Archives for posts with tag: racism

I recently made the mistake of listening to a podcast that had Sam Harris in it. Whenever I am exposed to Sam Harris, I get a kind of migraine until I am able to express fully how terrible he is, and then relief sets in. Sweet, sweet relief. Now, if you happen to be a fan of Sam Harris, I would recommend instead you read another racist utilitarian, John Stuart Mill. His racism is far more dignified, and he has the honour and privilege of being one of the earliest incarnations of a white feminist!

john stuart mill

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

Harris’s general philosophy is that pain = bad, pleasure = good. It’s hedonistic utilitarianism, but this time, Harris suggests that we use science because nobody has thought of using science to determine morality before. Morality has always been so wishy washy and soft in the past, and Harris wants to ram hard science down its eager throat. Pain of course is objectively bad, pleasure is objectively good. Claiming objectivity in morality has always tended towards zealous dogmatism in the past, but now with science, that objectivity must be true, and Harris’s dogmatism is justified.

sam harris

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. … it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”

What the dogmatism of Sam “Nuke The Muslims” Harris, and even John “Brutally Subjugate The Indians” Mill to a lesser extent, fails to take into account is that the objectivity of pain as a moral compass doesn’t hold up in the slightest. The gym rat maxim of “No Pain, No Gain” literally requires pain. Getting hella swole isn’t often thought of as morally bankrupt, if perhaps a bit douche-y, yet objectively it must be. Boxers fighting for a prize belt must also be engaged in Holocaust-levels of immorality, given their premeditated intent to inflict pain on one another. And don’t even get me started on those sexy BDSM freaks in the sheets; mixing pleasure WITH pain is just an ethical nightmare!

bdsm

Just go with it

Yet Harris never mentions those because they’re not predominantly engaged in by Musli… I mean because they’re obviously not unethical behaviours. The thing that distinguishes them is consent. The boxers have agreed upon certain rules and regulations before entering their fight; the magic and wonder of BDSM is underscored vehemently by an emphasis on consent; and if some bro wants to tear his quads by going for that one extra rep, more power to him. Without consent, these activities turn into assault, rape, and non-consensual lifting. I don’t know what that last one would be like, but I certainly don’t want to find out.

do you even lift

Please don’t make me lift

What Sam Harris seems to miss is that human beings are quite capable of making their own decisions. I guess science hasn’t gotten to that part just yet. If a woman chooses to wear a Burqa, fine. People are agreeing to be punched in the face, and if that’s okay, certainly a choice in attire is okay. If she is coerced into wearing a Burqa, that becomes less fine. Issues of age and capability certainly impact consent, but ultimately it is not up to Sam Harris to decide who gets to agree to what, and what their available choices can be. It is very easy to paint a culture we don’t belong to as being intrinsically coercive (the hypocrisy being how ignorant we are of the coercive factors insidiously lurking within our own), but it is the inhabitants of that culture that ought to have the right to choose which direction they wish to go.

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Let’s let Saudi Arabia determine which direction our culture goes with regard to our media’s portrayal of women

People in general seem to have a hard time letting others live out their lives, because we know what’s best and if they’re doing something different, they must be barbaric savages, unfit to make their own decisions. This isn’t a call for relativism; my autonomy is worth just as much as yours. This is a call for the respect of autonomy, and to engage only in consensual interactions. Rather than, you know, nuking a religion, like only a genius ethicist could conceive.

When people think of Canada, they think of hockey, needless apologizing, and Tim Horton’s coffee because associating national identity with a corporation couldn’t possibly be the worst idea ever. None of these are things I would call “values,” however. Canadian values are a funny thing. Mostly because Canada is an abstract social construct that only has the meaning humanity gives it, and as a social construct, cannot actually have values. It’s like saying money has values. Usually this is why the concept of Canadian values doesn’t come up very often. The only people silly enough to consistently ascribe values to their nation are Americans, and that’s mostly due to the fact that America has been desperately trying to anthropomorphize itself throughout its entire history.

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Things Americans value, as depicted by this image: weeping openly, nature, and destroying their own flag

But north of the border, we do try every now and again. Our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dictate “shared values” that supersede any nationalistic urges, claiming that, “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” are what unite us, rather than any hard-line Canadian identity. It sounds nice, right? I’m not Canadian because of any geographic truth about my birth and current living locale (the traditional construct of nation being the socially agreed upon borders drawn haphazardly across the globe which demarcate which laws you are compelled to follow), but now I’m Canadian because of my patriotic adherence to this list that Trudeau made up… or had written for him. Either way, it’s essentially nonsense.

However, when most people think about Canadian values, they think of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test” which would forbid any incoming immigrants and refugees from entry lest they agree to certain “values;” values presumably widely contrasted to any Liberal leader’s version of them. The lunacy of pan-Canadian values aside, people were mostly in favour of broad, incredibly vague, yet still hypocritical values being enforced at the border.

border crossing

We are open, compassionate, just, and respectful people. You need to be just like us in order to come in. (Yes, I know this is the American border under Trump. We have our own hypocrisies, they’re just more difficult to find in a Google Image Search relevant to immigrants or refugees)

Why is there pressure from political organizations to promote absolute values within the citizenry? It makes no sense from a practical viewpoint. Laws are the enforceable side of values, but nobody is going to go beyond that to enforce “openness” and “respect” as laws because more often than not those spouting these platitudes are those most likely to disregard them. They’re also impossible to define. Is it respectful to respect a woman’s right to choose, or to respect the life which began at conception? Values are individualistic and subjective to the point where they are entirely meaningless on any kind of macro scale.

