#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#44: There is Too Much “Now” Today

We live in a society governed by the demands of today, of the now, of the immediate. This is, of course, not a new observation. For decades now, cultural theorists have described the decline of traditional values, of belonging, and an increasing frustration with the speed of technological and societal change. But it appears that these lessons have not only not been learned, but that we seem to have leaned in to this atmosphere of constant change and embraced it whole-heartedly.

Accepting reality is healthy, of course. We need to be mentally prepared for a life of constantly changing parameters, and ignoring such changes is not helpful. But that does not mean that we should simply give in without a fight, and lose our minds in the process.

One of the primary problems of today seems to be the loss of history. There is not just a decline in knowledge about history (which is bad enough) but even more so a decline in the awareness of history. We live in the ever-present “now”, in the ever-changing “now”, which has decreed that history would be useless, because the present would be so much different and no lessons – allegedly – could possibly be learned from it. At the same time, we are told that we are moving towards a better future, but that future will also just be an ever-expanding “now”, just a “now” that has forgotten and invalidated the past “now” because it will equally not care about history.

Even worse, it seems, is the more recent development that even the belief in a better future seems to be declining. Sure, social problems are being addressed, and so-called progressive movements claim to bring about change for the better in this regard; but is that really progressivism? Fighting social ills does not need a claimed future orientation, it needs just as much historical awareness, as much as knowledge about the suffering in the now. Progressivism used to be so much more – a future with a vision for human development, togetherness, space, technology, science etc. But that is too often disregarded as dreaming that distracts from the now. But we must be building our future in the now. We must plan big again to eradicate disease, slavery, extreme poverty, dictatorships, ameliorate climate change, save our environment, go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, right now.

Without such big goals, we cannot proceed in the now. We need to dream big. But we cannot do that without an awareness of history, of the historical moment we are in, of the challenges to humanity in the past. We need history to tell us about mistakes we may be making right now, and to also let us know when we are making progress.

If we cannot put our current situation in a historical context, we will always despair, and whatever ails us personally and societally right now will only seem so much more unsolvable. Without being aware of the demons of the past, we may not recognize them when they are return. Without serious historical grounding, we will not be able to distinguish between the very many problems we are facing. We seem to be living in a time of both complete moral relativism, and an inability to recognize nuance. We either see no problem, or every problem we see gets elevated to the most absurd degree.

The “now” removes the humility we need that can only come from historical grounding. Historical awareness lets us know where we (as people) are doing better or worse than in the past; it also tells us to be careful assuming we have all the answers – for we don’t, as the future will tell us soon enough.

#43: “Worst Persons” in the World: Hate is the New Normal

I still remember Keith Olbermann’s sometimes ironic, sometimes dead-serious takedowns of politicians and people in the public eye. His show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBNC (2003-11) started, supposedly, as a parody of the style of Bill O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” (1996-2017), then on Fox News. While Olbermann never achieved the brilliance which Stephen Colbert displayed in his all-out O’Reilly parody on the “Colbert Report” (2005-14, sorely missed!), he perfectly captured the tone not just of his time, but even more so of the time we’re graced (or cursed?) to live in.

Olbermann’s key segment was called “The Worst Person in the World”, in which he provided a regular, and predictable, personality assassination on live television. If you had never heard of “argumentum ad hominem”, an argument directed at the person rather than the issue (“argumentum ad rem”), here it was, celebrated with gusto. It captured the time perfectly. The administration of George W. Bush, as it had to survive its rocky start after a contested election victory, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a frequent and convenient target. Olbermann, the perfect showman, seized the moment and provided regular attacks against the people who committed politics he did not agree with. This was something not seen before in such a drastic and caustic style, putting even O’Reilly (whose show I really did not care for) to shame. As an all-out celebration of vicious partisan commentary, the show was a success – but what may have then been a welcome outlier to some, seems to have become the norm now, not just in journalism but in everyday life. As a previous sports commentator, Olbermann seemed to have forgotten the saying that you may hate the game, but not the player.

