8.29.2005

Definitions

It has been an interesting summer. At the end of it I am now dating a wonderful woman, conducting research I love, and working on my Ph.D.. My absence from the blogging scene can be explained by something I learned; the urge to write comes from angst. Seeing as I am considerably lacking in this quality now (yay!) as well as busy conducting two research projects, taking classes, and spending what time I can with my girlfriend the enthusiasm and time for writing are waning. Never-the-less, I am arrogant and most importantly I need the practice writing. Isn't that the original purpose of this thing anyway?

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There were many things that I did not understand or appreciate about debate in high school. A very specific structure existed that had to be followed when writing your argument. The obvious start was a witty quote to grab the audiences attention and highlight the relative importance of your value, or the reason you care at all about the topic in the first place. Since values are typically pretty abstract things such as justice and truth (although in retrospect they shouldn't be) one needed a value criterion, a.k.a. how you know you achieved your value by taking the pro or con position. The rest of the argument consisted of showing how the value criteria was satisfied by taking whatever side, pro or con, you happened to be on that round. Smushed somewhere in the middle of all of this was supposed to be definitions of key terms.

Of all the unwritten requirements of an argument the definitions were the most trivial. People would pick what they though was the most ambiguous term such as justified in "Capital punishment is justified", and then cite websters collegiate dictionary as their source. So long as you had it points weren't deducted and all were happy.

About a month ago I spent probably an hour arguing with someone over the existence of human nature. Eventually James demanded a real life example and I chose racism. His immediate and justified reaction was to reject it as an excuse. 20 minutes later I realized that we were thinking of two different things. For him racism was discrimination against African Americans while for me racism was hating people outside of one's group. He couldn't believe that the capacity to hate black people was inborn. I couldn't agree more! It is, however, very easy to believe the capacity to hate those outside of your closenit group is inborn. How those groups are defined is then learned.

For instance, the groups in racism as we know it can be defined as white vs. black. Black people are perceived as a separate group and therefore as a threat. The Irish were once heavily persecuted but eventually they were assimilated into the group. Likewise, the Italians, Greek, and Polish were persecuted but eventually alloyed in the great melting pot. They became indistinguishable from the rest of America and therefore no longer outside the circle. The old saying "United against a common enemy..." is also a statement of this very human characteristic. A common enemy can overwhelm the differences that distinguish most groups leading to a bigger Us in the Us vs. Them.

When viewed this way many of the frustrating aspects of racism become, if not tractable, then at least understandable. Discrimination against the Jewish people has persisted for so long precisely because they have such a strong community built around their faith and heritage. This community is independent of its environment and so is easily distinguishable as a Them. It is ironic to think that a community that exist to protect against racism only maintains the status quo. Similarly African Americans can do little to alleviate racism so long as they maintain such as strong cultural identity and remain so geographically segregated in many areas.

There is hope. Who we define as Us is under our control. In this light busing efforts to minimize inadvertent segregation in schools is a worthwhile endeavor. Anything that increases exposure to a certain group will help alleviate the problem.

Nothing is ever that easy though. Even in highly diverse areas racism exists because competition for resources can increase the incentive to define and form groups. If the urge to form groups evolved to aid survival then it is likely that any threat to survival, perceived or real, will trigger that instinct. Why else to gangs wear certain styles of clothing and militaries issue uniforms? Under threat, the easier it is to define Us and Them the less anxiety the members will feel. For gangs, the reduction in anxiety it is an incentive to join. The military however uses it as one of many tacticts to foster and deepen the unity of Us and its separation from Them.

This drive to define Us and Them is pervasive in current politics. Republicans (and their christian constituents) are the masters at this game but the democrats are doing their best to catch up. The problem is many of the worlds problems cant be solved until we expand the definition of Us to include the entire human race. We need the best of human nature: compassion, caring, and self-sacrifice to be devoted to everyone without exception. It is sad, and maybe inevitable, that what is apparently the best politics brings out the worst in us.

My solution? *shrug* Short of an attack by aliens I don't see Utopia being achieved. I do think though that if we each make a conscious effort to expand our circle a little we can make a difference.

And now, quite out of order, my quote:

"All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color."
~Bulworth, 1998




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PS How many other things, besides racism, could use redefining?

3 Comments:

Blogger Josh Staiger said...

Glad to hear that things are going well.

And good article...

10:49 PM  
Blogger Liz Vermeersch said...

Definitely good to see you online again! I was starting to wonder if you'd been abducted by aliens.

Funny about the "Us vs. Them" thing - I just finished Season 4 of Enterprise, and they address xenophobia, somewhat from that perspective, the understanding that an inborn sense of Us vs. Them exists, but by choosing to expand the Us, community harmony can be achieved.

10:13 AM  
Blogger simone93johanna said...

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12:49 PM  

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