#40: Enabling Free Speech, or, the Problem of the Public Sphere

Saying that free speech is an absolute value that needs to be protected is one thing. But how do we make this happen?

This is what is called the problem of the public sphere, be it constituted by the marketplace, or – in Greek – the agora, or – in Latin – the forum, or whatever we may have now. There used to be specific places where speech would be allowed and expected in a democratic context, depending on the society. Whatever constitutes a public sphere may value from society to society, throughout time, across concrete or digital spaces.

Jürgen Habermas described The Transformation of the Public Sphere as a crucial problem for modern (or rather, post-modern) democratic dialog. The salons, forums, debating halls of days past have been replaced by different structures; also, the previously mentioned institutions were not necessarily equitable and accessible for all. But if we believe in the concept of democracy, the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, we will actually need to have the people, namely all people in a society, have a chance to have a say free from fear of domination, free from powers that might limit their speech, free from technological or monetary or ability-related or cultural or religious or whatever limiting restrictions.

Free speech only happens if – first – an active space exists where free speech is possible for all without fear of repercussions. But – second – in order to be democratic speech, it does not only need to happen, it needs to be heard, and engaged with. Free speech requires a true dialog, free from constraints other than it be genuine, peaceful, and respectful of all.

How do we create and maintain such a space? The parliaments of the world are the high church of such a forum, but there are many more levels of society where dialog needs to happen. For that to happen, we need to enable a culture of engagement, of curiosity, of true democratic interest in each other, whether we think alike or not. We need true respect for each other, especially in our disagreements, so that we always assume (whether justified or not) the best intentions of all participants to conduct dialog, and direct our disagreements always exclusively at the content and quality of the arguments exchanged rather than at the people making them.

Such a space thus needs to be open for all, uncensored (with extremely few exceptions like direct threats of violence, insincere communication (trolling and spamming), unnecessary verbal abuse, and justifiably criminal (but non-political) content. Access should not be given by the whim of a corporate or political entity, but should be an institution clearly under the guidance of the people, i.e. the government, following the mandate to allow truly free speech (in the US context thus upholding the Virginia Bill of Rights).

I do not believe we have such a system today, which may explain some of the dysfunctions perceived all over the world. We cannot exclusively rely on corporate players (however genuinely well-meaning they may be, even with their legitimate profit motive) and must shield ourselves from hyper-partisan politics and political interests – outside or inside – that aim to harm the people and will work to exploit our free speech laws by spreading their noxious and disruptive propaganda.

Free speech, and free counter-speech, is what separates democracy from darkness. It needs to be cherished, curated, supported and vigorously defended, true to Voltaire’s motto as told by his friend Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So say we all?

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.

#38: Radical Empathy

If there is one thing that I have seen missing more and more in the world it is the willingness to take into account the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of another living being. Too much of what is going on around us seems more and more built on the rejection of the perspectives of others.

Maybe technology is to blame. Maybe it is modernity in general. Maybe it is the lack of education in philosophy, theology, history, other cultures, anything that would communicate that your way of thinking and feeling is not the only way of thinking and feeling in the world; and even if you might think someone else is deeply wrong, you need to check that impulse and accept the – very uncomfortable – notion that to expect others to agree with you is rather self-centered.

We can only truly engage with others once we accept, even embrace, their otherness. We are all different. We are also all the same in many ways, but we are mostly the same in not being the same. How I see the world is surely not how you see it, and that is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, but it is also fantastic. How boring, how one-sided a world we would live in if everyone thought and felt like us.

This understanding, and this embrace of the other, this connection, this empathy, all this is helpful in guiding our own path through a world that is not centered around us. But it is also teaching us another thing that is in short supply nowadays: Humility. Recognize your limitations, and accept that you are not alone in the world. What sounds banal can apparently be difficult. How does what I do affect others? How can I learn from those I completely disagree with? How can I see myself, as an individual, as a part of a community of individuals? How is that enriching us all, but also myself?

