I have festered in the illusions of the present. This is the falseness of the political order, in which the machinations of consensus opinion push toward inevitable conclusions. No one overcomes the machine in which he moves. This is the first rule of the anarchistic philosophy of the recalcitrant transcendentalist.
Man’s being an unfinished, defective animal has been the root of his uniqueness and creativeness. He is the only animal not satisfied with being what he is. His ideal was a combination of the perfections he saw in the animals around him. His art, dances, songs, rituals and inventions were born of his groping to compensate himself for what he lacked as an animal. His spirituality had its inception not in a craving to overcome his animality but in a striving to become a superior animal.
–Eric Hoffer, First Things, Last Things (1971), p. 11
This view is historical and anthropological, but is totally contrary to the notion of spirituality developed in the Axial Age, for example in Christianity. Assuming a basic animality and seeking to transcend it is the contrary notion. Transcending a natural animality would be absurd, however, without the idea that the animalistic condition were due to some kind of mistake.
So, the origin of our animalistic nature has to be in a historical event, a confluence of circumstance and autonomous will, which a Christian theologian would call “The Fall.” That leaves room for a pre-existing ideal instantiation of human existence, when circumstances were unpolluted and will was trusted. Spirituality then becomes not a path to more animalistic powers, the expression of will to control circumstance, but rather a path to transcend circumstance and will.*
If a human could have an essentially animal nature, then he would actually be an animal, and have no desire to be other than what he is. Even becoming more than what he is at the moment would be simply a fuller expression of what he could be, which would still be the same animal, but better. To the extent that he might seem to be a different animal, that would be a superficial difference, a matter of morphology or behavior.
Another possibility would be that the progeny of an individual human animal could become a different kind of human animal; that is, it could “evolve.” That doesn’t concern the particular individual in question, though, unless the individual in question has some abstract notion of humanity which extends beyond his own existence. Having such an notion would mean that individual is not an animal, which has no desire to be other than what he is, and so does not imagine himself being part of an abstract taxonomy or progression. That individual is instead a human which, having no notion of magically acquiring new powers in itself, imagines a spiritual connection to other individuals which might have different powers.
*”Circumstance” means everything given, including environment and the body. “Spirituality” means any desire to be other than what we seem to be. “Will” means the individual intent.
Shouldn’t I, as someone in a position of relative socioeconomic security, speak up on behalf of those who cannot? Yet how do I do that in a way that doesn’t seem arrogant or condescending – and how do I do it in a situation that can quickly devolve into harassment?
I’m not in a racial minority group where I live and work, but I am in an economic minority group. I have always lived in a high-income area although I was low-income, and I have usually worked among low-income people who knew that I lived in a high-income area and assumed that I was high-status. Eventually I dealt with these discrepancies by getting more education and a different kind of job, so that I could appear to be high-status even though I was not high-income.
By dressing the part and speaking like an educated person, I let everyone assume I am high-status, because then low-income and high-income people usually treat me better. After years of playing the part of a low-income person, I decided it didn’t gain me anything except disregard from everyone. It had never made low-income people more comfortable around me, because as soon as I opened my mouth, they got befuddled by my two-bit words and my indifference to sports. It’s been better for me to manage people’s expectations on the high end, since most interactions are superficial and transitory, and I naturally project high-status disdain.
Also, with age comes an inducement to either play up to the dignity associated with respected elders, or else to descend to the status of the drooling, self-defecating, babbling, senile, homeless old coot. That type of binary association on the part of others is present in youth as well, but I think there is a tendency to downplay it as mere prejudice, as though everyone in the world did not make split-second decisions about how to classify everyone around them, and then go on to live the rest of their lives with reified conceptualizations. Youth has a tendency to impart a certain optimism about gaining knowledge and overcoming obstacles, a certain kind of disdain for social categorization. I don’t mean to lump together all youth as optimistic or as meliorist; rather, I suggest that they think those dynamics of self-improvement and achievement are significant. They react to extant social forces according to their conditioning, and so differentiate themselves, but they accept a certain kind of social paradigm as self-evident. In the social paradigm of youth, things will change for better or worse, but things will change, and they will somehow be a part of the change.
