Thursday, September 30, 2010

Racism: A Short History (1)

George M. Frederickson’s Racism: A Short History is a deeply informed, clear, historically nuanced history of racism. Defining what is, or is not, racism is a fraught activity. The definition Fredrickson comes to, and which concludes his book, is:
… racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditable and unalterable (p.170).
So Japanese xenophobic exclusion of Koreans is racism.

But it is racism in European history that Frederickson is concerned with, the form for which the most historical evidence exists. Frederickson is very concerned to locate racism within history. As he says in his Introduction:
The climax of the history of racism came in the twentieth century in the rise and fall of what I will call “overtly racist regimes” (p.1).
By which he means the American South, apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

As he notes ironically “Hitler, it has been said, gave racism a bad name”, creating a revulsion against the scientific racism that had been respectable; a loss or respectability aided by various anti-eugenics scientific studies (p.2). The anti-colonial pushes against Western rule also gave a great impetus to attacks on racism (p.3). The apartheid regime based its claims on culture rather than biology:
No better example can be found of how a “cultural essentialism” based on nationality can do the work of a racism based squarely on skin colour or other physical characteristics (Pp3-4)
But just because explicit state racism has receded into the past, does not mean racism has:
Discrimination by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially distinct can long persist or even flourish under the illusion of nonracism, as recent students of Brazilian race relations have discovered (p.4).
To put it another way, social cartels do not need the state to operate. Though, like all cartels, some form of coercion makes them work more effectively.

It is most emphatically racism as an historical phenomenon that Frederickson is concerned with:
As is the case with many of the terms historians use, the phenomenon existed before the coinage of the word used to describe it. But our understanding of what beliefs and behaviours are to be considered “racist” has been unstable. Somewhere between the view that racism is a peculiar modern idea without much historical precedent and the notion that it is simply a manifestation of the ancient phenomenon of tribalism or xenophobia may lie a working definition that covers more than scientific or biological racism but less than the kind of group prejudice based on culture, religion, or simply a sense of family or kinship (p.5).
The extra element Frederickson identifies as:
It is when differences that might be otherwise be considered ethnocultural are regarded as innate, indelible, and unchangeable that a racist attitude or ideology can be said to exist (p.5)
Racism is a particular form of essentialism, in other words.

But Frederickson is not concerned merely with attitudes. Racism:
… also expresses itself in the practices, institutions and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates. … It either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God (p.6).
A form of essentialism with certain sorts of consequences. One that is historically specific, not some innate element in the human condition: this is important, as some people clearly see anti-racism as a defining characteristic of their own identity, so tend to expand its ambit across both social phenomena and human (particularly European) history.

Federickson distinguishes racism from xenophobia: xenophobia may the starting point of racism, but racism goes further. The key element in racism is the denial of any possibility of being incorporated. Religious bigotry is thus not racism, since:
The religious bigot condemns and persecutes others for what they believe, not for what they intrinsically are (p.6).
Nationalism becomes racism when it takes cultural identity to be “encoded” by descent. Racism is thus a “scavenger ideology”, with enough continuities for a general history to make sense (p.8).

My theory or conception of racism … has two components: difference and power. It originates from a mind-set that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethnoracial Other in ways we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group (p.9).
In other words, racism operates to strip the racial “others” of moral protections because they are cast outside the moral community.

This provides a grim commonality across the manifestations of racism:
In all manifestations of racism from the mildest to the most severe, what is being denied is the possibility that the racializers and the racialized can coexist in the same society, except perhaps on the basis of domination and subordination (p.9)
Nor, due to the essentialist conception of identity, can the individual escape by changing their identity.

Racism comes in two varieties or possibilities: that of inclusion (which allows a multi-racial society according to a strict racial hierarchy) and that of exclusion (which insists on a mono-racial society). Forms which waxed and waned across time and space (Pp9-10). While Frederickson notes there are non-Western forms of prejudice and ethnocentricity that would be hard to exclude under his definition – he cites Japanese exclusion of Japanese-born Koreans and Tutsi domination of Hutu agriculturalists as possible examples – he concentrates on Western (European and European colonial) forms from the C15th on. Since such racism only emerges in the late medieval/early modern periods, it can be studied from its origins, a time and place with lots of historical evidence. Moreover, Western racism has just mattered much more for world history (Pp10-11).

There is a further context:
What makes Western racism so autonomous and conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind (p.11).
A presumption of inequality carries no need to attack the humanity of underlings. But:
If equality is the norm … and there are groups of people within the society who are so despised or disparaged that the upholders of the norms feel compelled to make exceptions to the promise or realization of equality, then they can be denied the prospect of equal status only if they allegedly possess some extraordinary deficiency that makes them less than fully human (Pp11-12).
Hence the intensity of European racism, as a profoundly denigrative essentalism is required to generate exceptions from “equal in the sight of God” or Enlightenment “equality of man”.

Religious precursors
Frederickson argues that is uniquely in the West that one gets that conjunction (p.12). A caveat on this – which Fredrickson touches on later – is the rise of anti-black rhetoric in C13th and C14th North African Islam. Islam – with its structure of men dominating women, believers dominating non-believers – is less inherently committed to equality than Christianity. Nevertheless, it is open (indeed obligatory) to all people to accept Islam – hence the ranking of those who accept the One God and His Prophet as being superior to those who only accept the One God who are superior to those who accept neither. The choice to have a permanent (black) population open to slavery (since it was forbidden to enslave fellow Muslims, though it was permissible to have Muslim slaves if they converted after enslavement) contravened the obligation to spread Islam, so encouraged the use of anti-black discourses as an excuse for this failure. (A discourse which is still reflected in modern Arabic, where the word for blacks is ‘abeed’, the plural of ‘abd’ meaning slave.) But the effect was never as intense as later Western racism, since there were also white slaves and Islam has never held that everyone is equal in the sight of Allah. (While the ban on enslaving fellow Muslims was sometimes simply ignored, with anti-black discourse being harnessed to this as well – racism as scavenger ideology.)
Frederickson notes that there is no evidence for concern about skin colour as a moral distinguisher in the ancient world (p.17). The lead into making descent a moral distinguisher was the belief that Jews inherited responsibility for the crime of Deicide: though that was not yet racism, since conversion to Christianity absolved one of that “burden”. Even in the worst of the pogroms, escape through baptism was an option, if not always offered (Pp18ff).

The various forms of bigotry that did exist lacked the ideological edge of organic essentialism to make them racism in the full sense (Pp24-5). Like the Classicals, the medieval world lacked any notion of skin colour as moral distinguisher. Indeed, there were saintly and heroic renditions of black persons (Pp26-27). Frederickson does note that Iberia was where the association of blackness with slavery spread from Muslims to Christians – an association that Iberian (and later European) involvement in the African slave trade was to complete (p.29):
The fact that Europeans were ceasing to enslave other Europeans at the time when African slaves become suddenly and readily available was at the root of white supremacist attitudes and policies (Pp29-30).
Though it took considerable time for attitudes to crystallise into anti-black racism, since there were legal and religious status justifications for slavery (Pp30-1).

The Iberian treatment of converted Jews, conversos, was much closer to modern racism: indeed, arguably “its first real anticipation” (p.31). Waves of pogroms, persecutions and expulsions created a large population of former Jews and their descendants. This was a large, hard to assimilate, culturally different population. Certificates of pure descent from “old Christians” became required for various offices, both religious and lay, under the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). This represented Jew-hatred becoming a racial rather than a religious doctrine (Pp32-3) for, to the extent it was enforced:
It represented the stigmatization of an entire ethnic group on the basis of deficiencies that allegedly could not be eradicated by conversion or assimilation (p.33).
It was a form of social cartelisation that went significantly beyond privileging certain noble lineages.

But enforcement was erratic, and certificates of pure blood could be purchased (p.34). The Moriscos (former Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity also excluded by the limpieza de sangre rules) were finally expelled in 1609-14, but the urban-dwelling conversos were harder to treat as a lump group than dwelling-in-separate-villages Moriscos (Pp34-5).

At the same time, Spain and Portugal were confronting how to think of the Amerindians. It was decided that pagans innocent of any contact with the word of Christ were morally superior to infidel Jews and Muslims, who directly contradicted His word (Pp35ff). It was argued that African souls could only be saved by becoming slaves of Christians: this was not true of indigenous peoples. That Amerindians living in tropical climates did not have nearly as black skins as Africans also led to speculation about what the distinguishing blackness of Africans might signify, since it was clearly not merely living in the tropics (Pp38-39).

The failure of significant numbers of Iberian women to migrate to the New World created a large racially mixed population (true also in British India prior to the opening of the Suez Canal). Nevertheless:
Sixteenth- and seventeenth century Spain is critical in the history of Western racism because its attitudes and practices served as a kind of segue between the religious intolerance of the Middle Ages and the naturalistic racism of the modern era (p.40).
The persistence of universalist religious aspirations limited the movement to full racism, however, though there was plenty of dehumanising treatment and differentiation on the basis of lineage, with Catholic bishops rationalising the discrimination against conversos on the basis that many were secret Jews (Pp40-5).

