Monday, April 11, 2016

What racism is and what it isn't

Racism is a prejudice referring to a racial group. It is a tendency to attribute to members of a particular group certain characteristics, often extreme ones, rather than viewing them as individuals. It is an extreme form of group-thinking, of "us" versus "them", and of simplifying our complex human reality into labels.

All groups, whether racial, religious, linguistic, or any other type, contain a wide variety of individuals. The majority of individuals are around average on any characteristic, while there are a few at the extremes at either end of the bell curve. To judge an individual on the basis of a prejudice against a group he or she belongs to is a form of bigotry, and shows a tendency to over-simplified thinking. Bias against groups is intellectually lazy, because it is easier to identify people using broad labels than to get to know each person as an individual with different characteristics. In fact, individuals exist in an overlapping Venn diagram of different identities and groups, or an "intersection", as it is currently called.

Historically, racism and group-thinking have led to wars, slavery, persecution, discrimination, and genocide. Therefore, people who consider themselves liberal and tolerant have an aversion to being considered racist or biased. In some cases, though, this has been taken to an equally inaccurate and unhelpful extreme.

Sometimes, people who strive to be tolerant adopt an ideology that all groups are equally good, and that the "privileged" groups have no right to criticise groups that have historically been "oppressed". They insist on the equality of all groups, or sometimes even glorify those groups that tend to be the targets of racism or bigotry.

One logical fallacy people fall into is when they want to think that a particular group is positive, so when they see an individual from that group not conforming to their positive image, they say that individual does not belong to the group. This happens, for example, when people think that a religion is good, so any person who behaves in an immoral or criminal way cannot belong to that religion, no matter what this person believes or practices.

There is a difference between belonging to a group and representing it. To say that a group contains a few negative individuals does not mean that the group is defined by these individuals, only that the group is internally diverse. To exclude negative individuals or sub-groups from their group because it's "not nice" to have any criticism of the group is just as irrational and ideologically-motivated as to consider all members of the group as being as negative as a few of the members.

An unfortunate example of this at the moment is people's simplistic attitudes to Islam at this time of terrorism by sub-groups and individuals in the name of Islam. While anti-Moslem "racism" or bias, is, of course, an unwelcome form of hatred that only exacerbates the violence, I find some people's denial that the terrorism has anything to do with Islam to be equally unrealistic and unhelpful.

Like it or not, there are Moslem individuals and sub-groups that interpret Islam in such a way that leads them to perpetrate atrocities in the name of their religion. Some of them might be cynical psychopaths exploiting the religion as a pretext for carrying out their perversions, but many of them are probably sincere, if deeply misguided, believers. When a person like this carries out an attack in the name of his religion, and an observer shouts out "You ain't no Moslem, bro!", this is factually untrue. It would be true to say "Not all Moslems are like you", but that should be self-evident and obvious to anyone who does not partake of group-thinking.

Just as we shouldn't judge a person by a negative prejudice toward a group, we shouldn't deny a person's group identity because of an ideological positive bias toward the group, in the name of not being biased.

In order to deal with the current reality, and as a matter of principle, the way individuals and groups self-identify must be taken seriously, especially when they act explicitly in the name of their professed beliefs. To acknowledge that bad things can be done in the name of a group identity is the first step in understanding the motivations behind such behaviour and trying to prevent it.

This is not "racism" or bias or "Islamophobia". A prejudice against Islam would be to say "All Moslems are terrorists", which unfortunately some politicians and members of the public believe. But saying "No terrorists can be Moslems" is a denial of reality and of the deep-seated beliefs and motivations of some terrorists. A realist has to admit that there are, unfortunately, some Moslems, at the extreme end of the bell curve, who are terrorists and who consider their actions to be required by their interpretation of Islam.

Thinking people have to learn to live with the complexity of human life. We have to be able to accept that groups are not uniform, and to say that someone belongs to a certain group is not necessarily very informative, since there is a lot of variation within each group.

Also, groups and individuals can be both victims and persecutors, as is often the case with people who were abused as children and later become abusers. So just because a certain group was or is oppressed does not mean that all its members are blameless for the rest of time.

Individuals and groups can and should be judged on the morality of their actions, and when a sub-group acts consistently in a negative manner, this should be acknowledged rather than denied in the interests of preventing bias against a larger group.

No comments: