August 11, 2004

That which goes unspoken

Posted by Curt at 05:24 PM in Politics | TrackBack

Just thinking about race today, how stupid and silly the concept itself is, and even more so the vast ocean of debate surrounding it. I was thinking about racism and the persistence of it, in my own mind and, I would venture to wager, to a greater or lesser degree near universally in our country, if not the world. I used to consider this a societal failure, that our worldview is so saturated with ideas about race that it remains virtually impossible for twisted views on the matter to not take root in the mind. However, it occurs to me now that perhaps the real error lies not in how we actually do view race (as opposed to what we say in public), but rather in what is regarded as the proper attitude towards race.

Remember that the civil rights movement in this country was originally NOT about racism per se, i.e. the holding of prejudiced racial views. It was about legal and social, and to a lesser extent economic, equality. The existence of racism is relevant to this insofar as it shapes the actions of those with racist views but, in a society like ours today, in which the strictures on discrimination are so draconian, social as well as legal, where the mere accusation of racism is enough, almost anywhere, to cause the loss of a career and social ostracism for life, it seems to me that we have entered an age in which the undeniable persistence of racism is largely devoid of significant outward symptoms. Do not misunderstand me: I have several non-white friends who constantly regale me with stories of unnumerable little injustices and humiliations they suffer, but for the most part they seem to me about equal in magnitude, if greater in frequency, to the slights that I occaisonally have suffered as a male, or as a teenager (until two months ago), or as an American abroad, etc. I have heard the stories of police beatings and racial profiling, so I certainly do not presume to extrapolate my own experience too far, but to be quite honest, knowing what I do about the general environment of the ghetto, just as young Arab men (usually wealthy) are pretty clearly by far the most prominent group in the current wave of international terrorism, I don’t think that the general police fixation in America with young black men is necessarily unwarranted. In any case, now we are back in the realm of action, not of thought. But racism is, ultimately, thought not action. The oft-cited call to “eradicate racism,” then, is implicitly a call to manipulate and reform thought. Viewed in this light, the failure of the civil rights crusaders, in which so many in our society have been complicit, may be perhaps not that they have been unable to surmount the boundless narrow-mindedness of Americans but rather that they have set themselves an absurd and, if I may say, a totalitarian goal, not that of reforming the outward conditions of life but rather of transforming people’s minds.

The stigmatization of racial views in America now seems to me an at least equal, if not far graver, injustice than the minor forms of outward discrimination that still exist, now that the mere holding of racist (or more generally “discriminatory”) views, much less espousing them, is more or less generally considered a crime. But this is itself a greater crime against the intellectual openness of our society, where most any view, no matter how perverse or frightening, usually is, and certainly should be, tolerated, on the grounds that all ideas are legitimate and freely held, that they do not incur moral force or liability until they translate into action. Of course, determining to what extent ideas shape action is no easy matter, but I believe that I can demonstrate that in this matter the ideas themselves are being targeted, not the the actions that might ensue from them. To wit: imagine to yourself a party or some other social function, in which a guest said something to this effect: “I believe that, given the problems associated with the over-proliferation of humanity, the sanctity of life is a load of shit and, furthermore, that a certain percentage of the infants born each year in the world ought to be slaughtered.” Now imagine that another guest were to say (presumably in a different context): “I believe that black people are generally lazy and stupid.” Now imagine, in virtually any social setting, which view would face more immediate opprobium and hostility. Now I grant that a certain perverse rationality lies in the first statement, and that it could perhaps be stated more psychopathically, but no matter how the core sentiments in each case were phrased, I don’t think it would even be a close contest. Talking about baby-killing would probably cause some embarassment in almost any setting, probably some real hostility if it happened to be a particularly religious gathering, but in the case of the second, I venture to say that almost anyone saying such a thing would be almost assured of losing a friend or two before the night was over; if his boss or co-workers happened to be there, he would likely lose a job and maybe a career. I could even see a lawsuit or two erupting.

This scenario may be somewhat exaggerated, but it surely indicates the fundamental disjunction that seems to exist in the realm of anything considered “discriminatory.” It is an evil that has resulted from the attempt to coerce peoples’ ideas. Not only the principal of intellectual freedom dictates that we should attempt no such thing; prudence dictates this course as well, for prejudice will always exist. In the the sense that prejudice represents an ignorant and generalized view towards something or someone(s), most ideas are inherently prejudicial. So really it is not even prejudice itself that is being quarantined, but merely a particular class of discrete ideas. And this is pure authoritarian nonsense. No society can ever be free when ideas are subject to persecution.