Saturday, June 30, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (1)

Racism (1) – Having a deep, irrational, visceral dislike of people of a particular race.

Racism (2) – Behaving in a way, or holding a belief, that is to the disadvantage of a particular race.


"Mr Smith must be a racist, because he does not employ any Ruritanians in his kitchen."

(Racism (1) He does not give jobs to Ruritanians because he hates them.)

"No, Mr Smith is not a racist. In fact, his daughter is married to a Ruritanian, and he employs several Ruritanian waiters and backroom staff. He does not hire Ruritanian kitchen staff because he thinks that Ruritanians cannot cook."

(Racism (2): His behaviour unfairly disadvantages Ruritanians in at least one particular respect.)


Racism (1) is usually conscious. Daily Express readers hate Muslims because they are Muslims, and know that they do. 

Racism (2) might very well be unconscious and unexamined.

"As a matter of fact, Mr Smith never hires Ruritanian chefs. When this was pointed out to him, he was surprised, because he honestly thought he was just hiring the best person for the job. He’s going to try to be more fair next time he hires kitchen staff.”

Bad thinking habits can be very difficult to break out of. In fact, Mr Smith contracted food poisoning after a eating a plate of Ruritanian ghoulash in 1983 which left him with a sense that Ruritanians and nice food don’t go together. 

Racism (2) may therefore be more harmful and insidious than racism (1).


Some people claim that all instances of Racism (2) actually arise from Racism (1): Mr Smith’s belief that Ruritanians can’t cook really comes from a deep ideological belief that Ruritanians are sub-human fiends who will be put on the first train back to Ruritania when he’s running the country. He’s got the bee in his bonnet about their cooking ability because he thinks that’s all he can get away with right now. 

But while that might be true in a particular instance, it seems  pretty unlikely that all erroneous beliefs and prejudices come from blind hatred. It’s actually more likely that Racism (1) grows out of Racism (2) — a sincere and superficially reasonable resentment against the chef who inadvertently poisoned you turns into a a general resentment against anyone who looks or sounds a bit like him. Which is, of course, a good reason to jump on dodgy assumptions like “No Ruritanian can cook” and “Every American is a gun touting fundamentalist” whenever you hear them.

It is at least theoretically possible — imaginable in some possible world — that Ruritanians really do make bad cooks, in the same way that Klingons really do make bad ship’s councellors and Betazoids really do make bad security officers. 

If the facts supported Mr Smith’s beliefs about Ruritanian chefs, would we say:

a: His beliefs are racist but true,

b: Since his beliefs are true, they are not racist

c: Bring me a new set of facts

Am I free to say “I don’t actually need to listen to any records; I know in advance that white men can sing the blues just as well as black men becasue the alternative would be racist.”?


It is clearly much worse to hate everyone from Ruritania than to think that no-one from Ruritania can cook. But it’s much easier to write a fair law insisting that you give everyone a fair chance of working in your kitchen than it is to write a fair law preventing anyone from sitting at home hating Ruritanians.


We could choose to use English in such a way that everyone who believed in 1900 that women should not be allowed to vote, or should not be allowed to vote yet,  and indeed everyone who failed to support the women’s suffrage movement with sufficiently wholehearted enthusiasm was “sexist”, since they clearly held a belief that was to the disadvantage of 50% of the population. 

We could also chose to use English in such a way that we only applied the word “sexist” to those to opposed (or failed to sufficiently wholeheartedly support) the women’s suffrage movement because of an a priori belief in the general inferiority of women, or because of a misogynistic opposition of the whole idea of female people. 

That would be a question about language; not about voting or about women.


“Some people opposed giving adult women the right to vote in elections because they were sexists; other for a variety of different reasons” does not mean “I personally don’t think women should be allowed to vote” but I fear that, whatever we do, some people will take it that way.


If I were an anarchist, I might say that voting is completly meaningless, so it doesn’t make any difference who is allowed to vote and who is not allowed to vote. Would I be free to say that it was not “sexist” (or “racist”) to refuse to bestow a completely meaningless privelage on one section of the population? Would we say that society was “sexist” because it debarred men from riding on pink unicorns? If a woman is debarred from some activity or privelage which is meaningless in itself — say, the right to drink in a particular bar, granted that there are other equally good bars where she can drink, and other equally good bars where both men and women can drink — can this be defined as “sexist”? 

If so, then sexism would have to be defined as “behaving in a way that differentiates between genders in any respect whatsoever”. This is problematic because many people think that the genders are, in fact, different in some respects. It might also get us into weird situations where we had to say that, say, a carnival which celebrated Ruritanian dress, Ruritanian music and (very importantly) Ruritanian cooking was “racist but good”. 

Virgina Woolf would, I think, have argued that while there is nothing wrong with having women-only bars in principal, in practice, the women-only bars will inevitably end up having better beer and better bar snacks than the men’s only bars, so and actual concrete disadvantage will have crept in. This may very well be true.

These are points about language, not about bar snacks, unicorns, carnivals or To The Lighthouse. 


Someone who was wrong on the internet asked whether there was any good reason for the Archdruid and his various predecessors' and successors to be opposed to the proposed redefinition of “marriage”.

“No” replied someone else “Its pure homophobia”.

This seems to be on exactly the same level as when the Prime Minister said (in all seriousness) that the cause of crime was "criminals".

I don't think that the Person Who Was Wrong was asking “Are the various druids' remarks examples of homophobia (2)”: they clearly are, because they clearly differentiate between homosexuals and heterosexuals to the former’s disadvantage, (granted you believe that being able to marry is an advantage, a question that we can leave in the air for the time being.)

No-one could possibly think that it was worth saying  “The Druids are homophobic because they are homophobic" any more than they would think it worth saying "Mr Smith thinks that Ruritanians can’t cook because he thinks that Ruritanians can’t cook".

So the person who says “The Druids disapprove of gay marraige because they are homophobic” must think that they are offering an explanation. They must be saying “The Druids disapprove of gay marriage because they are homophobic in sense 1”: they disaprove of it because of their deep, visceral, gut-level hatred of homosexuals.

Well, maybe they do. And maybe they don't. That is the question. 

“Do the Druids disapprove of gay marriage because they hate gays, or for some other reason?”

I do not know the answer to this question, because I have not examined their souls sufficiently closely.

And niether, I contend, have you.