(To not throw Olbermann under the bus completely: he also had moments of true profundity, and changed the discourse with his powerful defense of gay marriage by just stating, in its baffling and utterly revealing simplicity, that it is just about love, and the freedom to love who you want. He also calmed down the part of the nation that listened to him with endearing readings from James Thurber’s fables.)

But back to the point about argumentative style.

Everybody you don’t like is now the worst person in the world, everything you don’t like is the worst thing in the world, liking may exist, but disliking something or not caring for or about something is out. It’s either like it or hate it. Hate is the new normal, and declaring who you like or hate is expected in everyday discourse. At the same time, the idea of “liking something” has been turned into a consumerist and corporatist tool that has completely destroyed its original meaning. Can I really “like” a certain brand just as a “like” the comment somebody made?

This culture of constantly declaring your positionality is disturbing, as it removes all sense of productive ambiguity and expects everyone to blast out their opinion into the world every chance they get. Even more disturbingly, you are now supposed to have an opinion about everything, and are tied to this opinion forever. Maybe you liked brand A in the past, now you like brand B till something better comes along or you become nostalgic. Maybe you agreed with position X back then, now favor Y, and in the future tend to return to X or choose Z.

What happened to the idea of changing your mind? If information or societal circumstances change, should we not be allowed to adjust our positions? Is not an opinion something that should be a momentary snapshot of serious judgements made depending on the specific moment in history? Do we not change over time? Are our tastes and preferences supposed to be constant? I cringe every time when people are supposed to only like the style of music that was popular when they were growing up. How limiting. I guess I have been growing up then for several millennia, appreciating music since ancient Egyptian styles. I don’t believe in limiting our horizons.

The attack on other opinions is, of course, always waged in the name of democracy, on all sides. This is nothing new,. of course:

“For, to state the truth in few words, whatever parties, during that period, disturbed the republic under plausible pretexts, some, as if to defend the rights of the people, others, to make the authority of the senate as great as possible, all, though affecting concern for the public good, contended every one for his own interest. In such contests there was neither moderation nor limit; each party made a merciless use of its successes.” (Sallust, Conspiracy of Catilina, ch. 38)

Ironically, this pretense of democracy promotion directly feeds into consumerism and marketability. Only if you voice clear opinions and preferences can market analysts and pollsters make sense out of you. Thus we surrender our capacity for a truly democratic exchange of ideas – which necessitates our opinions to change from time to time – in order to succumb to commercial market pressures and to make a mockery of an honest marketplace of ideas.

Olbermann and O’Reilly eventually ended their respective engagements, whether voluntarily or not. O’Reilly fell due to personal failures, supposedly. For the eventual end of Olbermann’s show, I credit Ben Affleck’s brilliant Saturday Night Live skit, in which he took down a hapless landlord for discriminating against his cat, “Miss Precious Perfect.” Affleck revealed Olbermann’s pomposity, defanged, or rather, declawed it. Humor is always more seditious than righteous indignation, and Jon Stewart’s sobering critical voice sorely missed.

The legacy of this ad hominem style, sadly, seems to continue with – quite literally – a vengeance.

Aren’t we tired of it yet?

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#36: Diversity Is Democracy, and It Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When we promote diversity, what does that mean?

As laid out previously, the support for diversity is a matter of equity, of justice. We are already a diverse society qua populace and history, but how this maps onto some domains of life can be seen as not as equitable as it should.

If some individuals get to be individuals, and treated as such, and others are primarily treated as members of an arbitrarily constructed group, there cannot be equity. Our society is built on the idea that individuals matter as the smallest building blocks of society, that those individuals become citizens in a society that values them, that they subscribe to an unwritten social contract that allows them participation and success in society if they follow the rules laid upon them. Citizens are both rule-takers and rule-givers. Citizens of a democratic republic are the sovereign, they are the rulers, not the ruled. This needs to be true for all of us that via our constitution hold the legal right to be called citizens.

