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Just Say Yes
Q: Did you once claim to be a racist?
My most heartfelt apologies to any poor soul who clicked on this link inadvertently presupposing it to be a paean to existential affirmation (i.e. Just say “Yes!” to life). That is NOT what this is.
And my most additional apologies — it goes without saying— to those who would rather not be exposed to a word like paean.
I. THE OFTEN UNNECESSARY “NO”
This short article concerns a peculiar point that the philosopher Bruno Latour raised partway through his Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion. Among the many other nuanced points that Professor Latour makes therein about religion, Earth, Gaia vs Nature & the mythic “people” of the pluralistic Natural Sciences, there is one very interesting moment. That moment is a short comment that hints at his own idiosyncratic ethical emotions.
In his 3rd Gifford Lecture — in the midst of describing how climate scientists often overreact to attacks from their social critics — he says, in his heavily accented voice, very forcefully:
“These people tell you that you indulge in politics! And that you take yourselves to be the representative of many hidden and suppressed voices. Say YES for God’s sake!”
What’s he getting at?
Latour’s point, it seems to me, is that natural scientists (and, by extension, everyone) are often too quick to capitulate to the valuations implied by vocal social challenges. They feel they must avoid or deny any apparently negatively-charged symbolic attacks and this capitulation or avoidance contributes to a general inhibition of social progress.
Critics of mainstream climatology fall (not exclusively, but often) into two categories:
The first are postmodernists who accuse the scientists of having hidden assumptions mediated by particular social lenses. They claim that political affiliation, values and inter-group power games are built deeply into those interpretations out of which these experts profess to tell us about the “objective facts” of the environment.
The second set of attacks comes from so-called traditionalists who decry the ecologists as being merely one more newfangled religious cult that challenges the orthodox systems of value. They propose that a belief system is inherent to the scientific consensus.
Climate scientists often withdraw, demur, sidestep or protest both these sets of accusations, but why not just say:
II. CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT
It was very much in this vein (Latour’s point above) that I once claimed to be a racist.
My friend Ryan Nakade had been hosting these meta-ideological dojos & post-Culture-War fight clubs. Private online meetings filled with “inclusion, equity and diversity” professionals who were both deeply dedicated to progressive values AND acutely aware of the misguided and fragile ethos of their profession.
Our goal was constructive antifragility & deeper insight. We took turns role-playing. People got a chance to be aggrieved critics and to attempt to incorporate fair feedback while trying out dialogical judo on unfair critiques. So we denounced each other’s opinions and implied positions.
Racist! Sexist! Trans-exclusionary! Insensitive! Historically unaware! Etc.
Afterwards, we would collectively consider which responses had worked best — in terms of defusing tension and opening up productive conversation spaces on the far side of the reactive, pseudo-progressive verbal attacks.
During one session, I was patiently trying to reason with a character who kept shutting down all pathways for goodwill and mutual exploration with a histrionic accusation of racism. After several minutes, it occurred to me that I was missing a very obvious option:
“Well,” I said, “if that’s your definition of racism then, okay, I’m a racist.”
It was very freeing.
I did not, in this verbal confession, become any more (or less) racist than I might actually be. However I was, suddenly, considerably less tense. My interlocutor’s irrational aggression had no enemy to oppose. In a sense, we were now — at least symbolically — on the same side. And hopefully, we were free to initiate a more profound dialogue about serious problems.
III. I'M NOT A RACIST, BUT…
Racism is a big problem. Duh. The difficulty goes much deeper than nominal legal equality (which, even then, is still pretty recent in Modern Times). There are many dimensions entangled together in this:
There is the way that slight, upfront skewing of our social customs, protocols & incentives results in fairly blatant downstream intersystemic biases that have life and death consequences for people. That’s a dynamic that fits fairly neatly within a historical narrative of ongoing ethnic rivalry and dominance.
At the same time, the implicit logic of modernity might tend to create false and evolving “dominant” racial conglomerates (e.g. White, Han) that shield the actual economic elites from scrutiny by perpetuating social warfare that rages culturally between exploited members of the supposedly special group & those exploited groups who righteously seek to overturn or counter-balance the special group.
Divide and conquer.
And, of course, none of this would be possible without the sponsorship of selfish genes, rivalrous games & the ancient tribal psychology of scapegoating.
