At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

What is “Racism?”

posted by Jack Kerwick

If a representative of our generation was made to stand before an alien tribunal and identify the worst of evils, there can be no doubt that it would be “racism” to which he would allude.  It would be better for a person to be convicted in the court of public opinion of child molestation (to say nothing of murder or rape) than to be judged guilty of “racism.”  This is particularly true if the person is regarded as white (witness George Zimmerman).

“Racism” is of a uniquely evil nature.  Of this, we are sure.  But what exactly is this most incendiary of crimes against humanity?  What exactly is “racism?”

 

“Racism” as Doctrine of Innate Inferiority

Originally, “racism” is the term that was reserved to describe the position that individuals were intellectually and morally superior and inferior to one another depending on the racial groups to which they belonged.  Thus, a white person who regarded all black people as inferior to himself simply and solely because they were black would be considered a “racist.” 

The problem, though, with defining “racism” in terms of this belief is that while the doctrine of innate inferiority is doubtless false, it is not clearly evil.  It would be evil, though, if one of two things were true.

(1). If all false beliefs were evil, then this false belief would be evil. 

However, the idea that false beliefs are evil because they are false is ridiculous.  Furthermore, if it is the erroneous nature of the doctrine of innate inferiority that renders it immoral, then there is nothing uniquely, or even distinctively, about it that makes it so. 

(2). It may be argued that the doctrine of innate inferiority is evil because it is the basis for racial persecution.

This line too is dubious. 

Whether this doctrine is either necessary or sufficient for racially-motivated hostility is an empirical question that has never been asked, though it has been answered.  Conventional wisdom aside, thoughts are not always “the basis” for our actions.  Think about it: a stranger cuts you off on the highway and you envision doing all manner of evil to him.  But just because you have these ugly thoughts running through your mind at the moment, do you ever truly think that there is any real chance of your acting on them? 

Thoughts are not always the basis of our actions.  But let’s, for argument’s sake, say that they are.  Why assume that the doctrine of innate inferiority will necessarily translate into racial animosity and cruelty?  After all, we encounter beings, whether humans or animals, who we judge to be inferior in some respects or other all of the time.  I do indeed hold that the man who is chronically unfaithful to his wife is morally inferior to I who am faithful to mine. And I believe that I am morally and intellectually superior to my goldfish.  This, though, does not in the least motivate me to treat anyone or any thing cruelly. 

In any event, it is the conduct that warrants praise or blame—not the ideas accompanying the conduct.

 

“Racism” as Racial Hatred

Some say that “racism” is a matter of hating the members of other races. 

First of all, unless “hatred” is always evil, there is no a priori reason why this type of hatred is evil. 

Second, just because a person hates all of the members of another race does not mean that he will then make it his life’s mission to persecute the objects of his hatred.  Hatred, like any other emotion, expresses itself in numerous ways—none of which can be determined in advance. 

Third, presumably, racial hatred is immoral because race is a morally irrelevant concept: an accident of birth like race is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.  Well enough.  But this being so, then it follows that “racism” is not uniquely horrible, for it is the irrelevance of race that renders racial hatred impermissible.  This means that hating people on the basis of race is no more and no less evil than hating people who are left handed, short, tall, obese, thin, pimple-faced, etc.  Thus, there is nothing distinctively, let alone uniquely, evil about hating others on the grounds of race.

 

“Racism” as Racial Discrimination

To discriminate on the basis of race—now this is “racism.”

Not so fast. 

The problem with this approach is that it is indiscriminate in its application of the term “discrimination.”  Is there something especially evil about using race as a criterion when making a decision?  Or is it only evil when race is permitted to trump all other considerations?

Considering that there isn’t one among us who hasn’t assigned racial considerations some role in some of our decision-making—just think of the decisions to date, marry, and procreate—I think it is safe to conclude that the racial discrimination to which the champions of this understanding of “racism” object consists in relying upon race as the sole, or even primary, standard in life.  Or so they’ll say.

So be it.  The next question is: Why is it abominable to use race as the primary or sole standard in decision-making? 

The answer, I would think, is that race is as irrelevant as eye color.   Yet if this is so (and it is far from obvious that it is), then there is nothing particularly horrible about racial discrimination or “racism.” It is the irrelevance of race that renders the latter immoral. 

Racial discrimination or “racism,” then, is no more and no less immoral than discrimination on the grounds of eye color.

 

Conclusion

From this analysis, there are a couple of deductions that we can make.

The first is that “racism” is most definitely not a unitary phenomenon.  The forgoing accounts of “racism” are irreducible to one another: each stands by itself. 

Secondly, upon considering each statement of “racism,” we are compelled to paraphrase the author of 1 Corinthians and cry out: “Where, oh ‘Racism,’ is your sting?”  Each of these readings fails to accommodate the notion that “racism” is something especially awful. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

Republican Contradictions and Ron Paul

posted by Jack Kerwick

There is something afoot within the Republican Party specifically and American politics generally.  Something is happening, something that will make it increasingly difficult for the GOP of today to return to its previous way of doing things.