Those who are considered citizens in the past have been a smaller group than now, and this has historical reason, of course, which we are working to overcome. We can achieve this only by rejecting the paradigm of unequal treatment, and by providing a level playing field for all. This cannot be a zero-sum game in which someone’s win has to be someone else’s loss. This is the thinking of the past. We need to work together to eliminate any kind of bias so that what Audre Lorde has called for becomes true, namely that there should be no hierarchy of oppressions.

The promotion of diversity can only mean that everyone is benefiting from this; otherwise, the result will be unproductive tokenism, resentment, push-back, and ultimate failure. Too often, just as there is corporate green-washing (the pretense of ecological investment), there is diversity-pretense, which is just the ticking-off of some hiring boxes in order to make corporations pretend to be more interested in democracy than they are.

Diversity work is equity work; the point of equity is that it should enable true equality; thus the end goal is democracy, and the promotion of true citizenship.

History tells us the lessons to learn from division. Eventually, we all share the same planet, and need to live together as equals.

#35: What Is Social Constructivism?

The key to understanding the idea that there may be no such thing as human “races,” but that there is racism, is the concept of social constructivism.

Human beings do not access reality directly, but through mental concepts about what we perceive. These concepts are usually transmitted through various means of communication. There is a difference between what is out there (objective reality), what we perceive about it (phenomenology, from the Greek word for appearance), how we sort out this kind of knowledge (epistemology, from the Greek word for knowledge), how we contextualize it into a domain of knowledge (theology, from the Greek word for gods; or philosophy, from the Greek word for the love of wisdom; or science, from the Latin word for knowledge). These knowledge domains sometimes compete with each other, but more often than not, they can cooperate.

Science, humanities and religion have worked together more frequently than we would assume. All have one approach in common: In order to deal with the difficulty that we cannot access reality directly but only through mediation via our senses or our instruments, we create a model of reality in our minds. These models may or may not directly map onto reality directly, but they can be helpful in certain situations. One of these approaches to model reality is the creation of mental constructs, which may be shared throughout a specific culture or society. These concepts are artificial, but ideally not arbitrary. Language is such a model. Linguistics tells us that there is a relation between an object and the descriptor, but that this relation is entirely arbitrary. Some words (like “bump”) may mimic a phenomenon, but not all do, and how a specific language chooses to represent a specific phenomenon varies from language to language.

Whether language is the key to human thinking can be debated. One school of thought certainly believes that, and sees in the way we use language a key to what we are thinking; and sees our thinking eventually tied to our doing. That may sound plausible, but skepticism is also possible, especially when similar actions can occur across cultures despite the use of completely different languages. Furthermore, there is a hot debate over how much our actions are influenced by our thinking, or in how far our thinking just serves a justification of our actions. (Personally, I tend to be skeptical with regards to how language influences thinking, and how thinking actually influences action. Human beings may be much more instinctual and unreflective about their actions than we would care to admit. But my feelings here are beside the point.)

How we utilize language is not the problem, but that our mental assumptions about and models and constructions of the world around us – constructed culturally and socially – can indeed exist quite independently from objective reality. Human beings, like probably most living things, are pattern-seeking creatures, so that we overcorrect for danger (mistaking a bush for a tiger saves a life) rather than to underestimate it to our detriment (mistaking a tiger for a bush may kill you).

We see faces and shapes in the clouds, in rocks, in the sea, in the stars. There is no science to Zodiac signs, and still many otherwise intelligent people claim to believe in them as the basis for astrology. The typical “white” person has a skin color ranging from extreme pale to rosy to red to brown, and still we use the term “white.” Hardly any black person is literally black, and we still use that term. Biology says that “race” does not exist in humans, and yet we think it to be meaningful enough to discriminate against people. This is all about ideology, about constructions of power.

Biological men and biological women are rather similar in most aspects, especially very early and very late in life (when hormonal differences are less important), and yet we proclaim to see essential differences. Boys used to wear pink, and still we think of pink now as a feminine color. Whether you get sick or not may not be up to you, and we still judge people for it. Unless you die young, we all age, and yet discriminate against the old as somehow different people.

