Thursday, February 14, 2013

Abused by Race

It might be good to have a look at this first:
The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours

I have been championing this idea for quite awhile now. My efforts are met with a range of responses from bemused stares to outright hostility toward the idea (and occasionally toward me). It seems clear that every time scientists look for "race", they don't find it. There are a number of limitations that inhibit our ability to absorb this fact. One is so obvious that it might be too easily dismissed. We are quite at the mercy of our limited sensory perceptions and the visible differences between humans (skin, hair, facial features, etc.) are very compelling. This tends to ensnare our brains in outmoded thinking. 

The other major difficulty we encounter is a bit more subtle. It relys upon a basic understanding of human psychology/motivation. It is clear to those who look at such things, that historically, one key to survival in humans was and remains our ability and inclination to detect and focus on difference. This includes novelty in our environment as well as our ability to detect "the other". That is to say, those not of our group. When we consider this ability/compulsion, we are right to ask, is it adaptive for survival or an ancient trait that can run amok? In my view, both is the correct answer. 

We all carry the seeds that can produce behaviors we label, "prejudice". We all carry the seeds that can produce behaviors we call "racism". We are all subject to a sense of our own superiority and the resulting behaviors that lead us to act dismissively towards another person or group. Further, I would assert, the single greatest obstacle to our improvement is our seeming inability to honestly confront ourselves. Why? A quirk of human behavior ensures that we most often reserve terms like racism and prejudice for use as verbal bats with which we can strike others for their presumed morally deficient behavior. Not surprisingly, we feel quite uncomfortable when presented with the idea that those same "low urges" reside in us as well. To be fair, many of us have reasoned our way through to a much better place in terms of expressing (or avoiding the expression of) these baser urges. I suggest it is also true that our moral evolution is fragile and requires regular maintenence.

There is, at minimum, one more constraint on reaching a more perfect assessment of ourselves. This requires a very brief (I promise) bit of history. As a citizen enmeshed in the milieu of American culture in the twenty first century, one might be forgiven for inferring that the "victims" of racism/predudice/etc. are people "of color". For those so deluded, allow me to suggest reading some history. One would be hard pressed to explain to an Irish immigrant to America during the last bit of the nineteenth century that she could not possibly be an object of prejudice due to her pale skin color. Likewise, one would also find frustration explaining to an African tribesperson residing in one area of that continent that she could not be a victim of prejudice or hatred by a tribesperson living in an adjacent area, because the persons inflicting injury were of similar skin tone to hers. Try telling Chinese people that Japanese people could never have treated them in a barbaric manner because, after all, the Japanese are also Asian. In short, I would suggest that there is no place one could visit on planet earth where there are no abusers nor victims. If this behavior is a condition of "race", it would be the "human race".

With the history out of the way, I feel compelled to give some thought to the practicalities of our current circumstances. In all our "philosophizing" it is important to keep sight of the fact that many injustices and injuries have been done and continue to be done. No person in his right mind denies that acts ranging from rude to vile and heinous are part of our history and our present. With that said, I would assert it is always better to call a thing what it truly is and face it in the most rational way possible. Why is the name so important? There is a longer answer but, for this moment, suffice to say that if we start with an incorrect premise our efforts to change/solve/better our position is compromised from the start. Also, if I suggested that a person in the abuser "role" had a stake in keeping the status quo, most would consider it a statement of the obvious. However, if I suggested the person in the vicitm role also has a stake in the status quo, that is judged as tantamount to siding with the abuser. I want to suggest this is not the case. To be clear, I do not imagine the victim is hoping for their pain, humiliation, etc. to continue. I am only postulating their resistance to changing the "roles" of the participants and therefore the "rules" of the game. Why?

Imagine if you were totally unfamiliar with sexual assault and the related wisdom that is now commonly understood from listening to our news outlets. Now imagine if I told you that after a sexual assault, a woman often questions her own behavior and blames herself in some way or begins experience a shattered self-worth, as though she deserved what happened to her.  Many of us would intuitively grasp this type of reaction. Why? Almost all of us have found ourselves assuming blame for some random tragedy that has befallen us. We ping pong back and forth in our minds. One minute we are convinced that we are blameless and a bad thing simply happened to us. The next moment we are equally convinced that if we had just done something different we could have or should have sidestepped the event. When something bad happens, we've all that the feeling that somehow this has happened to us because we were not good enough, smart enough, quick enough, strong enough. Also, if it were not sufficient to blame ourselves, we often worry that others at looking at us with blame in their eyes. We just "know" what they are thinking. "How could you let that happen? Are you not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to have prevented this?" In short order, we find ourselves on a path from a loss of self-respect to an imagined loss of communal respect. In other words, the victim blames himself and it is mentally consistent to believe that others are doing the same. Any psychologist will attest that this can easily become a viscious downward spiral of self-doubt, blame, depression, and worse.

It is my assertion that similar thought processes take place in persons abused by, what we have in the past termed, racism and prejudice? Further, given the inherent nature of human psychology, the anger and outrage that naturally results from being abused, appears justifiable only if everyone remains in his "role". From the perspective of the victim- I need to see myself as a victim to be outraged by my victimization. My anger seems internally jusitifiable only so long as my victimizer also remains in his "role". 

Note: Referring to hurtful hateful actions as racism, prejudice, or something else entirely does not excuse bad behavior. A change in terminology will not erase the resultant physical/mental scars of bad treatment. The point here is simply getting our terms and motivations assigned properly, such that we can look for an appropriate way forward.

We are all potentially the abused and the abuser. If we feel sobered and/or horrified by this realization, it's because we should. 

*The journey of a thousand miles does not begin with the first step. 
*It begins by knowing where you are.