Thursday, July 20, 2017

Usage Note: "Bigotry," "Racism" ... and Cave 76

But when we come to sin upon reason and upon
discourse, upon meditation and upon plot, this is […]
to become the man of sin, to surrender […] reason
and understanding to the service of sin. When we come to
sin wisely and learnedly, to sin logically, by a quia [because]
and an ergo [therefore …]. — John Donne, Sermon 138

            The repeat on my 11 AM trash-TV watching today was a Cleveland Show episode on Black History Month, and then I noted a draft for this note on my iMac desktop. So apropos of little, but unfortunately usually relevantly, here's a word or two on a term it's unlikely you know, plus some loaded common usages.

Bigotry, Xenophobia: The Amity-Enmity Complex and "Cave 76"
            Like a fair amount of anthropology from the first part of the 20th century, the idea of "the amity-enmity complex" has some problematic, rather gamy associations. Think of it, then, as a fancy way of characterizing what Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man was getting at with the first national anthem: "Let 'em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-Six!" Or we could note that the injunction in Leviticus (19.18) to "Love your neighbor as yourself" got quoted in the Gospels of Mark (12.30-31) and Matthew (22.39) and gets a whole lot of play, while the near-by injunctions to love foreigners, "the stranger," as yourself (Leviticus 19.34) — although part of the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — is much less known.
            Generally, we tend to feel amity toward members of our in-groups — the folks of our family and figurative Cave 76 — and sense "stranger danger" with out-groups. What varies is our sense of who's "In" and who's "Out," who's "like us" and who is, "Well, different."
            The amity-enmity complex may have roots deep enough to reach into parts of our biological inheritance as social animals. It doesn't much matter: the tendency is long-standing, a given of our nature, and a trait that makes sense in terms of the evolution of reproducing groups and some sense of "The Selfish Gene."
            Bigotry, xenophobia, fear of the Other, the often-misplaced idea of "Stranger Danger"  — these are relatively "natural" to people, and we have to work to balance them with our curiosity, reason, compassion, and ethics. Biblical teachings get contradictory here, but the Holiness Code in Leviticus says God said to love the stranger (foreigner, alien) as ourselves, "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and some of us may be — indeed, some of us at some time will be — strangers again, refugees ourselves. And statistics can tell us (middle-class, White?) American kids are in more danger from people they know than from random people they don't.

            Race-ISM is an ideology stating that there are certain large groups that form biological races, that those races differ significantly from one another, and that those differences create a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Until fairly recently, "race" could be applied to groups that were relatively small, nonbiological, and pretty parochial: note Winston Churchill's (sometimes perverse) comments about "the British race" or the English despising Irish and vice versa on the basis of "race" — back when the world in a sense was smaller, and "country" was another way to say "county." Nowadays, that wouldn't be RACE-ism, because most of us most of the time work on the color-coded big races: White, Black/Brown, Red, Yellow, although manners may have us using non-color terms. (Personally, I like the color-coding because it's so obviously wrong and silly: e.g., the truly Yellow race is the Simpsons.) And the color-coding/biological idea didn't get firmed up until the Early Modern period, which can be documented in a work like Thomas Rymer's attack on Othello, and Rymer's dumb-ass countryfolk — in Rymer's early-adopter racist view —who really liked Othello because into the late 17th century a lot of even sophisticated city-bred Brits hadn't learned that "Blackamoors" were inferior. "A for instance is not a proof," but Rymer's Short View of Tragedy (1693) is useful for dating when specifically racist ideology — in our sense of "race" — started coming in among the English.

And the date makes sense.
            In his "General Introduction" to The Norton Shakespeare (2000), Stephen Greenblatt has an admirable quotation attributed to Elizabeth I referring to Her Majesty's Loyal Pirate, Sir John Hawkins and his first slaving voyage, where he transported "some three hundred blacks from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola." She "is reported to have said of this venture that it was 'detestable and would call down the Vengeance of Heaven upon the Undertakers.'" Elizabeth was Head of the Church of England and knew a wicked act when she learned of one. However, Hawkins's venture grossed £10,000 — a huge sum during the period — and so "she invested in Hawkins's subsequent voyages and lent him ships" (23); business is business.
            John Hawkins et al. a century before Thomas Rymer didn't need ideology to kill some people, kidnap others, and sell them into slavery: Hawkins and crew were goddamn licensed pirates, and highly profitable organized crime is what they did. It's when the loot went to respectable heirs and assigns and new investors that there was a need for ideological rationalization; and ta-da!: theft, repression, murder, greed — and bigotry — got packaged together and theorized, and we got modern RACE-ISM. Injure first, theorize later, then get to injure more, with a relatively clear conscience; and repeat ....

             We're doing better since the 17th c. — even counting two World Wars and other assorted recent atrocities — but it's a long slog.
            The "slog" will be helped if we're careful with our language.

            Since the 17th century and modern, Western, race-based slavery, we've built into what became American society racial/racialist components, intimately intertwined with class exploitation and other nastiness. What is called "systemic racism," however, is systemic, part of a system, and not something individual, or, frequently visible to those within the system and profiting from it. It shares with prejudice and bigotry the sort of problem pointed at with the mostly-rhetorical question, "Does a fish know it's in water?" All of these are the more insidious insofar as they are semiconscious or even unconscious. But they are not racism, which is an ideology, conscious by definition.
            The distinction is important because bigotry will lay the basis for pogroms and lynchings and other relatively short-term, usually mob-based horrors. Racism, can work in a vicious cycle of long-term, systematized, bureaucratize, theorized, legally-rationalized horrors: US slavery into the mid-19th century, Jim Crow, final solutions to various ethnic "problems."
            It's hard to argue with a bigot, but they can learn from experience and — in a hypothetically pure form of bigotry — have no ideology to renounce. Racists can be argued with, but, well, good luck with that. Bigotry is like unto the fleshly sins, racism is a more serious, intellectual sin. It comes from twisting reason, and is difficult to reason people out of. Still, if you're dealing with an otherwise decent racist, say of the Huck Finn variety, someone brought up in the system, experience can teach and logic can reach.
            It happened with some religious Southerners of my generation, one I knew personally.

            It is our duty, o decent, ethical reader, to help make it happen. To start on that project we need to know the problem and label it carefully.

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