We differentiate between people and think in differences because that may well somehow be how we function as humans; but what kind of categories are important may well be arbitrary. Mountains exist, but whether they are considered holy or should be hollowed out for mining depends on what value we attribute to them. What makes big islands like New Zealand and Greenland an island but Australia and Antarctica a continent, and what makes Europe-Asia-Africa three, and America sometimes one, two or three continents, is anyone’s guess. We know that no serious scientist or educated person after the 5th Century BC believed that the Earth was flat, but the lie that people before the 19th century believed the Earth was flat perpetuates our imaginations still because it makes us feel good as somehow advanced, and that’s why Washington Irving invented it.

All of this shows that there are some mental models, or constructions, that we believe in as real, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. If they guide society, they can be called social constructions. The reality and the phenomena behind them may well be real, but we over-exaggerate their meaning and, in effect, create a difference that holds a meaning to us that – in reality – it should not.

#34: What is White Privilege?

Racism is the belief in essential differences between human beings based on a set of superficial characteristics. While race is not real, racism is, and it centers on the idea of who has relative privilege in specific contexts. “Whiteness” is a category of assumed neutrality, which brings with it the unearned advantage of less discrimination. This is what “white privilege” means, nothing else.

“White privilege” does not mean that a person seen as “white” is overall privileged in life. It only means that in relation to those seen as non-white, they do not have to worry about a set of things that they would have to worry about if they were not white. I find Peggy Mackintosh’s list helpful, because it is not overstuffing the concept with ideology and shows that this is not an abstract concept but a very concrete one.

Do you stand out frequently, and not in a positive way? Are you frequently seen as the representative of a group rather than an individual? Is your ascribed group identity defining you more than it should? Fanon calls this being “overdetermined from without” – you, as an individual, have white privilege if you can most if not all the time successfully insist on seeing yourself, and being seen by others, as an individual.

A better and more generalizable term could be “normalcy privilege” or something of the sort. Do you have a reasonable assumption in life that in spite of how you look, in spite of your biology, in spite of who you love and how much money you have, how much wealth your family has, how old you are, how physically able you are, in spite of all of it, if you try hard, work hard, and do the very best you can, that you can succeed? Or are there unnecessary roadblocks in life that stand in the way of this basic promise of meritocracy? Of course we are all different; but should some differences really matter in the way they do?

The point of the discussion about white privilege is thus not “white shaming” or guilt-tripping; it is to lay the path for a more equitable society in which the basic principle of individual freedom is supported throughout all walks of life. Recognizing who has relative privilege and who has not is the first step to making sure that we can, indeed, make sure that those who apply themselves will be rewarded for their efforts.

#33: Race Does Not Exist. But Racism Does

A dangerous side effect of the discussion of racism is that such discussion can keep the idea of thinking in different human “races” alive as something that is real. But it is not. Dividing people up into different races is deeply unscientific, deeply unhistorical, and deeply inhumane. We are all one. We are all part of a great human family that may here or there differ superficially in shape or appearance, but these differences are just skin-deep. History shows that human populations have been mixing with each other forever. We are all creoles. We are all mixed. None of us is pure x or y or z. “Race” as a category was invented to justify the exploitation of those who were considered exploitable, and to make that palatable to otherwise educated people, they were socially constructed as being of lesser worth, even though that was scientifically and factually wrong, always.

But even though “race” does not exist, racism does. The way we think about each other, whether factually or not, can poison us against each other, can create groups where none exist, create assumptions that are not justified, and can create living conditions that then create the phenomenon as an effect of discrimination. We imagine that the characteristics allegedly defining “racial” difference are real and meaningful, and then discriminate against people with these characteristics.

The challenge now is that while fighting against racism, or against any discrimination of a group that was socially constructed as different, that we must not give credence to that difference by essentializing it, making it something that it is not. Discrimination is real. Experiences of discrimination are real.