Meanwhile the convenience of black slavery raised issues about the status of blacks – particularly the need to justify why conversion to Christianity did not bring freedom. The Curse of Ham provided a religious excuse, though the lack of a fully-fledged attack on slavery limited the need to provide justification. Slavery encouraged deprecation of blacks as inherently servile and inferior (just as it had in Muslim North Africa). Still, the movement from heathenism to heathen ancestry as a justification for slavery clearly moved things in the direction of racism:
As in the case of antisemitism a conflation of religion and race in the popular mind would prepare the ground for the more explicit and autonomous racism that would emerge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p.46).
Hence, we can trace:
the two main forms of modern racism – the color-coded white supremacist variety and the essentialist version of anti-Semitism – to the late medieval and early modern periods (p.46).
But it was still too religious a society for the full step to be made, for racism:
came into conflict with the main thrust of Christianity – the salvation of the entire human race, which, according to the New Testament, was of “one blood” (p.46).
to achieve its full potential as an ideology, racism had to be emancipated from Christian universalism (p.47).
Moreover, a society riven with inequalities of birth also had no great need to create special justifications for exclusions. A society where equality in this world was a powerful aspiration was in a rather different situation (p.47).

The decline in Biblical literalism opened the way for notions of separate human ancestry. Notions of heredity mattering were well established (in horse-breeding, for example) but the notion of a white race did not cohere until the C18th (Pp52-53). That slavery remained a legal rather than a racial status (there were always some free blacks in the American colonies) also limited the resonance of skin colour.

Racism coalesces
The Enlightenment undermined religious grounds for discrimination against, for example, Jews. But:
The scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology (p.56).
C18th biological taxonomy began to differentiate humans on the basis of morphology, with alleged associated characteristics ranking races. Even aesthetics was marshalled in the service of such distinctions, a process the unearthing of milky-white Classical statues encouraged (Pp56ff). (Modern science had not yet discovered that many of the statues were originally painted.)

Such distinctions were not yet marshalled in support of European imperialism, which was explained via cultural and technological advantages prior to the mid-C19th (p.61). Frederickson examines the thought of Voltaire, as an Enlightenment thinker who both undermined old hierarchies and generated new ones (Pp62-3). The Enlightenment made “scientific” racism thinkable while providing a basis for critiquing hierarchies on the basis of an aspiration for equality in this world (p.64).

Ideas of separate origins for human races began to rise. In the Anglosphere, Protestant evangelicalism inhibited such notions: not so in France. Yet French theorists actually advocated intermarriage as a way of “improving” the black race, a world away from the horror of intermarriage that operated in North America (Pp65ff). But stigmatising intermarriage served the interests of white women so that white men did not look elsewhere for wives, while white men did not want sexual competition for white women. (Again, a pattern that asserted itself in British India after the opening of the Suez Canal greatly increased the population of British women in India – the “fishing fleet” of women looking for husbands, as it was known.)

As the suffrage advanced, the notion of excluding women, children and the insane from voting due to their deemed mental inferiority was extended to races deemed mentally inferior (Pp68-9). In Germany, the association of Jewish emancipation with Napoleonic rule encouraged a racially-based civic nationalism excluding Jews:
The civic form of nationalism, in which citizenship is allegedly based on universal human rights rather than ethnic particularities, can become extremely oppressive or exclusionary if some segment of the population is viewed as less than fully human (p.69).
But, of course, an egalitarian moral universalism ends up effectively requiring the humanity of groups to be excluded be attacked. Moreover:
Where nationality is ethnic, and if ethnicity is thought to derive from the blood or the genes, those of the wrong ancestry can never be accepted as sons and daughters of the nation (Pp69-70).
A key difference between nationalism – political identity based on ethnicity – and patriotism – loyalty to a particular polity not based on ethnicity.

Ironically, it was a cultural pluralist, Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose:
contention that each people possesses a unique and presumably eternal Volksgeist (or folk soul) laid the foundation for a culture-coded form of racism (p.70).
A folk soul that needed to be nourished by continued interaction with the physical environment of its ancestors, outside influences being a source of contamination to be resisted. While Herder hoped Jews could be assimilated, his biological metaphors set up the path for defining Jews as “contaminating virus”. Particularly as the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation were both imports from French invaders, German nationalism became deeply imbued with the notion of Jewish identity being un-German. The philosopher Fichte held that giving Jews civil rights would only work if they were purged of all Jewish ideas (Pp70-1). The great uncertainty being either requiring full assimilation or deeming it impossible, with anti-Jewish feeling shifting from religious distinctions where conversion to Christianity erased the Jewish “taint” to a conception of irredeemable biological difference (indeed, opposition to “Germanness”). So the historian Heinrich von Treitschke deemed Polish Jews within the Reich to be a misfortune, while still hoping for the full assimilation of German Jews.

Frederickson draws a parallel from American experience:
The belief that Indians, unlike blacks, were capable of being civilized, but only under conditions that they were likely to resist, gave way around the turn of the century to a conviction that Indian resistance to white ways was genetically programmed and could not be overcome by education and indoctrination (p.73).
Frederickson draws a striking contrast between German and American attitudes:
If Germans endowed themselves with a “racial” identity and then excluded other from it, Americans tended to racialize others and consider themselves simply human—citizens of “Universal Yankee Nation: and beneficiaries of what was promised to “all men” by the Declaration of Independence (p.73).
The notion developed, however, that an aptitude for liberty and self-government arose in the German forests, and was transmitted via England to the US. While American self-image tried to tie identity within Enlightenment concepts by claiming that liberty and self-government was more “natural” to some nations than others, German nationalism became strongly anti-Enlightenment in its thinking. (Pp74-5).

The manifestations of racism are specific to context, so Frederickson focuses on the interaction between black and Jewish emancipation and the crystallisation of racist thought and action:
To achieve its full development as what Michael Omi and Howard Witnant call “a social formation”, racism must, in their words, become “a political project” that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.
That process of crystallisation in the US and Germany in the late C19th and early C20th being opposition to:
organized efforts to reverse or limit the emancipation of blacks in the former country and of Jews in the latter (p.75)
This was a product of what Federickson calls the “democratic” revolutions of the late C18th, noting that the supporters of black or Jewish emancipation:
tended to have a low opinion of the actual cultural and moral condition of those whose freedom they advocated and whose “elevation” they sought. But unlike true racists they attributed those deficiencies to an oppressive environment rather than to nature (p.76).
Jews were only about one percent of the German population, but Jewish emancipation in Germany was a fraught affair. Even after they were granted full citizenship as part of Bismarck’s unification drive, Jews who were not Christians were often denied access to civil service positions, university professorships (or even school-teaching) and military commissions (p.77).

The rise of abolitionist sentiment in the US led to the articulation of explicit anti-black rhetoric and agitation, which extended to free blacks. In 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court declared that free blacks were outside the protection of the Constitution, on the grounds that the framers of the Constitution assumed that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. (Mr Justice Scalia has a similar view about queers.) The Fourteenth Amendment changed the Constitution, but black emancipation continued to be an uncompleted project because:
it exceeded the capacity of white Americans—in the North as well as the South—to think of blacks as genuine equals (p.81).
Indeed, Federickson argues that the post-slavery drive for civil equality awoke “the demons of racism” worse than the defence of slavery had (Pp81-2). It was one thing to be against human beings being property, another to give up the sense of being a superior being and to accept the different as equal.

Frederickson notes similarities in the experience of the US and Germany: federalism was a barrier to equal citizenship, industrialisation increased competition for jobs, the fortunes of Jews and blacks rested on the fortunes of the liberal-to-radical movement, economic downturn sharpened tensions to the detriment of the politically marginal and eugenics was enlisted to support racial denigration (Pp82ff). Still, he holds the differences were even more significant. In particular, where social competition was strongest: angst over black status in the US was largely a working class concern; over Jewish status, a middle (particularly lower middle) class one in Germany. This led to different patterns of accusation and denigration, and different conceptions of the (allegedly threatened) identity (Ppp86ff).

Since American identity was conceived in Enlightenment terms, blacks were either full human beings or relegated to lower-caste status: whatever the “inevitable messiness of social practice”, no other position existed within the logic of the framing. A choice made one way could be reversed later (p.92). German ideology rejected Enlightenment rationalism, universalism and associated values: it was “relentlessly particularist”. There was no legitimate place for Jews, no dilemma of choice:
According to the German ideology that would come to fruition in the Nazi era, it is people or Volker who have rights, not individuals. As a unique and superior Volk, Germans were entitled to defend themselves by any means necessary against alien blood and values. The crimes against humanity perpetrated by Germans in the twentieth century were rationalized as much by idealization of themselves as by hatred of the Other (p.92).
The power of collective narcissism is not to be underestimated.