This empathy needs to be radical; it is a form of love, of unlimited love. We indeed should work at being radical in our empathy, radical in our compassion, radical in our love – because we can only be accepted ourselves by the world if we accept it, and everyone that lives in it, in return. Otherwise, we will just be in a bubble, a cage of our own choosing; unable to truly be in the world, we would be building a prison for ourselves, seeing disconnection where there needs to be connection, seeing hopelessness instead of hope, seeing difference instead of commonality.

This may be a bit preachy, but so be it.

#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.

#30: What Is Racism?

Racism is not just a mild disliking or misunderstanding of someone else because of some superficial difference. Someone may dislike people from group x, but still not wish the worst to them. Racism should be understood in a more substantial way.

First, racism believes in the idea of race holding a significant enough meaning to divide people against one another. Biologically, this is nonsense, and has been accepted as nonsense for more than a century. There is no science of “race”, only pseudoscience. Every human being on the planet has virtually the same DNA, and difference between members of so-called “races” are typically greater than those between different “races.” Among all human populations, skills and abilities are distributed similarly.

Furthermore, the pseudo-scientific interpretation of biology – or rather pseudo-genetics, namely eugenics – which abhors mixing between races, is built on the fallacy that purity is better than mixing (wrong: intermixing creates stronger and more resilient populations, while incestuous patterns with a focus on purity only lead to well-told jokes about the declining state of nobility…). Just as pure one-species forests are more prone to serious damage when disease hits, while mixed forests are much more resilient, so do human societies and countries do best when infusions of genes, ideas and experiences from other cultures can enrich one’s own.

Racism is firstly the belief that “race” is real in a (pseudo-)biological sense, and that its (pseudo-)biological sense automatically leads to a hierarchy between those who are seen as more and others who are seen as less advanced than others. Now we have arrived at the incorrect understanding of evolution. No race is more (or less) evolved than the other.

But if there was the belief in a critical difference between “race” A and “race” B, there was automatically the belief that one race was inferior to the other, which was then used up in unspeakable ways.

Racism is a strategy of domination, subjugation, and the denial of humanity of the victims. The assumed gain is the so-called “eugenic” purification of the main society, which would then remain allegedly unimpeded by so-called “lesser peoples”.

This racism, which is foundational to most societies, is foundational for America as well. It believes in putting people in their place. This was the system America followed for several years till the Civil War in 1861, then it created a revised version of the system by which slavery is illegal, but racism still structured society. Only after World War II, after Black soldiers worked with White soldiers as brothers, the newly found brothers in arms would find a place to return to a home which made them drink from separate water fountains. The outrage over this praxis led to the Civil Rights Movement, and onward to today.

One of the ways to see how racism is not natural is the monikers used to describe people. No so-called “white” person has a literally white skin – it’s piglet pink. The only way to get a light-skinned person look white is white powder and white wigs – which was indeed done in Early Modernity when modern slavery was created, but it was a marker mainly of upper class and function in European societies. From the beginning, “race” and class need to be seen as intertwined. Maybe caste would be a better term.

No person is black either. The black-white dichotomy is purely ideological, following a Manichean pattern of opposing sides, the dark and the light; white being a sign of purity, of beauty, black being a sign of the opposite (Ironically, in antiquity, white was the color of sadness and death). Native Americans were described as red probably because of face paint, Asians are yellow probably because of the colors of Buddhist robes, curry, etc. None of this makes sense biologically, only culturally, ideologically.

We need to overcome this way of thinking. And yet, such a notion is probably too utopian. Human beings seem to be very much needing to distinguish between peoples and put them into different categories. If it’s not skin color, it will be something else. Skin color was just a facile way during the colonial period of distinguishing between Europeans on the one side, and indigenous peoples and imported slaves from Africa on the other. We are still with the effects of that; it’s a complex history, based on a simple unethical decision to decide whose lives matter more than others.