Yes, I know. There’s no way I can address this subject without sticking my foot in it, which is why “have a dialog on race” has become synonymous with “shut your piehole because anything you say, someone’s going to take as evidence that you’re racist.” Nevertheless.
American-American (and politically liberal) SF writer N.K. Jemisin called European-American (and libertarian) SF writer Vox Day “a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole” amid a screed which alleged that white racist misogynists “are doing their best to roll back voting rights” and enact all of the other boogeyman policies that whip up fear among the vulnerable part of the electorate.
Vox Day, in response, refered to Jemisin as “half-savage,” and said:
Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males. If one considers that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilized after their first contact with advanced Greco-Roman civilization, it should be patently obvious that it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do the same in less than half the time at a greater geographic distance. These things take time.
(All material so far can be found at Vox Day’s blog.)
Chris Gerwel, at his own blog, comments on Day’s post (while explicitly not linking back to it), calling it “a racist screed” and adding interlinear comments to Day’s remarks: “a ‘society of NK Jemisins…’ (read: people of color) ‘…is [in]capable of building an advanced civilization…'”
All clear on the background information? Good.
Now, I’m not going to tackle the contention that the good ol’ boys’ club is attempting to “put y’all back in chains,” or whether Jemisin herself is a “half-savage” (don’t know her, never read her writing, don’t know anything about her outside of this debate), or whether it it regularly takes over a millennium for a cultural group to become “civilized” (or the appropriateness of equating “civilization” exclusively with Greco-Roman culture) and whether, therefore, those of African descent can’t yet qualify as “civilized” because a similar epoch has not passed.
No, I want to focus on one word from Gerwel’s comments:
Could we please stop violently misusing that word?
Racism is a judgment based on race. It is the belief that people of a certain (usually physiologically distinct) heredity are innately or congenitally stupid/sneaky/servile/violent/unrefined/take your pick, usually with the corollary that the innate trait makes members of said race inferior or worthy of enemy status. The “innate” part is essential; racism posits that those characteristic are inborn, genetic, and immutable. (In its weaker form, “racial chauvanism” posits that one is justified in greater loyalty towards one’s own hereditary group solely because of those physiognomical identifications.)
I have no intention of debating whether Africans and those of African descent are half-savage (partly because it is outside the purvue of my thesis, but partly because I find the contention indefensible), but please re-read the quoted Day paragraph. Nowhere is it offered that any racial group is incapable of civilization, however defined; in fact, the very opposite is posited: that contact of an outside group with “civilization” will, or at least can, lead to a state of civilization for that group.
Many things can be said about Day’s contention, but one of them is not that it is racist.
He is a culturist.
The particular definition here of “culturist” is of my own devising; the word already exists (though is little used) and has its own meaning; for my usage, a culturist is one who privilege a certain culture or set of cultural traits over others. (I originally thought of this stance as “ethnicist,” but changed my terminology to allow for the inclusions of cultural attitudes and practices which are more granular than those of an entire ethnicity.)
Now here’s where it gets sticky, because being a culturist as such isn’t worthy of condemnation, the more strident pronouncements of the advocates of multicultural relativism notwithstanding. Because whatever else “culture” may mean (and by golly, that’s a big can of worms, as are most of the terms used to discuss things that really matter), at its most basic, “culture” is a set of value judgments:
- this is honorable; that is dishonorable
- this is noble; that is ignoble
- this is sacred; that is profane
- this is beautiful; that is ugly
- this is praiseworthy; that is shameful
I hope you see the reality here:
1) We are all culturists, in that we all have value judgments about cultural, political, religious, etc. practices.
2) Culturism, as such, is not a bad thing, any more than political involvement as such is a bad thing.
There are certainly aspects of culture which, we may freely admit, are arbitrary, and may have value either simply for purposes of order (there is no inherent goodness in driving on a particular side of the road; the benefit comes in everyone observing the same habit) or as a signifier of one’s adherence to other, less visible cultural practices (thus turbans, beards, neckties, Old Glory flag pins, avoidance of pork or beef or coffee, etc.). There is certainly no harm in multicultural wiggle room in such cases; as a Mormon I don’t drink coffee, but I’m not offended by others who don’t abide by that cultural practice/signifier; I respect that other religions don’t eat pork or beef, but do not feel the need to abide by their standards.
But there are aspects of other cultures which clash so violently with my own declared values that I cannot simply adopt a “live and let live” attitude. If your culture countenances forced weddings of eight-year-old girls, or honor killings of a raped member of your family, or, yes, denigration and subjugation of other people entirely because of physical characteristics because of the color of their skin, then I’m not just going to agree to disagree with you; I’m going to declare such cultural observances as inherently evil, and I’m going to do what’s in my power to curtail your ability to exercise your cultural beliefs. Why? Because my culture declares those practices to be wrong, abhorrent and evil, and I believe my culture to be superior to yours in that respect. I’m culturist, and proud of it.
And so are you.
(That’s why I think the bumper sticker “If You’re Against Abortion, Don’t Have One” has got to be one of the stupidest uses to which the English language has ever been put. See how much traction you get with “If You’re Against Rape, Don’t Commit One” — or better yet, “If You’re Against Rape, Don’t Get Raped.”)
So is it culturist to posit (as Day seems to) that the majority of African cultures are inferior to European/American ones in terms of encouraging rule of law, individual rights, and the other heritage of the Enlightenment which we in the west have inherited? Certainly. Is it wrong? Beyond both the scope of this post and my own individual education; my cursory knowledge of Africa is all gleaned from headlines, and while it certainly seems to be accurate, I would hate to draw similar conclusions about America’s commitment to Enlightenment ideals from worldwide headlines this year.
But is it racist? Hardly. As long as he’s blaming the culture, not the genes — as long as he’s not attributing a putative cultural superiority to innate ability, which he certainly seems NOT to be doing with his cite of of cultural osmosis — then it ain’t racism, pure and simple.