In central Europe, Jews were an “entrepreneurial minority”. Such groups are an easy scapegoat and object of resentment in difficult times, whose elimination by deportation or worse is likely to be proposed, or even acted upon. The Indians of East Africa and the Chinese of South-East Asia are other examples (Pp92-3).

By contrast, African-Americans were originally slaves, so were acceptable – as long as they “knew their place”. It was only if they start aspiring to equal treatment that racist anger was likely to be provoked (p.93).

As I have noted before, one cannot understand bigotry if you do not understand the insult of equality.

Sadly, cultural stereotypes that arose in one situation can persist and be carried to another:
A culture of racism, once established, can be adapted to more than on agenda and is difficult to eradicate (p.93).
Scapegoating has endless appeal, as does effortless virtue.

Economics, cultural patterns and politics all interacted to produce the historical dramas of racism. The US, having less social angst about capitalism than Germany, found Jews relatively easy to absorb but African-Americans were dismissed as “too primitive”. Conversely, Jews in Germany were “too modern”, too adapted to the new world of industrialised capitalism that many found so threatening (Pp94-5).

(This review will be concluded in my next post.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Will versus rationality

The tension between philosophies of will and those of rationality is one that recurs in human history. For example, in the Eurasian War (aka the Second World War: which is not a very accurately named, the Seven Years War was more global in its spread than either “World War”), the ideologies of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist-ruled Japan all emphasized the centrality of heroic will. The Soviet Union, based on Lenin’s Jacobinisation of Marxism (see also here), had a concept of revolutionary will, but, particularly under Stalin, it was subordinated to a cold calculation. The Western Allies were much more about rationality than their Axis opponents: an approach that allowed them to use their greater resources to eventually triumphant effect (remembering that Soviet success was significantly a result of Western logistical support).

But the Allies greater emphasis on rationality rather than will also meant that they were continually wrong-footed by the Axis Powers in the lead-up to war, and in the War’s early stages. Rationality can easily lead to its own errors: errors in judging the intentions and willingness to gamble of those with very different premises, for example. Consideration can be a barrier to action as well as a basis for more effective action. The tension between philosophies of will and those or rationality is a recurring one because both the intent to act and considering how to act, both passion and reason, are basic parts of the human (indeed sentient) condition.

The current struggle with radical Islam shows a similar contrast as to that seen in the Eurasian War. The jihadis are very much philosophy-of-will folk: to an extent that the careful rationality of Westerners struggles to understand, or find effective counters to. That they are philosophy-of-will folk comes across clearly in jihadi rhetoric:
“As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels … Enmity and hate shall ever reign between us … Battle, animosity and hatred – directed from the Muslim to the infidel – is the foundation of our religion”; “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something … We are fighting to eliminate you”; “The real matter is the extinction of America”; “America is evil in its essence”; “Those who think that they can change reality, or change societies, without blood sacrifices and wounds … do not understand the essence of our religion.... Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls … on a foundation of cripples and corpses”.
Strategists may elucidate the rationality of suicide bombing, but the act itself is clearly a grisly “triumph of the will”.

The tension between philosophies of will and those of rationality is one that monotheist theology is particularly prone to. The question of whether to emphasize God’s Will or His Rationality is a recurring debate and tension in all the Abrahamic religions.

In the C9th to the C14th, all three Abrahamic religions struggled with this question in debates over Aristotelian philosophy (and philosophy generally, but Aristotelianism was the focus). Whether to emphasize God’s Will (and so treat reality as simply contingent on what His Will happens to be at any given time) or His Rationality (and so treat reality as having a rational structure knowable to human cognition) was very much a live debate in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In Judaism, the Aristotelian rationality of Maimonedes won out. In Latin Christendom, so did the Aristotelian rationality of Aquinas. But, in both, it was a serious – and, for a while, bitter – contest. The doctrines of both Maimonedes and Aquinas were, at least in part, subject to rabbinical and priestly condemnation.

Nor, in either religion, was the contest ever completely over. Movements emphasizing God's Will continue to erupt – such as the rise of Hasidism or current support among American evangelicals for Creationism. Emphasizing rationality can always be portrayed as lessening God’s glory or as manifesting human arrogance – including giving scope for concerns which are not Godly, for rationality clearly has its own norms.

Still, the emphasis on God’s rationality came to dominate both Christianity and Judaism. With the result that the notion that the world had a rationally knowable coherent structure became the dominant view and the basis for the Scientific Revolution – modern science still being something that is overwhelmingly a creation of Jews and “cultural” Christians, even given the rising Asian contribution.

Islam had its own debate on the question of God’s Will versus Rationality based around Aristotelianism, one that began earlier than that in Latin Christendom and Judaism and, indeed, influenced both. It was:
a struggle a millennium ago between two theological schools, the Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites, which not only had opposing views of the value and role of Hellenic thought but totally different conceptions of God, which they both believed they found present in the Qur’an (Koran): “On one side was God’s will and power, and on the other his justice and rationality. The argument … took place over the status of reason in relation to God’s revelation and omnipotence. The questions involved: What has reason to do with man’s encounter with God? Is there any relationship between reason and revelation? Does reason have any standing to address God’s revelation, or must reason remain outside of it? And perhaps most importantly, can reason know the truth?” (p.3). Initially the Mu’tazilite rationalist view prevailed, but eventually Ash’arite irrationalism was victorious, with dire consequences.
The interesting question is why, why did Judaism and Latin Christendom go one way, but mainstream Islam went the other in the debate about whether to emphasize God's Will or His Rationality?
Emphasizing God’s Will tends to increase the power of priests and clerics, as interpreters of His Will. You do not need a priest to tell you murder, theft or lying is wrong. Or that marriage is a fine thing. You do need a priest to tell you not to eat pigs, nor weave two types of cloth together, that dogs are unclean, that wrong belief is against God, or that the mechanics of sex is a desperately important moral issue.

But that hardly explains why two of the Abrahamic religions went one way, and one went the other. They all had priests or clerics. Indeed, Latin Christendom had the most elevated concept of priesthood: a rabbi or Muslim cleric is not a vessel of sacraments, an intermediary to the divine, in the way a Catholic priest is.

On the other hand, nor is a Catholic priest a vessel of God’s Law in the way a rabbi or a Muslim cleric is. Even canon law is human law, however much it may attempt to conform to divine purposes.

But, again, being an interpreter of God’s law is a role that rabbis share with Muslim clerics. So, that hardly explains the different outcomes in Judaism and mainstream Islam.

Unless, of course, the Aristotelian impulse in Islam manifested in a way that threatened the status of Muslim clerics. Which it did.

Protecting clerical authority
The central claim of the Mu’tazilites was that the Qur’an was a created thing, embedded in time and so open to interpretation and even revision. A claim that the early Abbasid Caliphs found congenial and supported (sometimes with considerable brutality). The Mu’tazilites:
They were also advocates of free will who questioned predestination. When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 this became a politically useful position and the Mu’tazilites gained the support of the regime. Crucially, they also insisted that humanity was free to interpret revelation, and that the Qur’an was created in time — claims that outraged traditionalists. However, once again these were politically useful views as they enhanced the authority of the Caliph and reduced the influence of the clergy.
Conversely, if the Qur’an was something outside of time, its authority was eternal: which meant that the authority of those who interpreted it – the Muslim clerics – was trumps, not the Caliph’s. Abbasid commitment to Mu’tazilite thought and capacity to dominate the clerics – acting as teachers (mudarris) educating the Muslim community, as judges (qādī) resolving legal disputes, or as jurisconsults (muftī) offering legal opinions – proved insufficient to sustain a Mu’tazilite movement whose only real base was Caliphal power against clerics far more grounded in the wider society (and who were the main constraint on Caliphal power). The result was:
by the mid-ninth century the Ash’arites were entrenching themselves and their opposing views of God, scripture, the universe and humanity within the Sunni Muslim tradition. The emphasis shifted in all key areas; above all, God came to be seen in terms of Will alone, outside and above any notions of reason, rationality and natural law, which were all seen as subsidiary and contingent, and subject always to the divine Will. The Ash’arites were also wreaking their revenge for their previous poor treatment: “holding the Mu’tazilite doctrine became a crime punishable by death. The Mu’tazilites were expelled from court, removed from all government positions, and their works were largely destroyed”. By the end of the century, copyists and booksellers were prohibited from trading in works of theology, philosophy and dialectical disputation associated with the Mu’tazilites: “the long process of dehellenisation and [intellectual] ossification had begun”. As the Pakistani physicist and historian of science, Pervez Hoodbhoy, concludes: “Thus ended the most serious attempt to combine reason with revelation in Islam.… By the twelfth century the conservative, anti-rationalist schools of thought had almost completely destroyed the Mu’tazilite influence”
So, because the Aristotelian impulse in Islam manifested in a way that threatened clerical power directly, but was not able to overcome it, the theology of God’s Will became dominant in Islam and, along with it, an occasionalist metaphysics which choked off systematic enquiry into the nature of reality, for God’s Will uber alles meant theology and God’s law uber alles too. Providing us with a dramatic example of ideas having consequences:
Moreover, the view prevails within Islam not only that science and all useful knowledge are completely contained within theology, but that scientific laws do not even exist, because this would entail a limitation upon the Will of God. Similarly, there is no rational order to the universe that God must observe; no secondary causes; and no relations of cause and effect. Instead, the universe is governed by the principles of occasionalism, according to which any and all events happen purely as a result of God’s Will at the moment concerned. As Reilly observes, “Creation is not imprinted with reason. It [therefore] cannot reflect what is not there. As a result, there is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s Will” (p.51). He also quotes the eminent modern historian of the Arab peoples, Albert Hourani, who observed that Arabs “tend to see acts in themselves, as fitting an occasion rather than as links in a chain of cause and consequence” . It is therefore “not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. You are supposed to say that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water is created”.
Occasionalism applies in every area of life according to this world-view, so that, for example, the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir disapproves of such safeguards as insurance and seatbelts as presumptuous, unnecessary and ultimately futile in the face of God’s sovereign Will: “If one’s allotted time has arrived, the seatbelt is superfluous. If it has not, it is unnecessary. One must realise that the phrase, ‘God willing’, is not simply a polite social convention, but a theological doctrine” (p.143). In summary, according to this view, we do not live in a rationally ordered universe governed by scientific laws but in a realm utterly subject to the Will of God, as disclosed in the Qur’an, and it is incumbent upon all humanity to live entirely and solely in accordance with this revelation of the divine Will …
Not an outlook conducive to science and scientific endeavour. Or even what Westerners would regard as elementary rationality: Western military and other instructors often find dealing with such deeply ingrained views frustrating. Indeed, the work of Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels (discussed here, here, here, here, here and here) can be seen as charting the psychological effects, and cultural implications, of occasionalist metaphysics.

