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.