The social paradigm in old age changes because in US society, all the cultural gravitas is concentrated with the 40-year-olds who obsess over 20-year-olds. I am not referring specifically to sociosexual hierarchy, however. I am taking the old trope of US “youth culture”, which centers on the desires and needs of 20-year-olds, and noting that it is filtered and mediated by 40-year-olds. Given that fact, the 40-year-old view of those 50 and up is dictated by the older person’s increasing conformity with one of two stereotypes, either “helpful parent figure” or “useless piece of trash.”
To the point of the original posting, however, I suggest a similar view of racism. People make ignorant assumptions all the time. Most superficial prejudices are applied in a binary fashion: up or down. If you don’t like stupid racist jokes, then you need to project a clear racist stereotype, so that people will be afraid to make racist jokes. If they assume you are stereotypically high-status, they will likely be too awed to make a racist joke. If they do, you would of course respond with a stereotypically condescending manner, if not complete indifference to their existence. If they assume you are stereotypically low-status, they will likely be too afraid to make a racist joke. If they do, you would of course respond with effusive profanity, or flashing a weapon, or even a little physical aggression. In either case, just treat them as if they were an idiot, and deal with the consequences.
The situation would be different with people who know you better, or who are technically peers. Those cases also require playing to type, but with more nuance. But most interactions that are problematic probably happen on the superficial level, where it is better to manage expectations by leveraging binary stereotyping.
This is pretty much what happens in most of the publicized cases of police brutality, where the victim is often too stupid to realize that playing the low stereotype (not necessarily on a transactional level, but in overall characteristics) means that the officially appointed dispensers of violence will, in fact, dispense violence on them, then justify it as a defense of peace and order, and then get away with it. Cops are hired and trained for the purpose of identifying troublemakers within a couple of seconds and acting swiftly to eliminate any threat, on the principle that anyone who they identify as a troublemaker is a de facto criminal, a challenge to every principle of goodness and virtue, someone who must be immediately crushed until the police-person no longer feels a sense of imminent personal danger. That’s what happens when someone embodies the will of the people as the authorized dispenser of violent action. That is not an “American” problem or a “White” problem, nor even a “middle-class” problem. It is written into the definition of what the police are for. It is not necessary for “law enforcement”, but it is necessary in order to justify a standing police force. And a standing police force is necessary in order to make the middle classes feel like they live in a good society, a place where they are willing to buy property, pay taxes, vote for the prescribed parties, and send their children to school.
So, you could say it is a middle-class problem, except that the problem is endemic to all of US society. I suspect it is very similar in other modern democratic societies, especially those with similar cultural heritage in the pre-20th-century British or European traditions.
Prejudice is only indirectly related to racism. Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on direct experience or reason. Prejudice, or pre-judging, can lead to a dislike and rejection of people from different cultural, ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. However, such prejudice, despite its unpleasant and even inhuman elements, should not be equated with racism. . . . Not liking or trusting or respecting other people might be a backward and irrational attitude, but it is not necessarily evidence of racism.
Yes, prejudice is quite natural. Contrary to Furedi’s implication, though, prejudice does not merely target those who are different. What happens is that when several people in a group all have the same prejudice, it tends to target people with a trait not shared by all the people in the group. That’s called politics, where viewpoints are narrowed by the necessity to achieve artificial consensus, and realistic viewpoints are unwelcome, because they offend narrow-minded people.
That group dynamic is separate from the subjectivity of prejudice, which is dependent on all kinds of conditioning. Someone can be prejudiced against people just like them, if they despise their own upbringing, habits, or characteristics.
We should recall that until the outbreak of the Second World War, racial thinking was rarely questioned in any part of the world. Even in academic circles, critics of racism were very much in a minority in the 1930s. Back then, the term ‘racist’ was used neutrally and sometimes even positively in Western societies. It was only in the 1930s that the word ‘racism’ started to acquire negative connotations. It was in that decade that the use of the word racism in a derogatory way was first recorded in the English language (1). But even then, the idea of racial equality had few defenders – including within the intellectual community.