The impact of colonial rule and introduction of modern techniques of state power has both undermined the traditional structures of Islam jurisprudence (which had already been successfully coopted by the Ottoman dynasty) and, along with Saudi oil money, provided space for the development of Islamic theologies of Will uber alles in the merging traditions of Wahhabi and salafi thought. In the words of one Muslim scholar:
By rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed any notions of established authority within Islam. Effectively, anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for the divine will. …
The outcome of the apologist, Wahhabi and Salafi legacies is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat, disempowerment and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-à-vis the nondescript "other" -- whether the other is the West, non-believers in general or even Muslims of a different sect and Muslim women. In this sense, it is accurate to describe this widespread modern trend as supremacist, for it sees the world from the perspective of stations of merit and extreme polarization.
… supremacist puritanism in contemporary Islam is dismissive of all moral norms or ethical values, regardless of the identity of their origins or foundations. The prime and nearly singular concern is power and its symbols. Somehow, all other values are made subservient.
In other words, a theology of the Will even more unrestrained and intensive than that which had become traditional in Islam.

In Judaism and Latin Christendom, by contrast, the debate over Aristotelianism was within the religious class and so not seen as an attack on its authority. This may have made wider social attitudes crucial. Jews had become a mercantile minority. God as rational Lawgiver was likely a more appealing final Authority than God as Arbitrary Power: arbitrary power being something Jews suffered enough from.

While Latin Christendom was an increasingly mercantile society dominated by a landowning elite. Certainty and regularity is something landowners want from law. Concepts of Germanic and Roman law would also have encouraged viewing God as Lawful Ruler, not Arbitrary Tyrant.

Conversely, the warrior elites of Islam were not landowners but effectively tax-farmers: the greater the power of a leader to reward followers, the greater his standing, his honour. One can see how putting any limits on the authority of God would be seen as limiting His honour. It may be significant that al-Ghazali, who put the seal on the defeat in mainstream Islam of the Arisotelian impulse and the triumph of occasionalist metaphysics, was an inhabitant of Central Asia and under the rule of Turkish pastoralists. His famous passage:
our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God
expresses the theology of God’s will, and its implications, very effectively. His main opponent, Ibn Rushd, lived on the periphery of the Islamic world, in Spain and, despite writing a famous rebuttal, failed to have influence in mainstream Islam. He was, however, very influential in Latin Christendom where he was known as The Commentator (Aristotle being The Philosopher).

Another way to look at it is that, in Islam, the authority of the Muslim clerics was the only legal constraint on Caliphal power. So the choice was accept a concept of God's Rationality (and a natural law-structured universe) in the service of, effectively unrestrained, autocratic power. Or insist on the primacy God's Will – and thus legal checks on autocratic authority – but at the cost of accepting a lawless universe (one not structured by anything but God's Will). A grim choice that, fortunately for us, neither Judaism nor Christianity was confronted with.

Yet, in the long run, one can see that the proponents of the supremacy of God’s Will were correct: emphasizing His rationality has, indeed, undermined the role of religion (and of priests and clerics) in Western Civilisation (which no longer calls itself ‘Christendom’).

But the triumph of philosophies of rationality is never final, never absolute – consider the rise of Nazism – and is never without its own pitfalls. The West has dramatic and pervasive technological advantages, and is far more prosperous, than Islam. The damage done to Islam’s intellectual capacities by the triumph of the theology of God’s Will is enormous:
the scientific productivity of Muslim countries, measured in terms of articles published in reputable academic journals; patents registered; money spent on research; and numbers of scientists and technically trained personnel, etc, falls far below that of the West, other industrial societies and even other developing countries. For example, between 1980 and 2000 South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents, while nine Middle East countries registered only 370 between them, and many of these were by foreigners; and India and Spain each produce a larger proportion of global scientific literature than do 46 Muslim countries combined. Greece alone translates five times more books annually than does the entire Muslim world; while in the past millennium the entire Arab world has translated only the same number that Spain translates in one year. The impact of this scientific backwardness on levels of economic development is devastating, as a leading Syrian philosopher laments, “Look at the Arab world from one end to the other; there is no true added value to anything”, and as Reilly observes, according to another UN report, “only sub-Saharan Africa did worse than the Arab countries”, despite the advantage these had of massive oil revenues.
Other Muslim scholars agree. Ali Allawi, a former minister of both finance and defence in the new Iraq, has observed that “the creative output of twenty or thirty million Muslims of the Abbasid era dwarfs the output of nearly one-and-a-half billions of the modern era” (p.166), and the prominent Islamic intellectual, Abdelwahab Meddeb, is moved to conclude that the subordinate position of science within Islam has left the latter in a piteous position compared to the world’s other great civilisations in terms of human achievement. He asks what would happen if Islam were to be called to account for what it has accomplished: “What could the Muslim Arab offer? Nothing”, and therefore, unless it takes a new direction, Islam, “constrained by the framework of Islamic faith, will join the great dead civilisations”.
An Islam which is committed to the notion that the peak of human social understanding was reached in C7th Arabia has, to put it mildly, a problem.

But the brute reality is that history is not the creation of thought alone: it is created by action. If believers breed more than non-believers then, eventually, the believers win. In a contest between those willing to act, and those too fearful to, the believers also win.

In the long run, the Islam of God’s Will will likely lose. Islam is still only less than a quarter of the world population, and how many Muslims are committed to the project of the triumph of Muslim Will? The Ismailis, the Kosovars, the Kurds of Iraq, the "Green movement" of Iran are very much not Hamas, Hezbollah, the mullahs, the al-Saud. But the Islam of God’s Will may do a great deal of damage until its targets learn to act effectively (admittedly no Muslim country has the relative power Nazi Germany did in 1939, but the destructive possibilities of modern technology are still grim). Acting effectively requires knowing who is playing what game: and that is still a matter of much debate and uncertainty.

ADDENDA I have tweaked this post a bit, but I think I have it saying what I want to say now :)

FURTHER ADDENDA This post includes a sermon by a rabbi from Atlanta, Georgia making some apposite comparisons between now and the 1930s, 1940s.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Difference into distinction

Humans differ in all sorts of ways. The mere existence of human differences does not explain bigotry – that is, making a certain sort of claim that differences matter. How do we know this? Because which differences people turn into such moral distinctions varies greatly across history and across human societies.

One of the most revealing things about bigotry is precisely how specific it is to times and places: its historical contingency. What bigotry does is turn a difference into a moral distinction. Examining when and where, and so why, specific differences are turned into moral distinctions in some social circumstances, and not others, reveals the contours of what is going on.

If humans were like bonobos, pygmy chimpanzees, among whom same-sex bonding is such a basic feature of their society that female bonobos have enlarged clitorises to make female-female sex easier, then same-sex activity would never be regarded as a moral issue. It would be accepted as part of human nature.

If humans were in fact as bans on same-sex activity claim that they ought to be – universally only sexually interested in the opposite sex – then same-sex activity would never be regarded as a moral issue, because it would be so rare as to be of little or no concern.