Nevertheless, the category of difference that discrimination is based on may just as well only exist in our heads. We should not continue to give it more credence. This is not easy, but necessary. In the fight against racism, we must not perpetuate the lie that humans would be dividable into different races. We are all one; but some of us have been mistreated more than others just because they have been said to belong to a different group than whoever has been seen as neutral.

#32: Guilt vs. (Historical) Responsibility

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.

#31: What Is Systemic Racism?

In the last post, which attempted a definition of racism, I addressed the origin and ideology of racism. But there is a difference between thinking and doing, between ideology and practice. The accumulated history of thinking in difference – whether it is on categories of ethnicity, skin color (“race”), class, sex, gender, age, or any other divider that has been utilized to differentiate between people – has affected structures in society, government and culture.

The reason these structures exist is that they either were or continue to be seen as useful to structure society in a specific way. Human beings do think in differences and stereotypes, for various evolutionary reasons. We perceive all kinds of differences, but not all of them have historically been relevant. Contemporary racism exists because discriminating according to “race” was considered useful for the slave trade by Arab and European slave traders.

Slavery typically exists as the result of war, in which captives are made that are then sold as labor. This has not always happened according to skin color, but typically according to ethnicity – because that’s how war has typically worked. Rome used Germans, Slavs, Thracians, Africans, and many others as slaves. Slavery in antiquity, however, also permitted for manumission, and some slaves ended up becoming citizens. Serfdom, a version of slavery that means you do not belong to a master directly but to the land, which then belonged to the landlord, was a development that began in the late Roman Empire and lasted till the early 19th century in most of Europe. One of the few achievements of Napoleon that actually did answer some demands of the French Revolution was the ending of serfdom. Universal freedom for all people is the absolute exception in human history, and even in Europe it was only achieved starting in the 19th century.

The reason for the victory of freedom was the realization that utilizing all of a nation’s workforce, and giving them the freedom to maximize their potential, was one of the demands of increased capitalist production. Ideally, capitalism means freedom. Well-paid free workers are best motivated, best customers, best citizens. But at any point when the economic system can be cheated by introducing even cheaper labor, this will be done. Globalization after the end of the Cold War unleashed a new availability of cheap labor; and slavery – while it may not exist directly in the West anymore – continues to exist in practice when societies rely on the availability of cheap, expendable, desperate workers that have no choice but to work under otherwise unacceptable conditions. This may or may not be tied to “racial” or ethnic considerations, but it can be.

While “race” as a category may not be real, racism and the experience thereof very much is a reality. It is most visible not by examining people’s attitudes but by looking at structural effects of racism. Specifically, this means that there exist a major gap for most “racial” or ethnic minorities with regards to pay, inter-generational wealth, individual and inter-generational education, global perspectives and outlook, the assumption of innocence when confronted by police and the justice system, likelihood of incarceration, availability of a healthy diet, prevalence of drugs in communities, availability of good housing in safe neighborhoods, etc. It is a long list that we all have known about for quite a while, and have been slow if not reluctant to act upon.

In the United States, racism has of course been worse in the past. But it is still an issue that is a very real experience for non-white people. This should not be surprising. The Civil War, which ended slavery by 1865, was followed by another 100 years of sabotaging reconstruction efforts. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s started a process of improvement of race relations. Native Americans gained citizenship in 1924, but the status of reservations is still continually under threat, and full religious freedom for indigenous peoples was only granted in 1978. Migrant workers, whether from Mexico, South and Central America, China, India, Pakistan and other countries, have experienced discrimination at several times in history, just as even European immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany have experienced in the past to some degree; none, however, as bad as slavery or genocide. All these historical events have had lasting efforts, which continued for generations. While for some groups (mostly Europeans), such structural discrimination has ended, it continues for many if not most non-white groups.

Just imagine, if you wanted to be born in the United States today, and had a Rawlsian choice of which group and which location to be born into, which group would you choose to belong to, and which would you hesitate about? Which skin color would you want your child to have? I think you know. As long as we have to think about these matters, the structures we have been trying to overcome for a long time still have too much power on all of us.