Of course, that is because equality is truly an idealization. It requires a non-materialist viewpoint looking to origins, or end-states, or essences, or something else not directly measurable. It is always speculative or transcendent, and can only be enacted imaginatively or by fiat. It has an ideal existence in law or philosophy or religion, obviously, but also in the false generalizations of social relations.
By contrast, racism as an ideology is a materialist viewpoint requiring superstitious belief in the ability to isolate a phenotypic difference, associate it with a specific genotypic factor, and derive a individualized behavioral prediction, or a useful social policy, or an evaluation of some intangible quality. It is superstitious because it relies not on directly manipulable causality, but rather on the unwarranted expectation of uniformity of habit and thought.
People may still have their prejudices, but very few individuals now define themselves as racist. Indeed, the term racist is looked upon negatively even by people who do feel some form of prejudice against a foreign ethnic or religious group.
I have deliberately constructed my definition above so that it applies to all those who think in this manner, regardless of how they politicize the term “racist”. Anyone who operates under the delusion that their perception of a superficial physical trait empowers them to comprehensively define someone’s identity is, by this account, racist; that includes the moralizers who demand class-action victim status for everyone with a particular shade of skin color. The fact that they are accepting the assumptions of the other party (“skin color defines who you are”) and repurposing that for “social justice” doesn’t change the fact that they are morons. Their prejudices may be “righteous” insofar as they are “oppressed”, but they are no more capable of clear reasoning than the oppressors.
Historically, racism expressed the worldview of the powerful. A sense of superiority, be it biological, moral or cultural, was integral to the outlook of the elites that dominated Western societies. Today, those with economic, political and cultural power rarely express themselves through the narrative of race. The powerful rarely express open hostility or crude prejudice towards other groups of people. On the contrary, today it tends to be those who feel they have been left behind, who believe they have been socially and culturally marginalised by mainstream society, who express some kind of racist thinking.
Yes, victim status is necessary to make a moral claim in contemporary ethics. In the insecure and weak-minded, this is conflated with arrogant triumphalist proclamations of cultural superiority. In US politics, this takes the form of pretending that Euro-Americans are inherently better at technology and long-view thinking, yet victimized because they are not arrogant enough; or that Afro-Americans are inherently better at being long-suffering and honest, yet victimized because they are not arrogant enough.
In practice, “racism” has become a pointless epithet, exactly as the Euro-American weenies claim, since it has been diluted to mean “whatever the oppressor class does that makes the oppressed class unhappy”. This unhelpful dilution removes the ability to describe it objectively.
The fantasy of widespread racism is driven by a conviction that, regardless of what individuals say or do, many of them are unconscious or unwitting racists. Since the early 1980s, racism has been subtly redefined as a psychological problem. The redefinition of racism from an act of conscious oppression to an unwitting problem of the mind was boosted by the former British High Court judge, Sir William Macpherson, in his 1999 report into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of a black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence. The Macpherson report defined institutional racism as something that ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The key word here is ‘unwitting’ – this depicts racism as an unconscious response driven by unspecific emotions. The idea that people can be racists unwittingly means that literally anyone can be a racist – whether they know it or not.
The idea of unwitting racism makes everyone either a potential racist or a potential victim of racism. It racialises every facet of life. It also raises an important question: who decides whether someone is guilty of behaving in a possibly unconscious racist manner? The complexity of the psychological motivation behind so-called unwitting racism was discussed by Macpherson in the following terms: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ In making individual subjective experience the foundation stone of accusations of racism, Macpherson ensured that ‘unwitting racism’ would be a problem that would expand exponentially as time went by.
Yes, once the oppressed class accepts the terms of conflict (“race is the single most important determinant of human life”) and specifies the reward they expect whenever they win (moral “reparations”, as distinct from definable “compensation”) and the conditions (“whenever a member of the predefined oppressed class feels oppressed”), then everything is set.