It is only because human beings are in fact sexually diverse that same-sex activity can be regarded as a moral issue. The prohibitions on same-sex activity occur because of the reality that a persistent minority of humans are sexually attracted – or even sexually oriented – to members of their own sex, while a very large majority are not. Prohibitions on same-sex activity are a war against human sexual diversity that only occurs because humans are sexually diverse in a very statistically skewed way.

But the fact of human sexual diversity is not enough to generate prohibitions on same-sex activity. That fact has to be deemed to matter. It is a difference that has to be made into a moral distinction.

For – outside the influence of monotheism – very few human societies have thought the mechanics of sex, or the reality of human sexual diversity, something worth moralising over. Even those cases that apparently did tend to involve contested translations from scholars operating out of presumptions that come from monotheism. (And who really wants to use the Aztecs as a moral example?)

By contrast with the general lack of concern in animism and polytheism, all monotheisms have deemed the mechanics of sex to matter. All monotheisms are at war with human sexual diversity. Up to claiming that same-sex activity warrants the death penalty. Monotheisms make the difference between being sexually attracted to members of your own sex, or not, matter a great deal. They turn a difference into a huge moral distinction.

The claim is often made, of course, that such prohibitions are merely a prohibition on acts. But it is prohibition which requires a persistent minority – generation after generation – to be at war with their own sexual nature. To prohibit the acts is to be at war with human sexual diversity, with the diverse sexual nature of the human. (Note: the analysis in this post also applies to the gender diversity of the human.)

Conversely, the prohibition asks nothing of the vast majority. They are not attracted to members of their own sex, so give up nothing in following the prohibition. On the contrary, they are being offered the joys of effortless virtue. They can feel virtuous for not doing what they do not want to do and thereby feel morally superior to the minority who do so want.

If one is a priest, someone who acts as a “gatekeeper of righteousness”, who declares what the boundaries of the moral community is – who is within, who is without, and to what degree – prohibiting same-sex relations sells effortless virtue to the majority of one’s congregation against a small, vulnerable minority. For who is more vulnerable than a same-sex attracted boy or girl growing up in a family, a social milieu, a religious community where the vast majority feel no such attraction? The reality of human sexual diversity – generation after generation – means that the queers (those who do not fit in the simple, binary identification of sex and gender) are always there to pick on.

So, one can see why priests find it expedient to preach against same-sex activity. But the reality is that polytheist and animist systems have very rarely done so (at least prior to being influenced by monotheism). On the contrary, in many forms of animism and polytheism, being same-sex attracted was a path to specific ritual, shamanistic or religious status.

So, there is clearly something in the logic of monotheism – as distinct from the logics of polytheism or animism – that makes same-sex activity matter. Not that there is much difficulty in identifying what is about monotheism that drives it to turn this difference into a moral distinction. In animism and polytheism, sex (as in sexual activity) is part of the divine. In monotheism, it is not. In animism and polytheism, sexual activity connects us to the divine. In monotheism, it divides us from the divine.

In monotheism, the only aspect of sex that connects us to the divine is procreation, for the One God is the Creator. So, any form of sexual activity that is not procreative emphatically separates us from the divine. Thus does same-sex activity become the ultimate expression of everything that is “wrong” about sex. It is sex that is anti-God, and thus anathema.

Thus does this extract from the Zoroastrian Vendidad tell us that same-sex activity is demonic:
Ahura Mazda answered: 'The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daêva; this one is the man that is a worshipper of the Daêvas, that is a male paramour of the Daêvas, that is a female paramour of the Daêva, that is a she-Daêva; this is the man that is in his inmost self a Daêva, that is in his whole being a Daêva; this is the man that is a Daêva before he dies, and becomes one of the unseen Daêvas after death: so is he, whether he has lain with mankind as mankind, or as womankind.
A particularly revealing example, as Zoroastrianism is not an Abrahamic monotheism, yet it anathematised same-sex activity. As the Greeks knew. It is commented on in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, where such anathematisation was deemed to be a mark of autocracy and tyranny – tyrants allegedly being afraid of love between men threatening their authority: the original tyrannicides having been a same-sex couple, hence claiming love between men was a bulwark of free politics was a rhetorical commonplace in the Hellenic world.

By such anathematisation, monotheism provides a vulnerable minority for priests to target in selling effortless virtue to the vast majority of their congregations, thereby shoring up their own role as gatekeepers of righteousness.

Since God is the ultimate authority, against which no human claims have standing, it avails the same-sex attracted not at all to cite their feelings, their aspirations, their existence, the effects of such prohibitions on them. Such are all merely human claims, and have no standing against God. In the words of Baptist pastor Daniel Y. Yearey:
Homosexuality denies the sovereignty of God. Genesis 1:27 says God created man in His own image. In God there are no disorders or confusion. He created male and female for distinct purposes. Homosexuality says we can be independent of God's direction and design.
The fact of human sexual diversity, interacting with the logic of monotheism, both drives the prohibition and is denied any standing against it.

Revealing patterns
All the patterns of bigotry are on display here.

A human difference is turned into a moral distinction. Bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim – that some group are outside the moral community, or have inferior standing within it.

That the designated moral distinction is a contingent one: occurring in some societies, some times and places, and not others.

That the framing is done in such a way that those defined out of, or as having an inferior status in, the moral community have no grounds to object. The framing denies their moral legitimacy in such a way that they have no appeal against their designated moral status within the framing. It is always them who are at fault, not the framing: their fault or flaw for being Jewish, queer, black, women or whatever which is what matters. It is only possible to “get out” of the bigotry by rejecting or changing the framing that generates it.

All this leads to the insult of equality. If a group are outside the moral community, or have inferior status within it, then to treat them as equals of “real” “full” members of the moral community is an insult. It is obvious, for example, than many of those opposed to giving the same-sex attracted equality before the law are outraged at the notion that homosexuality and homosexual relationships be given the same status as heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships. But one can see exactly the same outrage at the “insult of equality” among objections to giving Jews equality before the law, or blacks, women, or whatever.

That existential bigotry – the bigotry of moral distinction as inferior – reinforces epistemic bigotry – that no evidence is permitted to change the pre-set conclusions. (And, of course, vice versa.)

The natural law case
There is an interesting exception to monotheism being the driver of turning human sexual diversity into a moral distinction. That is certain forms of Greek natural law theory.
The problem was Aristotle’s mistake: his use of forms to construe things as being separably defined in ways which are not correct. If you turn being attracted to the opposite sex a defining feature of being human, or use for sexual reproduction the defining use of sexual organs, then human sexual diversity is turned into an aberration. Rather than it being a question of X or not X (or even X’s that grade into Y’s), it becomes a case of X, not X and X-but-not-properly-X.

Hence Philo of Alexandria finding it so to easy use natural law theory to support the bars in Leviticus on (male) same-sex activity, and those in Deuteronomy on emasculation (likely an early form of transgendering). and, fatefully, incorporate the former into his interpretation of Genesis 19. Thereby generating the idea of God being in favour, and a practitioner, of purifying extermination: that there are aberrant forms of the human that should be excised from human society. An interpretation of Genesis 19 which became the standard Catholic view, so that the notion of purifying extermination turns up in Catholic documents and the notions of the same-sex attracted being inferior forms of the human (due to being metaphysically deformed) is still Catholic doctrine.

Given the repeated Aristotelian error of latching onto some manifestation of a thing that is familiar (or otherwise comforting) and thereby deeming it defining, one wonders if it was as simple as reasoning:
Humans have a defined nature.
I am definitively human.
I am not interested in same-sex activity.
So same-sex attraction is not part of proper human nature.
So there is something wrong with people who are: they have departed from the “definitive” human nature.
There is certainly reason to believe that many folk since have reasoned in this way, and still do: to not be able to undertake the moral imagination to accept difference across a distinction traditionally held up, in monotheist societies, as being terribly important.

Here we see human categorisation dominating physical (specifically human) existence. The category is more important than the existence of same-sex attracted people. But, as biologist Joan Roughgarden points out, nature abhors a category. Aristotle’s error is not thinking that existence is pervaded by patterns and structures: there has to be pattern and structure for any thing to exist; for, to be a thing at all, that thing has to have pattern and structure. The chaos before Creation is the chaos of no structure, of no patterns (which means the "chaos" of nothing at all).

Aristotle’s error was to put too much credence on how separating and definitive patterns and structures are. In particular, too much credence that the patterns and structures in nature have some identity with patterns and structures as represented in the mind. Thus did Aquinas’ identify the forms in the world (the patterns and structures of nature) as being identical with the forms in the mind (the representations in the mind of the patterns and structures of nature).

Which led to many errors in its elimination of the possibility of human error about basic pattern and structure. Such as the failures of Aristotelian physics, which in turn led to the rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics – since identification of forms as allegedly defining of the nature of things clearly led to all sorts of errors – which led to the search for new bases for knowledge and so modern philosophy. Starting with Descartes’ search for a certain grounding of knowledge, since the Scholastic synthesis of Aristotle had patently failed, and leading on to empiricism and so forth.