Politicians and their pundits aren’t actually speaking about values when they discuss values because, as discussed, that is a meaningless prospect. What they are talking about is purity. Values aren’t the thing; everyone being the same is the thing. We want a country that is untainted by foreign aspects that will defile the sanctity of our nation. We only want those who are like us. We don’t want to be infested by those… types. If this sounds like dog-whistle racism, well, who can say?

purity

Can you imagine some foreign elements contaminating this water? Society is just like that. If anything foreign is introduced, it poisons us all. It’s not racism. This metaphor is incontrovertible.

Purity has its defenders. Jonathan Haidt suggests that the divide between conservatives and liberals is predicated on their different moral foundations. Liberals predominantly adhere to a creed of reducing harm and emphasizing fairness, while conservatives focus on harm and fairness as well, but introduce respect for authority, in-group coherence, and purity into their moral baseline. This is why the harrumphing about “values” usually comes from conservative talking points.

Except coming up with something that conservatives typically agree on and deciding that must make it “moral” (a surprisingly relativistic understanding of morality, considering the accusations of relativism usually come from the conservative aisle) isn’t ethically valid. Morality is the systemic regulation of our relationship to the Other. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas states that our individual freedom must justify itself in the face of the Other. “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” All alone, morality cannot exist and our actions are infinitely free, but when we come across someone new, we realize that our actions mean something in a relationship, and the ignorance of that relationship can only be exploitative. Purity is the necessary exclusion of the Other. It literally cannot be a moral foundation because it precludes the very existence of a moral relationship.

people interacting

In order for me to interact morally with you, I need a “you” to interact with

Unfortunately, politicians bring up values to pander to immoral standards of social purity because they don’t want to talk about the stuff that actually matters: policy decisions. The more we’re all talking about abstract, unfounded notions of pan-national values, the less we’re talking about taxes, environmental policy, and the housing crisis. I don’t have to promise something that you can call me out on when I fail to deliver; I just need to stroke your underlying xenophobic fears, and I’ll get elected. All I need is the right kind of rhetoric. If my polling numbers go down, I can just ramp up the rhetoric because rhetoric doesn’t require any kind of meaningful follow through.

So. What have we learned. Purity is the opposite of morality. Macro-level values are meaningless. And if anyone ever brings up these things in a political debate, it’s because they really don’t want to be talking about the concrete things they’re actually planning on doing. Also they’re probably a smidge racist.

A few years ago, I worked in a butcher shop. I learned the different cuts of meat, learned the value of a sharp knife, and ingested probably more than my fair share of raw meat juice by grabbing snacks after handling ground beef. Just a bit of extra iron; it’s fine. Anyway, while I was there, I accidentally stabbed myself in the face. I was tying up a roast, holding my knife point-up as I did so (don’t do this), and when the twine broke, my hand shot up, and the tip of the knife entered my forehead, just above my right eye. Another thing I learned at the butcher shop is that foreheads bleed quite profusely.

For a few weeks, I had a very noticeable red gash on my face, or alternatively, a conspicuous Band-Aid that didn’t quite give me the same tough-guy edge as Nelly’s. I spent these weeks contemplating what it would mean to have facial scarring.

Obviously it would not change anything about me. My personality had not been altered, my essential biology remained the same, even my apathy toward basic food safety when it comes to what I put in my mouth continued at its same charming rate. I had a scar, a mark on my skin. Nothing more.

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Elephant Man: A Social Construction

What I wondered about was how others might see me. If they were to stare, would they look away embarrassed if I caught them, or would they continue unashamed? Would they ask me how I got it, demanding I retell the same ridiculous story over and over, or would they uncomfortably skirt around it, pretending they don’t even notice? Would I be treated as an incompetent buffoon, someone worthy of pity and paternalistic “helping”? Laughed at?

How would I handle that? At what point would I start to question my self worth? How long would it take me to ignore the stares, absorbing them into my new normal, or would I always have to endure noticing them? Would I internalize their attitudes and begin to believe myself to be “scarred” rather than someone who just happens to have a scar? Would I act “scarred”? Would I start wearing hats and become less confident around women? Would I start associating any kind of rejection as an expansion of the way “unscarred” people would shun me?

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How long of being treated like a monster before you become a monster?

I am fortunate enough that the scar is hardly visible now. Just another scratch on a Jackson Pollock of pockmarks covered by the unkempt scruff and bangs of someone who is too lazy to regularly shave or get a proper haircut. The stares are gone and nothing was internalized. However, the scar, pockmarks, and eternal five o’clock shadow all reside on the same surface: white skin.

If people had the potential to treat me very differently based on an etching on my skin, what about the skin itself? When people say that something like race is a social construction, they don’t mean that blackness and whiteness don’t exist. I have a scar. It’s definitely real, and that’s definitely how I got it. Social constructions are attitudes people adopt based on traditions and shared values toward things that don’t mean anything in and of themselves. Something as superficial as a scar, for instance. They are “constructed” because they are built by social perception.

Does a bombardment of beauty standards define how people might look at a scarred face? How about movies where darker foes are vanquished by whiter heroes? Or a Eurocentric history that teaches a dichotomy between white civilization and coloured savages? What about timid news stories about violence committed by those with white skin compared to the more harrowing tales of violence committed by those with darker skin? Every act of racism perpetuates attitudes which further shapes the construction. By the virtue of something as arbitrary as my skin, I am automatically treated differently by society based on how it constructs the image of “whiteness”. How much of that have I internalized? How often do I act “white”? What parts of “whiteness” have been absorbed into my normal?

collar11

At least I don’t give a shit about Pumpkin Spice.

Not everything that is a social construction is as controversial as race and gender (or beauty standards, for all my facially-scarred homies). Money is a social construction, for instance, as is the authority of a uniform. It is not necessarily a pejorative, but an appropriate description of how society functions. When the construction becomes particularly harmful is when we have to take a step back, collectively, and reexamine what is real, and what has value in and of itself.