Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why people like Greg Laden piss me off

I'm going to be picking on a month old post from Greg right now, so I apologize if that seems unfair, but this is yet another thing that's been bugging me for awhile and I was jostled into thinking harder about it by Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. (Read it!)

In the post in question, Greg starts with a quite intriguing thesis that the binary aspects of Abrahamic religions -- best personified in the divide between "kosher" and "treyf" -- have contributed to a black-and-white mode of thinking that has shaped Western civilization. I think there's something to this and would like to have seen it explored more.

But then Greg goes off the deep end:

This kosher-non kosher way of looking at the world also facilitates our well known classicism and racism. Not everyone in the world is as classist and racist as we are. Many thoughtful Westerners... consider racism as adaptive, as a fundamental human trait that has some explanation. This makes me laugh, because it assumes that all humans are assholes. No. Mainly, Americans and Northern/Western Europeans are assholes... Most of the rest of the world, they are not assholes... That does not mean that most people in the not have some other group that they distrust... However, most of that distrust and disdain is historically contextualized...or it is simply not taken that seriously. Most of the individuals practicing this disdain will readily put it aside. I know many Africans who are married to people who are of the group that their group disdains... It is not like Western racism, which is pervasive, persistent, intractable, unchangeable, violent and destructive...


I have edited heavily because in the original it is one loooong unbroken paragraph, so if you think I have bent the meaning, I encourage you to go read the original. The emphasis is mine, because I think the bolded sentence is the most ridiculous point in the entire diatribe: Greg asserts that, should we ever find an example of racism in a non-Western culture, we should not take it seriously because "individuals...will readily put it aside."

Okay, before I attack this or explain why it is so bothersome, I think there is an important digression first. As I have grown older as a white heterosexual male, I have come to the realization that even if somebody says something blatantly insulting and/or untrue about whites, heterosexuals, or males, it is wholly unbecoming and unnecessary to take offense at that. Statistics show I'm getting all sorts of unfair advantages in my life. Even though I didn't ever ask for these advantages, it would be rather childish to, in the face of all of that inequity, to get peevish because somebody falsely asserts, for example, that men have started all the wars in history. I might point out that this was wrong, but to get snippy or offended would be useless and pathetic.

So I don't care that Greg says that Westerners are big horrible racists. Well, we are, historically speaking. And the extent of Western political and economic power in recent history has meant that our prejudices and barbarisms are writ large, leaving huge scars on the history of mankind.

What I have a problem with is someone falling for the myth of the Noble Savage, that everything was hunky-dory until the white man came along. This pisses me off not because it's insulting to whites -- as I said, it would be rather sad if I took offense at this while never having to experience the true sting of racism that others have to deal with -- but instead, it pisses me off because it trivializes the world's problems and gets in the way of true understanding.

The idea that racism is a mostly Western thing is absurd. One of the universal features of all human cultures is the presence of an in-group/out-group dichotomy (see Donald E. Brown's list of human universals, which happens to be reprinted in the back of Pinker's book). And unfortunately, one very convenient way of identifying members of the out-group is that, until very very very recently in human history, someone with a different skin color could reliably be assumed to be in the out-group. Welcome to racism country.

I have absolutely no clue where Greg gets the idea that people in other cultures don't take the in-group/out-group divide seriously. In his original post, he refers to African "friends" of his who have not been concerned by tribal divisions -- perhaps a selection bias is at work here? I don't imagine Greg is likely to be close friends with the African equivalent of a Palinite, y'know?

Whatever the case, it's ridiculous. We look at just about any primitive society, and we see rampant tribal warfare. Oh, but you say that is just "ritualistic" warfare? That the body counts are so small, they didn't really "mean it" when they killed those people who looked different from them? Here's what Pinker has to say about that:

Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.

He then goes on to present the following graph, which is based on data from the archeaologist Lawrence Keeley:

And please, don't try and make some sort of false distinction between tribalism and racism. They are for all intents and purposes the same thing. I mean, really, you're going to point to a society where everybody they have ever seen has roughly the same skin color, so instead they despise and murder each other over even more subtle variations wrought by lineage -- and then argue that this makes them more noble and tolerant somehow?? Please.

Again, I'm not trying to excuse the sins of my fathers. While I think the myth of the Noble Savage is not only unproductive and annoying, but also clearly false in the face of statistics like those above, absolute numbers do matter. Even if World War II, for example, was not particularly bloody per capita when compared with tribal conflicts, the scale of the destruction has made an impact of nigh incomprehensible scale, on the history of mankind, on the human psyche, and on the Earth itself. This is no small thing, and in evaluating blame it matters little that the impulses that led to it were universally human rather than distinctly European.

But Greg's line of argument is still bullshit, and worse yet, coming from a white guy it is particularly offensive. Someone idealizing their own cultural past could be forgiven for cultural pride, for wanting to see their ancestral history through rose-colored glasses. But what's Greg's excuse? When he states that African tribalism "is not taken seriously", he is spitting on the grave of the millions of men, women, and children who have been massacred over the millenia in petty tribal feuds. It roils me in a similar way to Holocaust denialism (although I grant that, unlike those bigoted freaks, Greg's motives are at least laudable).

Still, he needs to wake the fuck up. Acting like every culture was perfect before whitey came in and wrecked it is asinine and unproductive -- not because it's insulting to us privileged white males, I mean, dude, we'll get over it; but because it demeans history's other victims, because it clouds our understanding, and because it gets in the way of true solutions -- sometimes with disastrous consequences.


  1. Amen. Greg goes a little funny in the head sometimes.

  2. It also seems Greg's thinking of the world along the lines of White/ African. He does seem to be ignoring the world's two most populous countries - Indian and China. It's a big generalisation, but it seems fair to say that most Han Chinese tend to assume they are superior to minority ethinic groups. Indian society's obsession with caste and skin tone isn't quite the same as racism, but the 'untouchable' Dalits have certainly suffered at the hands of the Brahmins and other castes thorughout history.

    The big irony of his whole article is that Greg Laden probably thinks he's being marvellously liberal here, but as you rightly point out, he's buying into the myth of the noble savage here - a myth which assumes that only White Europeans have culture and civilisation and all other cultures are in some idyllic pre-civilised state.

  3. I'm pretty sure Aristotle's binary discrimination of A and not-A in the fourth century BCE had nothing to do with kosher and non-kosher.