None of which has led to an acceptable epistemology. As philosopher Stephen Hicks points out:
The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary
That modern philosophy has failed to find a basis for epistemology being widely accepted among philosophers.

I would suggest that the belittling of the role of pattern and structure went rather too far. Hume was, for example, quite wrong to claim all knowledge of the world comes from mere experience, because without pattern and structure there is no basis for connecting one experience with another. We come into the world primed to identify pattern and structure: we have to be, to be able to learn, to be able to connect one experience to another. In the words of a early childhood educator, babies:
… apply limited Action Schemes to everything they come across, which is part of learning about the world. The earliest action schemes are things like grab and suck. Babies are born knowing how to do this—or at least they can do it within hours of being born. Later there is grasp & shake, which is why we give babies rattles. There's also banging, dumping (around 9 months) and turning things over to see the other side. As babies develop they get to combine these basic action schemes into more complicated patterns. So younger babies are kind of looking at the world of objects as: is this something I bang, something I shake or something I ignore? Babies & toddlers put everything in their mouths too, just like animals do. Touch it, to feel its texture, grasp and shake and turn it over, taste it. Watch a gorilla do the same thing to an unknown item the next time you're at the zoo.
Which is not to say this priming is itself definitive. As a brain scientist Gary Marcus says:
“The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience … Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises … ‘Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means organised in advance of experience” (Gary Marcus, 2004).
The priming is malleable and interactive with experience. We are not compelled to wander off into Kant’s world. All of which takes us to fascinating places, but far afield from the original topic of this post.

Monotheism deals badly with the reality of human sexual diversity. But so does Aristotelian metaphysics. Marrying the two together proved to be disastrous, letting forth all sorts of notions of human definitiveness that have proved profoundly noxious in their effects.

The subversion of morality
For that is the final effect of bigotry: the misery that comes from stripping people of moral protections. The harm that anathematising same-sex activity has caused enormously outweighs any caused from or by same-sex activity. The burnings alive, the killings, the gaolings, the violence, the psychic misery from being at war with one’s own nature, the dividing of families, the defensive deceit (and self-deceit), the denunciations, the alienation from society, the censorship, the fear: all the horrors that being at war with human nature as it is in the name of how human nature is deemed to “ought” to be let loose. That comes from letting mere categorisation dominate human existence: of being at war with the reality of human sexual diversity.

Which, in turn, leads to the nature of bigotry as being a moral claim, as being about “defending” “moral decency”. In reality, it is a subversion, a distortion, of morality. Taking the (currently five) moral foundations identified by the work of Jonathan Haidt and others, the objects of bigotry are stripped of moral protections by being outside the realm of harm/care and reciprocity/fairness on the grounds of offending against purity/sanctity, authority/deference or ingroup/loyalty. For, if you are not a legitimate manifestation of the human, then your aspirations, and the harm done to you, have no standing. Nor does the question of reciprocity arise for rejecting your nature, actions, beliefs, etc becomes “fair treatment”. None of the above record of misery counts. It is only by changing the framing, so that human existence comes first, that it does count.

Which is not in the interests of the priests and clerics, who get their authority from their categories dominating human existence: their categories (indeed, those of their particular rendition of monotheism) being, of course, God’s categories.

Which is a bit of a problem if one claims to be a Christian. For Christ said that His preaching could be defined by two principles. Love God and Love Thy Neighbour. Love Thy Neighbour being an admonition not to use God to strip people of moral protections, for everyone is your neighbour. Christ’s teaching in the Gospels repeatedly deny the right of priests to use God to strip people of moral protection. Was it not His threat to the authority of the priests that led to His crucifixion?

Which is a huge problem for priests in the Christian tradition. For using God to strip people of moral protections is precisely how priests get authority. (Note, this is not a problem in Islam, which is all about using God to grade, or even deny, people moral protections.) Hence the priestly need to subvert Love Thy Neighbour. Which defining people partly or wholly out of the realm of one’s moral neighbour – on the grounds of being against God and not a proper manifestation of the human – does nicely.

This tension between Love Thy Neighbour and priests – as the main propagators of Christian belief – getting power and authority from subverting Love Thy Neighbour is one of the great driving tensions of Christian history: the more so, the more elevated the concept of priesthood.

Hence the tension turns up with particular force in Catholic history, given Catholicism’s elevated conception of priesthood. Even the failures of the Catholic Church regarding paedophile and ephebophile priests are a manifestation of this tension.

Hence also priests are such avid promoters of bigotry. The Catholic Church, for example, has been an endless opponent of equality before the law – wanting to deny it to non-Christians, Jews, “wrong” Christians, queers. So much of priestly authority is about subverting Love Thy Neighbour while also preaching it. (Muslim clerics have a much easier time of it, since they have no such commandment to get in the way.)

Hence also the very mixed role of natural law theory: being a precursor for modern conceptions of universal rights in such documents as Sublimus Dei. Yet also providing a way to define people outside the realm of the “properly” human.

We live a world of patterns and structures. We must do, for there to be an us to live and a world to live in. But we must not let our categories dominate existence. How people are is prior to how people ought to be. That is the basis of moral understanding and why bigotry – however much it may make moral claims, and claim to be supporting moral decency – is always and everywhere a subversion and perversion of morality.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked what was wrong with apartheid. He replied:
It makes you doubt that you are a child of God.
Bigotry attacks your humanity. Doing so in the name of God just makes it more vicious, not more moral, for it makes it easier to sell it to otherwise decent and moral folk.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The sixth foundation of moral psychology

The work led by Jonathan Haidt on moral foundation theory has identified various foundations of moral psychology. They currently number five (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity). As a result of work on the moral psychology of libertarians, the possibility of extending the number of foundations is being considered:
The main contender for being a 6th foundation is Liberty/constraint, which includes both lifestyle liberty, and also negative liberty -- the freedom to be left alone by government. Liberals score higher on lifestyle liberty; conservatives on negative liberty.
But liberty/constraint as currently suggested does not work as a foundation of human moral psychology, as morality is pre-government. Also, the proposed sixth foundation is conceived too much in specifically Western (even American) terms.

If something is another foundation of human moral psychology, its coverage will be an area of moral concern and action not covered by the current five foundations. It will also have to be moral – about general normative concerns, not merely personal ones. If it is a foundation of human moral psychology, signs of it will turn up in societies other than contemporary Western ones.

What concern with liberty gets at is personal freedom of action: the right to use our person and property, to engage in relationships, as we chose.

One form of society where outside commentators have, over the centuries, consistently commented on the freedom of the lifestyle of its members is that of the pastoralist nomads. Pastoralist nomads are typically very conceived with honour: indeed, it is a basic concern of their society. Now honour is partly about standing and status. But it is also about protecting what is yours – your person, your property, your connections. Protecting your honour is about protecting your standing as a social actor.

If you restrict someone’s freedom, you are forcing a constraining subordination on them. You are also undermining their status as a social actor. Such a restriction, even attack, on someone’s autonomy is not so far from attacking their honour. Indeed, an honour code is, in many ways, an autonomy code: a warning not to restrict someone too much. It is an insistence on personal respect, on respecting them as a social actor.

The use of ‘respect’ in the identified authority/respect moral foundation is a particular form of respect – respect for structures: hierarchy, tradition, etc. Respect as deference. The respect involved in concern for freedom and honour is respect for person, for a person as a social actor. When libertarians talk about liberty they talk about respecting people’s choices and right to choose. Which, of course, means that, if you fail to do so, you are failing to respect people. It is striking how much claims of the right to restrict people’s choices involve various sorts of trumping claims – which extend to claims of blatant disrespect but – and this is even more revealing – are often put in terms which try to deny, hide or otherwise elide any sense of disrespect. A sign that a moral minefield is attempting to be avoided.

To put it another way, libertarian concerns are how, in a modern Western society, people do the equivalent of, in pastoralist societies, talking about honour. Libertarians are, after all, typically very concerned with personal responsibility and its associated concerns, such as fair dealing and integrity. Honour and liberty rather go together – indeed, it is striking how many SF writers with military backgrounds express libertarian sentiments (and that is without considering libertarian attitudes towards weapons and self-defense).

Looking at the five identified moral foundations – harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity – we can identify classic respective moral virtues to tie with them of compassion, equity, loyalty, deference and reverence. More generally: care for others, fair dealing with others, being loyal to others, respecting social structures and respecting the significance of things. There is nothing about moral standing: [about respecting people as social actors], about rights to act, to have, to connect, to do. Neither honour nor liberty is covered.

So, there is a gap in the five identified moral foundations. The gap would be covered if the sixth foundation is concern with the morality of personal standing, the morality of respect for people as social actors, for their moral autonomy. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has suggested in a recent book, honour-as-respect can be plausibly said to have had considerable power in various moral revolutions. [If morality is about grounding social cooperation, as Jonathan Haidt suggests in this Ted talk, then respect for the people as agents is surely a part of making that cooperation work, of giving people moral standing so as to make moral protections more real, more effective, more direct.]

If authority/respect is re-labelled ‘authority/deference’ (since one can, for example, respect traditions without actually following them) then the sixth moral foundation could be called ‘autonomy/respect’, cover both liberty and honour and so be neither specifically Western nor merely concerned with government.

And the morality of both libertarians and pastoralist nomads (amongst others) would be rather better covered by the identified foundations of human moral psychology.

ADDENDA This post has been somewhat [extended] to clarify and develop certain points.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why the Jews?

This is based on a comment I made here.

Commenter Anan wrote:
I would argue that since the 7th century BC, Jews have been best treated in South Asia [where they have always liked Jews], in pre 1979 Persia [traditional close allies of the Jewish people since Cyrus the Great], and by the Ottoman Turks.
It's complicated. Things moved back and forth. But in Iran, Jews were very badly treated when the mullahs were socially powerful. It was only the Pahlavi regime (with its emphasis on Iranian identity) that was a break in this tradition.

Anan also asked:
I never understood why so many people, not just muslims, didn't like Jews. Is it because of the "Christ killer" accusation? Is it because of jealousy? What else is going on?
Hellenistic period Greeks disliked Jews because many Jews ostentatiously rejected Greek culture (and thus its conceit as being patently superior).

Romans disliked Jews because they stood out against claims of the civil religion of the state (particularly treating Emperors as divine) and periodically revolted.

Christians disliked Jews because they were the Chosen people and produced but rejected the Messiah. Which rather contradicted Christian claims to be the true, continuing Israel. It particularly contradicted Church claims to be guardians of the truth and Jews provided an easy target to preach against to make priests "gatekeepers of righteousness". (Modern Christian preachers use the same patterns against gays, lesbians, etc.)

With the extra twist in the case of the Jews that, having teamed up with the Roman state, to save Christians the embarrassment of having joined the "Deicide" state, the accusation of Deicide was then shifted to the Jews: the Christians' monotheist competitors and the people "not in the room".

Muhammad, and so Islam, disliked Jews because they produced the Prophetic tradition he claimed to be the peak of, but rejected him. Which contradicted Muslim claims to be possessors and guardians to the truth and (continue to) provide an easy target to preach against to make imans "gatekeepers of righteousness".

In other words, Christians and Muslims disliked Jews because they hijacked the Jewish prophetic tradition and then objected when Jews refused to go along for the ride.

Nationalists disliked Jews because they got in the way of the notion of ethnic unity.

Revolutionary socialists disliked Jews because they insisted on keeping to their religious identity and had been (largely due to past Christian exclusions) deeply involved in commerce.

So: if you believed your culture was superior, wanted people to recognise Emperors as divine, appropriated the Abrahamic tradition, wanted ethnic conformity, wanted to transform society, the Jews were a problem. Basically, if you have a theory that is at war with various types of diversity, the Jews are a problem and, as a minority, are a relatively easy target. The Jews provided a vulnerable minority to preach against by selling effortless virtue to the majority: a form of bullying cowardice the Catholic Church invested in for centuries and is often engaged in by preachers of various religions.(Again, gays, lesbians, etc are in the same boat and have overlapping enemies as a result: some of whom, of course, are Jews.)

There are various useful texts on Jew-hatred and its origins. The Anguish of the Jews (which I review starting here), Norman Cohn's classic Warrant for Genocide (which I review starting here), The Devil and the Jews (which I review here), Constantine's Sword (which I review here), The Popes against the Jews (which I review here). I also review two classic texts on pre-Holocaust European Jew-hatred here.

ADDENDA Another way of putting it, is that Jews are a minority with a persistent identity who regularly run afoul of the enemies of human diversity. Which does not lessen their similarity to the queers.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why do (some) gays buy into Israel Derangement Syndrome?

Michael Totten posted on Madrid gay pride blocking an Israeli float as a case of Israel Derangement Syndrome, pointing out that Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East where it's not a crime to be gay, yet the organizers of the gay pride festival in Madrid forbade the municipality of Tel Aviv from sponsoring the float it had planned.

Commenter Adelard Lindsey at that post wanted to understand how this cognitive dissonance of implicitly or explicitly allying with people who want gays dead worked. I posted a response to his excellent question, which this post is an extension of.

Part of the reason is that many gays see "progressive" sentiment as their necessary allies, so buy into the whole kit-and-caboodle to show they "belong". There is also a tendency to be for what those opposing equal rights are against.

There are prominent dissenters in whole or part: Bruce Bawer and Peter Tatchell, for example. There is also something of a network of right-of-centre gay bloggers who are pro-Israel: but they also dissent from the whole "progressives are our friends so we have to support the entire progressivist package" approach.

Since gays are also, for obvious reasons, conscious of, and focused on, problems in their own societies, they are also more than normally inclined to the "focus on Western sins first" approach. Now, that has big problems with it, as I discuss here. But you can see the temptation.

Micha's comment, as an Israeli involved in the "Peace Now" movement, on my post I linked to above, is a revealing personal witness statement about common outlooks. Which links back to buying into a progressivist paradigm which ends up using Auschwitz against Israel. Gays buying into “Israel Derangement Syndrome” is just a particularly pathological example of that wider pattern.

Which gays may be particularly prone to because of the sense of status, specifically moral status, offered. In his personal and perceptive reflections on the appeal of the priesthood to gay Catholic boys (such as himself), Irish writer Colm Toibin points to how a role of shame could be turned into one of status. There is particularly strong appeal to gays in the sense of higher moral status that modern progressivism offers: to shift from moral lepers to moral superiors is a heady reversal.

Buying into Israel Derangement Syndrome is all about a sense of moral superiority: of getting status through the correct opinions, the right sense of ostentatious outrage (against Israel) and conspicuous compassion (for Palestinians). Gays manifesting Israel Derangement Syndrome is just a particularly striking example of a wider pattern: a pattern whose pathology may be very striking in this particular case, but different only in scale, not in type.

Personally, I think the "ally with anti-Zionism" approach is utterly mad, for the big divide is between those who "get" that the pink triangle and the yellow stars of the death camps tell exactly the same lessons, and those who do not (and Israel, unsurprisingly, is full of people who do get that and its enemies are often people who so do not). But I would be regarded as a "right-of-centre" gay blogger, though my outlook is more libertarian/classical liberal.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why narcissists rarely get better

One of the things I have had to struggle with over the last 10+ years is the emotionally devastating effects of -- in a period of deep emotional vulnerability -- interacting with someone who displayed a lot of narcissistic tendencies. They certainly used narcissistic defense mechanisms in "dealing with" my reactions to their behaviour.

Towards the end of our original interaction, they did take some counseling over their sexual behaviour. In typical narcissist style, announcing that they had done so showed that they understood what had happened, that everything was fixed (regardless of any effects on me) and the clearly I should get some counseling (since the fundamental problem was not their behaviour but my reaction to it). This was accompanied with personal abuse and belittling of me, self-contradiction and stunning re-construal, or even straight suppression, of events.

An attempt to interact after a space of some years simply produced the same behaviour, with the further information that they had undergone therapy for mild anxiety and depression, and had been diagnosed with dyspraxia. (Odd, given they are skilled at making things.) Their behaviour merely showed more glibness, with a patently insincere (yet somewhat grandiose) apology added on. Increased glibness was the only apparent effect of their therapy, which they claimed "had really helped".

Really? In the very same email they managed to:
(1) Plead that I leave them alone;
(2) Offer to help in any way they could;
(3) "apologise";
(4) insult and belittle me.
Since their convenience shifted depending on the issue considered, so did what they had to say, with no consistency except that their convenience came first.

Apparently, the therapeutic record is that narcissists rarely get better. Indeed, therapy can make them worse. This make sense if one thinks about it. First, neurotics make themselves sick, people with personality disorders make other people sick. The narcissist does not see their narcissistic behaviour as a problem, merely other people's reactions to it. They neither have any problems for them from their (to them) invisible and unproblematic narcissism, nor see themselves as requiring such cure.

Even if they do seek counseling or therapy (typically, as in this case, for other reasons), their convenience is their reality principle: that is the epistemic essence of narcissism. The therapist or counselor is relying on the report of someone who reconstrues elementary facts according to their own convenience (typically without any realisation that they have done so). Moreover, the therapist or counselor normally lacks any outside verification at all: they just have the report of the client or patient in their office.

No wonder forensic psychologist Nigel Latta, in dealing with criminal clients/patients, never bothers reading their file -- on the grounds that is just lies they told previous clinicians -- he goes straight to the trial records to find out what actually happened. But a normal therapist or counselor lacks such a ready factual check. The narcissist's reconstrual of elementary facts must be awfully hard to spot without any other information source.