So, yeah — that’s a big tangle of serious issues. However, none of that necessarily gets addressed effectively by training the general population to engage in a desperate, barely conscious, attempt to avoid being labelled “racist.”
Why don’t the racists just admit it?
For the very same reason that non-racists (or good-natured partial racists!) do not want to receive that stigmatized branding. It feels bad. It promises social consequences. Or at least it promises a temporary moment of identification as a moral failure in the eyes of others. So we have taught even the racists to say they are not racists.
The very utility of that word is now questionable for it may conceal as much as it reveals. Is that a victory? Hard to say. However, analogously, we would not suppose that general health and well-being are served by a situation in which people were strongly incentivized to pretend they do not have any injuries, illnesses or pathologies.
But this article is not about race — any more than it is about climate scientists.
The issue here is very broad. It occurs across many domains. The danger is that we might be contributing to the general retardation of social progress and human welfare by perpetuating defensive exchanges based in the socially encouraged refusal of individuals to take even the most superficial verbal ownership of negative epithets.
IV. AT LEAST CONSIDER “OWNING IT” — (EVEN IF IT FEELS UNFAIR OR UNFLATTERING)
Consider a common scene from American film & television. In this scene, a juvenile woman coyly taunts a juvenile man after he reacts to some little bit of social information about another man.
“Oh,” she says, “are you JEALOUS???”
That sounds bad.
He does not want to admit it. His pride refuses.
After all, he is not one of those lowly jealous types. So he falls into her obvious trap. A pointless argument ensues in which her verbal cockiness proceeds to bedevil him until he erupts in some predictable demonstration of his evolved potential for extreme action.
How easy it might have been to simply say:
“Yes. I am jealous.”
A relationship therapist would probably suggest that this is a pathway to a deeper connection, improved conservation & ultimately a more satisfying relationship.
Why is it so rare to say YES?
V. THE WAY OUT IS THE WAY IN?
That’s an image of what used to be called a “chinese finger trap.” It’s a remarkable toy with a deep existential lesson. You get more trapped by trying to escape. Actually escaping requires that you relax and lean into the heart of the very thing that is “trying to get you.”
It is either counterintuitive or deeply intuitive.
Our species is admittedly pretty nifty but we come built-in with many well-known vulnerabilities to social hacking. One such vulnerability is called the double-bind. It is expressed by the lame old joke, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
Do you still use heroin? Why do you hate our country?
All the answers that take seriously the frame of the question are bad.
The inquisitor in the situation takes up an unfair social power position by asking a question whose range of possible answers all involve your performative acceptance of your own failed virtue.
The reason this trick works so often is that our immediate reaction in most social situations, before even checking ourselves, tends to be a strong urge to prove ourselves against potential negative symbolism.
You don’t want to be one of the savages, deplorables or outcasts — do you?
Or maybe you do.
That option should at least be in the mix.
The entire point of this little article is only to remind us that we should contine to consider the possibility of NOT always trying to avoid negative descriptions. Perhaps you could step outside of the polarizing frame of the accuser’s value implications?
The great comedians have always publically identified themselves as failures, fools & neurotics in order to benevolently open up cultural free space. Many esoteric religious orders have devised practices of intentional humiliation in order to free the soul from social bondage.
In an era of increasing information technological and social polarization it is unlikely that anyone will escape from dramatic accusations. Perhaps it is time to begin preparing to feel okay when that happens?
Social progress might be more likely if folks are not as unthinkingly driven to claim only virtues — and no vices!
Productive social conversations could be a lot deeper and more likely to occur in situations where the phobic stress about “bad labels” is decreased.
I won’t waste your time by brilliantly explaining the many instances in which social progress and personal (or group) empowerment has resulted from the brave and/or foolish choice to accept a negative designation. Any fan of the music industry knows what I’m talking about.
It is sometimes a revolutionary act to undermine the entire field of values suggested by supposedly normative accusers.
Plus the development of metacognition is considerably enhanced when people feel more comfortable observing various internal identities — regardless of how socially positive or negative they seem. (Is that what this article is really about?)
So in lieu of discussing any of that, here are some folks who seem to have become more culturally empowered precisely by public events in which they accepted identification as the opposite of what is normatively socially approved in their local niche: