10.19.2009

on racism and cultural relativism

"I know it's wrong, but..." a friend recently confided in me--probably confident that his disclosure wouldn't be discussed on the Internet--"I just hate the way they talk. It sounds stupid."

Black people, he meant. (African Americans. Americans of African decent. I'm not sure what's p.c. anymore.)

Foremost, it's fascinatingly disgusting that we live in a time when all opinions on "racial" matters must first be qualified either with self-flagellation, like my friend, or with the nouveau cliche, "You know I'm not a racist, but..."

Nevertheless, my friend's comment has had me thinking on and off for two weeks. Was his comment racist or the appropriate expression of cultural preference? (I should clarify that I recognize the "stereotypical" nature of the remark. Certainly not every black talks in a way that my friend would find unpleasant. But not every stereotype is racist. Words have meaning, and if he was writing an academic treatise, I would suggest to my friend that he clarify his universal statement. But just as words have specific meaning, so do colloquial expressions--especially in the context of friendly banter. I understood that he wasn't making a claim about an entire race. I had to clarify, though, for people out there looking to dismiss arguments on purely semantic grounds. You know who you are.)

To clarify:

Racism is a very primitive form of collectivism that considers genetics to be the sole, and therefore most important, factor in someone's intellectual and cultural makeup. And, as Rand states, "Like every form of determinism, racism invalidates the specific attribute which distinguishes man from all other living species: his rational faculty. Racism negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination."

It's quite obvious that racism is irrational and shouldn't be practiced. But using this definition as a guide, was my friend's comment racist?

In short, I don't think it was--otherwise I wouldn't be writing this post and you wouldn't be wasting your time reading it. (Unless you're the tens of Kool-Aid-drinking fanatics that visit at least weekly. Google Analytics is awesome.)

To be fair, my friend may be a racist. I don't know what he does in his free time, what Klan rallies he attends, ethnicities he cleanses, etc. I do know that he has black friends. I also know that his black friends don't talk "that way." An African American Studies professor might classify them as "Anglicized" or contend that they've at least assimilated a Western vernacular. Agreed. Might these Anglicized black friends, then, also prefer more "white" speech to "black" speech? And what does skin color have to do with your culture anyway?

Frankly, not much--otherwise I wouldn't be writing this post and...see above.

Race does not determine culture. And having cultural preferences doesn't make you a racist. Yes, people are born into a culture and may experience difficult-to-alter sense of life experiences from growing up in it. But the fact remains that people do, ultimately, choose to adopt cultural behaviors at some point in their volitional life. (Unless you're going to argument against free will. If you are, please, just go away.)

If culture is a matter of taste--that is, a choice of mere preference having only personal implications--then go forth and rejoice in cultural relativism. If culture is not a matter of taste, if it is, in fact, a matter of objective truth, then please step away from the jar of multicultural goodness. I tend to see culture as (shock) the latter, having possible implications for people other than one's self. For example, the cultural practice of female (genital mutilation) circumcision or the cultural beliefs that keep a significant part of Africa in horrific poverty.

Alas, cultures can be right and wrong. (Cultural practices, actually.) And choice of culture, therefore, can be right and wrong. Let me be the first, then, to denounce the atrocity that is multiculturalism--AKA cultural relativism AKA subjectivism AKA evil--and declare that forced female genital mutilation is a disgusting and terrible act that we should unite to stop.

But, then, should I also take the hard line on talking "that way" and declare it should be stopped? Probably not. How, then, can we decide where to draw the line on cultural practices? First, let me say that choice of language can be beneficial within a context, but pretty much all major languages can get the job done. Language isn't the problem in Ebonics. The perversion of grammar is. Nonetheless, while we should agree that grammar and syntax play important functions in any language and that their subversion impedes communication--except in special cases not discussed herein--there is no need to coercively stop people from choosing to speak Ebonics--since their choice is personal and has no physical repercussions for other people. (No person should be forced to learn Ebonics, though.)

And that's the line: harm. Does the person's cultural practice infringe on anyone else's individual rights? If not, then the practice is allowed. If so, it's not.

There is so much here I can't fully explain. I don't have time to write a book. Other people have, though. And you should read them.

1 comment:

broken570 said...

i got called out here at least twice, and i didn't even know it until just now. i've been too busy to check this with the same fervor i used to.

1. i know grice. i know psychological theories of meaning. they are just wrong. now implicatures are likely right, but the whole theory taken together is problematic. i don't see how i should be chastised for insisting on an analytic tradition.

2. i'm not going to argue about free will. but i will say that regardless of the truth of that matter, i think race and culture together are a messy, complicated, circular feast of influences. you should read charles taylor's sources of the self, or kwame anthony appiah's the ethics of identity. they speak to this issue a bit, and i think you'd enjoy them.

3. it's fun to see you talk about principles of harm. it's like seeing anakin skywalker/darth vader fight the emperor at the end of return of the jedi. there's still good in you! i agree with you sometimes in this post. that's refreshing.