The person with strong narcissistic tendencies I suffered in my life is both pretty and charming: I am sure what they had to say was terribly plausible, since they clearly believe it themselves. But I have nothing they want and they have created a perfectly (to them) satisfactory picture of having "apologised", where the only real problem was and is my failure to react conveniently.

Their convenience being their reality principle.

The other problem is that therapy is typically about dealing with negative emotions and validating one's positive emotions and sense of self. That is precisely not what a narcissist needs: not, at least, in their surface emotions. Having their narcissistic self validated, having more ways to glibly reconstrue matters, does not make things better. On the contrary.

Sadly, the narcissist who was in my life is just another example of how therapy and counseling rarely makes narcissists better and, indeed, can easily make them worse.

ADDENDA An Older and Wiser friend told me recently that his (highly narcissistic) mother had recently proudly announced that her therapist had agreed that she should have been tougher on her children. To which his response (to himself) had been "what, you should have broken more of our bones?" Therapists can be such a menace.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I live by manipulating symbols so I am a politically correct environmentalist

US Urban geographer Joel Kotkin refers to ‘gentry liberals’: high-income inner city liberals who vote Democrat. In the rest of the Anglosphere, we can reasonably refer to ‘gentry progressives’ – high income, typically inner city, progressives who vote Left (Green, New Democrat, Labour etc).

This group shares various characteristics, one of which is that they typically live by manipulating symbols rather than making, moving around or shaping stuff. It is surely no accident that, as such jobs have become more common and more important, we have had the rise of political correctness – an ethic which puts enormous importance on getting words right: that is, on “correct” manipulation of symbols. A concern where, not only do symbol manipulators become advantaged in public discourse, but their prime skills become of dominant ethical importance.

It is also no accident that the rise of the symbol manipulators has coincided with the rise of environmentalism. By this I do not mean environmental concern as such, which well predates environmentalism. There is a clear pattern in human affairs where industrialisation leads first to rising incomes and rising environmental degradation but – when incomes reach a certain level so that the next meal is no longer quite such an urgent concern – there is increasing demand for environmental amenity and environmental degradation declines. In particular, air and water quality improves – such improvements began in the developed world well before the advent of modern environmentalism from the early 1970s.

What I am referring to is the nexus of attitudes and outlooks reasonably described as ‘environmentalism’: the placing of enormous importance on humans not “interfering” with nature, on discounting human claims “against” nature. In essence, seeing human interaction with nature as presumptively destructive.

This serves the purposes of the symbol manipulators very well, since symbol manipulation is inherently not intrusive on nature in itself (we can leave aside things they use to live, for the moment, though the contradictions between the lives they lead and their moral claims probably does generate significant emotional angst, as Victor Davis Hanson has suggested). So, for someone who lives by manipulation of symbols, environmentalism offers few costs and many benefits. A sense of purpose, meaning, an empowering ethic – all the things religions typically provide. (Environmentalism has become the “religion substitute” in public education, for example.)

It also provides a sense of status: one is clearly “superior” to those who live by creating and making “Gaia-wounding” stuff. Just as being politically correct provides an empowering sense of moral status because one gets language right (and displays conspicuous compassion). The gentry progressives typically also have comparatively high discretionary income, and so can relatively easily afford to be “green” consumers.

And not only an empowering sense of moral status: cognitive status as well. In both being environmentalist and being politically correct, one is showing one “understands” so much better than those moral and cognitive lepers who do not “get it”.

This status game is very destructive. It not only poisons public debate, it also leads directly to bad public policy. Because it means that anyone who reacts against political correctness or environmentalism is “guilty” of moral and cognitive “sins” and so is not worth seriously engaging with. On the contrary, they must be “shown” the “patent” error of their ways. Indeed, their very motives are clearly suspect, so “obvious” is the moral truth they are denying.

Which blocks from serious consideration of all sorts of information that actually matters for public policy. Once you turn political debate – including debate about public policy – into a status game, you will become disproportionately an advocate and source of bad (even disastrous) public policy. For it will not become a matter of what actually works, but of what supports the status game. In particular, access to problematic or contra-indicating information will be blocked.

One can see these processes operating quite clearly in recent decades. For example, it is clear that Australia has avoided the worst of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession. This is the result of waves of economic reform since 1983 that gentry progressivists opposed, often virulently. In part, the success of the reforms occurred because progressivists were split: a well-placed progressivist minority supported (indeed helped drive) the reforms. But they did so by adopting the language of consequence rather than of mere intent. (And some of said advocates moved “rightwards” as they followed the concern for consequence where it led them, and reacted against the self-righteous waving of intent – one’s own “good” intent and other’s “bad” intent.)

Most gentry progressivists hated the reforms and condemned them – and their advocates – in the most strident terms. Revealingly, these condemnations were phrased in terms attacking the motives, morality, moral character, intellectual understanding of reform supporters. In other words, in ways that claimed higher status.

The anti-reform progressivists were largely defeated because the reform alliance was too broad and the issues too important for too many people. Ensuring that Australia had a sustainable welfare state – the aim around which the reform coalition coalesced – simply mattered to too many people since it incorporated higher economic growth, less unemployment, better targeted welfare, and so on.

Where the progressivists were much more successful was in indigenous policy. This mattered to far less people, so progressivist perspectives got much freer reign. The result was social disaster (if limited to a small minority of the population). Indigenous policy was defined in terms that helped the status claims of the symbol manipulators – that the central problem was racism and the solution was building up of indigenous identity and ostentatious anti-racism, including grand public apologies.

In fact, the central problem was the difficult in moving from being hunter-gatherers to being successful participants in an agrarian-industrial society in so few generations while suffering massive cultural dislocation. Racism aggravated the problems thereof, but did not cause them. But, by defining movement towards mainstream patterns as “attacking indigenous identity”, and defining mainstream Oz society as the problem, policy was directed away from what was needed – intelligent bridging of differences – and to what made things worse: imposition of patterns on the basis of “anti-racist” display. Such as imposing permanent full-time work (a social form with no equivalent in indigenous cultures) as the only legally permitted form of pastoral work, “dropping” free housing on people with quite different social expectations about shelter and resources, and so on. There was no sense that indigenous cultural patterns might actually matter. As distinct from indigenous “culture” merely being a status totem, “respect” for which was to be waved about. After all, suggesting that some aspects of indigenous cultures might be problematic for achieving mainstream success showed a lack of “respect” and Western “triumphalism”.

There is something to a connection between higher intelligence and moral concern. There is considerable research evidence tying higher IQ with:
sophisticated ethical thinking, altruism, planning for the future, political awareness, adherence to informal community standards of behavior, and cooperation for the greater good
But that is an ideologically neutral point, as such behaviour exists across the political compass. Nevertheless, casting status and interest claims in altruistic terms makes them resonate far more effectively – and insulates them from criticism (or even self-awareness).

What is striking is how much environmentalism is environmentally destructive. Because there is a real difference between environmental concern – where consequences matter – and environmentalism – where signalling adherence to the appropriate markers of concern (based on human action being presumptively destructive) matter.

While the arguments over DDT are particularly fraught, the attempt to ban ivory trade entirely when giving local residents elephant ownership rights to harvest ivory had proved much more effective than outright bans is a classic case of premises over consequences. In my own state of Victoria, the opposition to active management of public lands, the restriction on property rights (regarding tree clearing) and the opposition to dam building (despite a 30% increase in population since the last major dam was built) has (predictably) created water shortages and increased bushfire hazards.

Global warming becomes the perfect issue for the inner city symbol manipulators, since it is both grandiose (an alleged looming global catastrophe) and the ultimate sign of the “wickedness” of the Gaia-damaging stuff producers. Leaving aside the science, the abusive heresy-hunting, the attacks on motives, the sneering, the conspicuous concern flag-waving that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming advocates engage in is precisely the same behaviour that was displayed in the opposition to economic reform and in the advocacy of disastrous indigenous policies. (There is a reason that indigenous leader Noel Pearson is such an acute critic of progressivist thinking.) Not reassuring examples.

But very revealing ones.

Alas, since the symbol manipulators typically live in a world of intent and moral display, not consequences, they never accept any responsibility for past failures, so the pattern just keeps recurring. Though perhaps pleas for civility, such as this call to stop bullying (via) might eventually get through.

ADDENDA: An analysis of the occupational and industry basis of voting in Australia: manual workers no longer identify with the ALP, managers vote Coalition and the Greens are strongly connected to Arts/Recreation, IT/Media and Education industries. As my analysis above would predict.

FURTHER ADDENDA: Former ALP Senator John Black has some fascinating comments on the polling data about Green voters in Australia, and the difference between Green voters and Green activists. He makes the points that Green voters have the highest average incomes of the voters of any major Party, that Green activists have somewhat different views than most of their voters and that having two or more children insulates inner city female professionals (otherwise a strongly Green group) from continuing to vote Green. His comments are compatible with my analysis--so, for example, having children creates a concern more powerful than their work perspective.