, but before you use words such as 'rubbish', you really should try to know your own argument. Please provide a list of bio-markers that define race and credible scientist that support race as a reality. I think you will find you venture into racial stereotypes and discredited eugenicists.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Thank you AB. I see I'm not needed here – I've grown tired of the man.

Geoff Fischer said...

AB is free to make his own definition of "racism" in contradiction to the meaning which the rest of us take from authorities such as the Oxford Dictionary. However the problem with positing one's own definitions (in effect making up one's own unique language) is that it becomes impossible to engage in discourse with others.
We ordinary folk know that there among all living things, plants and animals there are species with fairly clear boundaries, and within species (breeding populations) there are races, provenances, breeds, varieties and so on which are less discrete and technically if not in practice remain part of the greater breeding population.
I don't know of any "credible scientist" who denies the existence of race, provenance, breed, variety etc and a good many scientists devote their lives to the selection and propagation of different breeds of plant and animal. You could call them eugenicists. Human beings come into a different category to agricultural plants and animals of course. We (at least those of us of a spiritual persuasion) do not set out to select
and propagate any particular race of human being. We do not deny the reality of race or whakapapa, but we do say that race is a factor which should never affect or intrude upon our relations with other human beings.

AB said...

This will be my last comment on this thread.
'In 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that "race" is not a biological reality but a myth' ROBERT WALD SUSSMAN.
Geoff, the very fact that you compare 'species' to the concept of race in humans is why it is discredited and wrong.It doe not help that you misappropriate Maori and Polynesian concepts to suggest whakapapa as race. Whakapapa is 'a heritage that derives origins from Papa' (Tui Atua Pupua Tamasese Ta'isi Efi). In New Zealand census, if you whakapapa Maori and self-identify as Maori you are Maori. That moved away from the earlier definitions that was based on the concept of race, blood percentage. Indigenous and Treaty rights are based on hapu decent, not 'race'.
While you claim a base in 'spiritual percussion, you may wish to look at the Spanish reconquista, when the inquisition decided that Spanish Jewish communities would be defined by 'race' rather than religion which began the anti-Semitic path to 20th century Germany.
I think there have been many of spiritual persuasion that have set out to select and used the concept of race to justify those they have selected.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora AB
Human beings are all of one species but can be classified into different races which have a hereditary basis. Hence the relevance of whakapapa.
If you are suggesting that race is given undue consideration in New Zealand politics I would agree. Our wars arose out of political disputes, not out of racial enmity, and the confiscations (the raupatu) were also political rather than racial. No one in the colonial establishment likes to acknowledge that truth because to do so would be in effect to query the legitimacy of the colonial regime. Much easier to pretend that the wars were all about race.
I also understand that you dislike any form of racial prejudice, discrimination or animosity. As do I.
On the whole, though, I fail to understand your arguments. It seems that you don't like the fact that there are different races, which I find rather odd because things are as they are, and we cannot avoid the fact that human beings have differentiated into races with recognisable characteristics.
Since you have decided to terminate the discussion, I will leave it at that.