This “something” is a keenly felt incoherence within the GOP, a tension that is on its way to boiling over.  This tension has been brought about in part by the presidency of Barack Obama, it is true.  But the contribution of the latter consists in simply forcing to the forefront inconsistencies within the GOP that long predate the rise of Obama, inconsistencies that are the offspring of the tumultuous marriage between the party’s rhetoric and its practice.

Republicans loudly and proudly affirm “limited government” and the “individual liberty” to which the former is supposed to give rise. Yet their talk is one thing.  Their walk is something else altogether.  In practice, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are differences of degree—fractions of a degree, at that.

We need not recapitulate the many respects in which our two national parties are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable.  One need only reflect upon the presidency of George W. Bush to recognize that while our 43rd President was many things, a proponent of “limited government” he most certainly was not.

However, regardless of Republican media spin, the base of the party has long recognized that its leadership has failed miserably to advance the agenda that it claims to support.  This explains why with every primary season, voters insist on the need to nominate a “real conservative.”  That the majority of the GOP’s base remains mired in confusion on this matter is beside the point.  The very fact that the base routinely reveals itself to be at odds with “the establishment” proves that even Republicans perceive a conflict between what Republican politicians, strategists, and commentators say and what they do.     

I contend that it is the candidacy of Ron Paul that has at once illuminated and remedied this conflict. Because of his visibility as a national figure, to say nothing of his earthy charm, Paul has made it impossible for Republicans to any longer deny the glaring incongruity between their utterances and their actions. 

Paul explodes onto the national scene espousing just those ideas to which Republicans have claimed to be committed for decades.  His fellow Republicans in the presidential primary contests of 2008 and today are no less reserved than is Paul in expressing their support of “limited government” and “individual liberty.”  Yet it is Paul, and Paul alone, who is regularly treated by both his colleagues and their supporters in the so-called “conservative” media as persona non grata.  Why?

The question is rhetorical: Paul is clearly the only one who truly believes in that of which Republicans speak. 

At a minimum, he is the only one who recognizes that certain kinds of policies—like those suited for waging an interminable war against a vague enemy—are radically incompatible with Republican Party ideals.

Just by virtue of his presence, Paul simultaneously identifies the contradiction at the core of GOP politics and points the way toward its resolution. 

Paul calls out his fellow partisans while hurling them on the horns of a dilemma.  If Republicans really believe in the ideals to which they pay lip service, then they have no logical or moral option but to adopt the policies that Paul prescribes.  If, though, they refuse to adopt these prescriptions by continuing along the path that they have been traveling for far too long, then we have no logical option but to conclude that their ideals are nothing more than rhetorical devices for procuring votes.   

There is no slipping between these two horns: the dilemma is inescapable.

Republicans know this.  This is why they have reacted to Paul as hysterically as they have.  Paul is a whistle blower.  The affable Texas Congressman and stalwart constitutionalist has aired the GOP’s dirty laundry for all of the country to see. 

However, Paul is generous.  Yes, he has shown that the Emperor has no clothes. But he has offered to provide clothing—and more. Paul seeks to adorn the GOP with those jewels—our Constitutional liberties—that its rhetoric would have us think it prizes. And he seeks to do this by charting a new course for his party and his country, a course that is in keeping with the spirit of liberty in which Americans have traditionally delighted. 

Paul’s support among voters not only indicates no signs of diminishing; it continues to swell.  As much as Republicans in the media would love to have us believe that the Paul phenomenon is negligible or vanishing, that Paul continues, and will continue, to accumulate delegates all of the way to the Republican National Convention exposes this line for the falsehood that it is.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

Conversation vs. Talkativeness

posted by Jack Kerwick

We are a talkative people.  In this era of mass communication, human beings have never talked more: “social media,” cell phones, texting, email—it is increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to spend much time without communicating to someone or other.

However, in the midst of this avalanche of loquacity, a paradox is afoot: the more talkative we have become, the less conversable we have become.

We talk and we talk and we talk—but we do not converse.

It has long been noted (but not noted enough) that conversation is an art.  Sadly, though, it is a lost art.

There is doubtless a sense in which it can be said that every generation falls in love with itself.  But our generation is obsessed with itself.

The rise of “Reality Television” has done much to fuel this self-obsession, it is true; yet it is more a function of our excessive self-love than its cause.  Facebook, twitter, MySpace, Youtube, the blogosphere, etc., have given anyone and everyone platforms for self-expression.  In so doing, though, they have inflated our sense of self-importance.

I think that it is this self-importance that has sounded the death knell for the art of conversation. 

Like any art, the art of conversation requires practice.  And like any art, mastery of the art of conversation entails the perfection of virtues that are peculiar to it. 

One of these virtues—recognized by the ancients as one of the four cardinal human excellences—is the virtue of temperance.  “Temperance” is what we today are more inclined to call “self-control” or “self-discipline.”  The temperate person has mastered his desires by bringing them under the governance of reason.

Temperance is a virtue in exceedingly short supply today.  This can be seen most readily in our exchanges with others. 

