Thursday, September 01, 2016

Liberal dilemmas

Another tasty J&M cartoon that illustrates a modern liberal dilemma, i.e. that of conflating the criticism and/or ridicule of a religion (especially Islam) with racism. 

This category confusion manifests itself in a number of different ways, the net effect is that "racism" as a word (an important word) is becoming ever more meaningless, I have even heard teenagers using it to simply mean "disliked", as in, "do you like my trainers?", "nah, they're racist".

Another example of this confusion would be that I heard a chap on the radio last night who was discussing the murder of a polish man in Harlow, Essex recently. At the end of the segment the man said "we must do everything we can to prevent this kind of racism" - now, in the light of a tragedy like this, I don't wish to be pedantic (I'm going to be) but I doubt this was a "racist" attack. It's unlikely that this unfortunate polish man was a different "race" to his murderer(s) what seems more likely to me is that this was an attack inspired by extreme nationalism, i.e. the attackers were arbitrarily attacking someone because of their nationality (or rather what their nationality was not) rather than their "race". There is no such thing as a Polish "race", native English and Polish people are both Caucasian, in fact the term "race" has no real meaning in Biology at all, genetically we are all so similar that it's a scientifically useless concept. The important point here is that "racism" is bad, but so is extreme nationalism, and they are different things with potentially different remedies. Of course, if we want to be lazy then both can be generalised up into a fuzzy hatred of "the other" but I don't think that's useful if we really want to solve this problem.

"Race", it seems to me, is something people have invented over history as a kind of divisive short hand for whatever the hell they'd like attack at the time, i.e. skin colour, nationality, religion, culture, native language, Celtic or Rangers etc. for this reason it's become a slippery slope kind of concept and a dangerous one. Whenever we invent a term that's malleable like this and is also inherently divisive, we should expect trouble ahead. There's clearly no easy answer, but I wish more schools would teach critical thinking and philosophy; together I believe they could help people straighten out confusing ideas like this in impressionable minds.

In my view there are two sets or categories of entities involved here, one of which should be able to be ridiculed, insulted and attacked and the other should not, the sets are (broadly), 

1. Ideas that people hold and the things that they do, for example religions, politics, rituals, laws, practices, policies, troop movements, flags, countries, languages, hair-styles and so on. (subjective)

2. Human beings and their (un-chosen) attributes like skin colour, gender, sexuality, physical appearance, handicaps, genetics etc. (objective)

Clearly everything in set 1 is man-made or at least requires a human brain in order to manifest itself. Things in set two are products of the natural world, they are things that (subject to some supernaturally inspired debate) are things that people have no real control over. 

It's hard to think of what in set 1 could be criticised and be called "racist" (unless as a proxy for items in set 2) whereas generalisations or discrimination based on most of the things in set 2 would certainly be unethical if not truly "racist".

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