Sunday, November 28, 2004

Is racism a part of Human Nature

Hot Ambercrombie Chick posed this question on her blog. I have a little bit of a brevity problem. So I've put my answer here.

First I’d like to make a distinction between Human Nature and the Human Condition. Although these are often used interchangeably, it is useful to differentiate them.

Human Nature is how we’re wired, how we’re built, what follows simply from the fact that we are Homo Sapiens. It is internal to us.

The Human Condition is the environment in which we live, physically and culturally. It is external to us.

If racism were a part of Human Nature, then it would follow that a child born in Mongolia but adopted as an infant by a couple in the Netherlands would have an instinctive preference for Mongolians. This is clearly not true. Question answered.

The Human Condition question is bit more complicated. It is arguable that humans are inherently cultured. That is to say acquiring culture is a part of our overall evolution as a species. To be human is to have culture. This doesn’t say anything about the content of that culture. But it does say that we have a Human Condition. We live in culture and cannot escape it.

At the most basic level this means, at least, that part of being human mandates that how we think of ourselves and others is dependent on culture. We come to know ourselves through the eyes of other people. Hegel wanted to argue that we could think our way out of this, you know, Being in itself, Being of itself, Being in-and-of itself. That is, you see yourself in your own mind, you see yourself through the eyes of others, then you resolve the conflict this creates by synthesizing the two. I deny that this is possible.

No matter how much we may tell ourselves: I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, we do. We can’t help it. It is part of the Human Condition. And it is the basis for all culture. Philosophy is the only one of the humanities that seems to still be in denial on this matter. Psychologists know this. Sociology is based on this idea – we cannot prevent the opinion that others have of us – or that we perceive that they do - from structuring our view of ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we don’t still have agency. We do. And there is a conflict as Hegel describes. We just cannot resolve or escape it.

Now to the question at hand.

Of course we cannot go around allowing the opinions of random strangers to completely re-structure our ego on a continuing basis. So we all create coping mechanisms. Every culture has at its core an adaptation to this conflict. They vary widely, but they all serve to differentiate for the individual those whose opinion gets to “count” and those whose opinion doesn’t. We may minimize the self, abandon the individual and immerse ourselves in a culture, privileging that culture above all others. We may maximize the self and try as best we can to tell ourselves: I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. We are quite likely to divide ourselves in groups based on cultural and physical markers to determine more easily who gets to count. The in-group can be drawn loosely or tightly. We can choose to deal with people on a case by case basis. You don’t like the way I look? What do you know? You’re just being shallow. Or we can choose to insulate ourselves from the gaze of the other in advance by eliminating large groups of people as being less than human or not good enough in some way. But we all have means and methods to maintain the integrity of the ego against the constant onslaught of the opinions of others.

Of course, this leaves a tremendous number of questions unanswered as to the reasons why racism has taken the forms it has, or – more importantly I think – why it ever occurred to anyone to use skin color as a salient marker of identity in the first place. But I think, if my basic assertion is correct, we can see how dividing ourselves into groups has arisen from the Human Condition. We can also see, however, the way out. The very variability and plasticity of the adaptations we make to the basic conflict I outlined means that racism and other –ism’s are by no means inevitable.

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