Most people ache to be heard.  So, they seek out anyone from whom they can gain a hearing.  Yet hearing and listening are two entirely distinct activities.  To hear someone is nothing less than to have one’s ear drums bombarded by noise. The hearer is passive. The listener, on the other hand, engages in an activity.  The listener, in contrast to the hearer, is mindful of his interlocutor.  To put it another way, the listener is temperate, for he has restrained his desire to speak.

Of course, a virtuous conversationalist isn’t just a good listener.  There are other excellences—civility, articulateness, generosity, equanimity, hospitality, etc.—that he needs to possess. But unless he listens to what his partner in conversation has to say, conversation is impossible.

Conversation is a civilizing activity.  In conversation, two personalities meet in an act of mutual self-disclosure.  Moreover, each personality invites the other to unveil itself.  Genuine conversation has no place for the conventional altruism/selfishness distinction, for the hospitality of fellow conversationalists is motivated as much by a desire to forge their own identities as it is motivated by a desire to advance the interests of one another. 

Sheer talkativeness, in contrast, retards the civilizing mission of conversation. Talkativeness reflects and feeds narcissism.  Those who are talkative relish in their own talk—regardless of what they are prone to say.  They care not a lick about permitting others the same self-indulgence.  Sheer talkativeness relates to conversation as rape relates to love making.  Sheer talkativeness approximates violence as the exceedingly chatty leave their victims feeling brutalized.  While there are only subjects in conversation, the person exploited by the chatty is an object: the chatty reduces him to nothing more or less than a sounding board or, at best, an echo chamber. Talkativeness reflects and feeds narcissism. 

Perhaps it is high time that we had a conversation about the (lost) art of conversation.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Problems with the Morality of Human Rights

posted by Jack Kerwick

It is commonplace for most contemporary commentators to think of the Declaration of Independence as embodying our “national creed.”  This in turn explains the equally commonplace description ofAmericaas a “creedal” or “propositional nation.”

The idea is this: the Declaration, with its affirmation of “rights” that are “unalienable” and “self-evident,” expresses a universal morality, a morality unencumbered by the contingencies and relativities of place and time, culture and history.  America, the Declaration makes clear, is committed to the advancement, not of this or that person or group of persons, but of “the rights” of all mankind.

America was founded by white Christians from a specific place in Europeand at a particular juncture in their history.  And American life, up until the present day, has been informed overwhelmingly by European or Western ideas and traditions.  Still, it is emphatically “un-American”—maybe even “anti-American”—to think of our country in ethnic or racial terms.  Put another way, it is immoral—“racist,” “bigoted,” etc.—to recognize in America anything other than the first nation ever to have been erected upon a “timeless principle” or “ideal”: the principle that all human beings everywhere and always possess (pre-political) rights.

Not everyone today endorses this vision of America’s founding.  But more people than not, including people with clashing political visions, endorse the morality of “natural” or “human rights” embodied by the Declaration.  This is unfortunate, for only its ubiquity prevents its champions from recognizing the burdens with which their morality saddles them.

For one, if everybody has equal rights, and if Americais supposed to be committed to advancing these rights, then it is only upon practical or strategic grounds that objections can be raised against the American enterprises of welcoming massive Third World immigration, on the one hand, and launching equally massive military interventions abroad, on the other.  As Ilana Mercer noted some time ago, “Inviting an invasion by foreigners and instigating one against them” are inseparable engagements (emphases original).  She also observed, correctly, that the glue that holds them together is the notion of America as a “proposition nation.”

Yet, interestingly, the “proposition” responsible for this madness is just that proposition to which Ilana and many other sensible folks (like Pat Buchanan, for instance) subscribe: it is the proposition that all human beings have “unalienable” natural rights.

The point is that if America is committed to natural or human rights, then, ideally, she should be embracing as many immigrants and toppling as many oppressive foreign regimes as possible.  The means by which she fulfills this mission may be morally dubious; but the mission itself isn’t just morally permissible—it is obligatory.

The logic of the morality of human rights pushes us even further, though: because it is universal in character, because it makes no distinctions between persons, by its lights it is immoral for both the United States government as well as the American citizen to show partiality toward American citizens over non-Americans—regardless of where the latter are located.  The universality of the doctrine of human rights entails impartiality.  Thus, it is just as immoral for Americans—again, whether political office holders or citizens—to act partially toward Americans over non-Americans as it is immoral for Americans of one race to give preferential treatment to their fellow members over those Americans of other races. 

To put it simply, from this perspective, patriotism is as abhorrent as “racism,” for both are a standing violation of the universality and impartiality of the morality of human rights.

This brings us to a third problem.

If the “racist” is a reprehensible character because he prefers the members of his own race over those of other races, then there is no way to avoid the conclusion that anyone who is partial toward his own in any context must be equally reprehensible.  This would include not only the patriot but, more disturbingly yet, those who are partial toward their families over the families of others.

On the logic of the morality of human rights, “familyism,” then, joins “racism” and patriotism as evils. 

Those who think that this last is a stretch should consider that it has been quite some time since contemporary moral philosophers have branded human beings’ preference for their own species over others as “specieism” and added it to the litany of such abominations as “racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” and the rest.

This is where “the proposition” upon which America was supposedly founded leads us.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

  

 

 

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