In effect, what counts in the discussion of racism today is not any particular act but rather the perceptions of the accuser. . . . it is clear that for most people, most of the time, making an accusation of racism carries little risk. In fact, such accusations are now routinely used morally to denigrate apparently ‘bigoted’ people. Increasingly, the institutionalisation of official anti-racism is really an act of moral distancing, an attempt to separate ‘those bigots’ from us, the enlightened people. It’s about pathologising the morally inferior – which rather suggests that this new ideology of anti-racism has more in common with the racist imagination of the nineteenth century than it would ever dare to admit.
As usual, whenever a conflict is more about ego and identification than any quantifiable prize, both combatants agree on the terms first and then square off, with all the social inferiors and trophy mates watching breathlessly. Then they start trash-talking, grunting, gesturing, bluffing, and positioning, before beating each other bloody. The objective is not to kill, if the combatants are conspecific; the objective is to prove social superiority and win the loyalty of bootlickers and mates. Woe to the social outcast who denies the terms of conflict and points out that the combatants are both brainless animals.
What is repressed up-front finds a way to express itself indirectly. That’s why when I see a priest all decked out in frills and lace and gold, I immediately think: another repressed gay. In fact, I doubt whether much of the more elaborate liturgy, ritual and drama of high Catholicism isn’t entirely a function of frustrated queens finding some outlet for their otherwise repressed nature.
More likely, it is a function of extreme vanity, which may or may not be related to gay “identity.” To me, anyone’s discovery of their identity is an exercise in rationalizing their preferences by building up social reinforcers and taking advantage of the concomitant surplus resources. There is no necessary identification.
Silberman: Are there any ways that society could be reformed to make it a more comfortable and supportive place for autistic adults?
Robison: I don’t think that’s a realistic question, Steve. We represent one percent of the population. Asking what 99 percent of the world should do to make it a better place for that one-percent member — that’s verging on science fiction and fantasy. People who get into that way of thinking become militant about demanding their rights and thinking about what the world owes them. Frankly, I don’t think the world perceives that they owe us one single thing. . . .
. . .
Silberman: But other minority groups have demanded reasonable accommodation from society, such as laws against discrimination in the workplace. Black folks did it by launching the civil rights movement, many other disabled groups have done so, and gay people — like your brother Augusten — have done it too.
Robison: The race thing is completely different. You can look at someone and right away know if they’re black or white. There’s been a huge gay rights movement, but look at what there is already for gay accommodation. I don’t think there was ever an issue of people refusing to hire gay people in most workplaces.
Silberman: Well, that isn’t true. I’m not trying to argue with you –
Robison: In the autism world, people look at your behavior and say, “He’s acting like a jerk — I’m gonna treat him like a jerk.” If you’re a gay guy and you’re a jerk, people think you’re a jerk; but if you’re a gay guy and you’re nice, people think, “He’s a nice guy.”
The interviewer’s attitude–which is also reflected in the comments–is one of the most putrid and obnoxious qualities of modern liberalism. There is a difference between asserting oneself in order to set the terms of engagement with society, and asserting that society must accommodate one’s idiosyncrasies with special laws and favors.
My notion of identity has varied from a psychological construct that is formed over time (Maslow, Hoffer) to an interactive neural network of agents (Minsky) to a stage in an interactive rhetorical process (Kenneth Burke). This latter process of identification is currently of most interest to me. Burke’s categories of identification can be described as follows:
Intelligent beings have a symbolic understanding of themselves and of each other, and share knowledge through positively aligning their personal symbol-systems with the symbol-systems of others. Kenneth Burke calls the process of creating agreement based on meaning consubstantiation.
Another way that individuals can identify with one another is through agreement of purpose, such as in the process of anti-thesis, or “…the creation of identification among opposing entities on the basis of a common enemy” (192).
A final type of identification involves the intentional but indirect application of sympathetic symbols in order to favorably predispose the audience to the rhetor, and thus to the otherwise unrelated symbols presented along with the sympathetic ones.