Show me the color of your right hand, pt II

6 07 2015

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.

Cont.

So I figured I needed to get over that, and looked for apartments in, if not wholly black neighborhoods (as in North Minneapolis), then in neighborhoods where black people lived, which at the time included the area around Stevens Square. I took the bus with black people, shopped at stores where black people shopped, hung out in the park where black people hung out, and if I was still the (self-conscious) observer, I was, at least, beginning to see that one black person was not every black person.

It was also at some point in graduate school that I became interested in my own ethnic background, or at least the Irish part of it. I’m more German than Irish, along with Scandinavian, French, and, Polish, but in the 1990s I lay claim to Ireland. It was, I knew, a bit of a pose: I’d been Irish all along, but that had never mattered, and there was nothing particularly Irish about my upbringing, but I loved the Pogues and read Kate O’Brien and scoffed at green beer with the best of them. It was something I chose.

I was Irish. But white? No, that still didn’t make sense, and not in a how-the-Irish-became-white kind of way. It was something I recognized as a social reality—that people would look at me and see a white woman—but I didn’t feel “white”, didn’t know what it meant to be white.

A word about white privilege: I don’t much like the term, not least because it seems to personalize the issue too much, to customize the yawning fabric of white supremacy into a bespoke suit of advantage. It’s not that white privilege isn’t real, but that it isn’t the point: it’s just the final, small echo from the deep, deep well of white supremacy.

White privilege is the erasure of white supremacy, a forgetting that white, too, is a race. To call it a privilege to forget is cast this privilege in the most ironic of shadings: to use the term earnestly, piously, rather than sardonically, savagely, is just another way to dodge one’s own race—to look at the privilege, rather than the whiteness.

What does it mean to be white? What does it mean for me to be white? Again, I can look at social constructions and systems and structures of oppression, but do I know who and how I am as a white woman?

I prefer to talk about ethnicity, these days about how I’m mostly Irish and German, but that, too, is a dodge. I know I’m white, but don’t know I’m white. I see the history of whiteness in the US as a history of negation—this is what we are not—built around qualities and characteristics and people that those who are white are not. It’s not just that, of course, but if I reject the ‘positive’ characterization of whiteness, which is to say, white supremacy, then I don’t know that whiteness has any meaning at all.

I’m not sure about any of this. It seems that I’ve concluded that whiteness (in the US, at least) positively affirmed is white supremacy, that a whiteness without supremacy is a lack.  Is whiteness without blackness a thing of its own? Should it be? I don’t know what a non-supremacist whiteness would mean, that it could mean anything.

I am concerned these days with ontological matters: what does it mean to be? The question ‘what does it mean to be white’ appears as an obstacle, the whiteness obliterating the being. I don’t know if I have to answer this second question in order to get to the primary one. In contrast, I don’t feel as if I have to answer ‘what does it mean to be a woman’, that ‘a woman’ blots out the ‘to be’.

No, there is something about whiteness, a somnolent heaviness which masquerades as weightlessness, a history without a history, which interferes with my ability to make sense.

I’m a white woman, and I don’t know what that means.

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Humans from earth, pt III

23 01 2014

So I fudged in the previous two posts.

I assigned the “practical” to pt I and the “ontological” to pt II, and then promised to return to the practical in this post. But really, it’s all been pretty much fudgily ontological,  or should I say, practically[-]ontological?

Which is to say, I think the question of being-in-the-world, the ontologically query, is also a question of great practical [political, ethical] urgency. Further, that the difficulty of the question ontologically is part of the urgency of the practical question of humanness gives that urgency purchase in the ontological.

Short version: the border between the two is foggy. Fudgey. Part of being human is to be recognized as human by other human beings. Which came first. . . ?

I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone can know. One can argue, with TWO, that there is something irreducibly “human”  (his “concrete reality”) in our species-being, and that the lack of recognition of a group’s humanness is simply a kind of dodge, a repression, a story told to cover the horrors of inhuman treatment.

Among the books I pulled off my shelf was a copy of my dissertation. Early on I quote Elaine Pagels on the long history of “us vs. them”, as well as her caution that “[T]his virtually universal practice of calling one’s own people human and ‘dehumanizing’ others does not necessarily mean that people actually doubt or deny the humanness of others.”And she may be right.

But that concrete reality of the Arendtian-naked human, however practically correct it may seem, runs right into a practical problem: how do we know that this person is human except by the way we treat him? Isn’t the treatment of the other its own practical recognition of the status of that other?

I’ll come back to this, but in the meantime, a few examples:

  • Hans Frank, Nazi General Governor of Poland: “the Jews were a lower species of life, a kind of vermin upon contact infected the German people with deadly diseases” (Robert Lifton, Nazi Doctors)
  • Alfred Hoche, Freiburg psychiatrist referred in 1920 to “incurable idiots”, of those with “mental death” as “human ballast” and “empty shells of human beings” (Lifton)
  • “The Guarani-speaking Paraguayans who hunt the Ache and the Ache, both speak varieties of the same language stock, Tupi-Guarani. But the Guarani-speaking settlers are men of reason, while the hunting and gathering Ache are in their terminology merely Guayaki, ‘rabid rats’; and the rabid rats must be exterminated.” (Eric Wolf, quoted in Leo Kuper’s Genocide)
  • Colin Legum, writing of massacres in northern Nigeria: “While the peasants complained of exploitation, the educated Northerners spoke of Ibos as vermin, criminals, money-grabbers, and sub-humans without genuine culture”. (Kuper)
  • Wilfred Jones: “By a peculiar twist of logic (which has not been completely dispelled in our day) those afflicted with mental diseases were generally treated as if they had thereby been stripped of all human attributes, together with their rights and privileges as human beings.”

There are more, of course, unbearably many more, divvying people up by ethnicity, religion, mental capacity, morphology, language, culture—anything, really.

And here we are at the point at which TWO and I can point to the same evidence and reach opposite conclusions. TWO could say, “yes, but these people were all recognized as humans, and their oppressors and killers clearly had to try to take their humanness away from them—which ipso facto reinforces my point that they ‘really are’ humans”.

I, however, look at these examples and think, “our humanness can be taken away, which means that it is contingent, not absolute”.

If you are religious and have some belief in an after-life, an absolute humanness might be a kind of solace for the sufferings of this world: Even if your fellow species-beings treat you as a rat to be exterminated, you will be recognized as human by your god, and granted surcease as a result.

But I hold to no existence beyond this world (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), so there is no solace in considering our status beyond this world. If I am to live as a human in this world, then I have to be recognized as human by other beings in this world. If I am not so recognized, then I can be abused, enslaved, killed, and justifiably so.

I can protest that I am human, but if you don’t see that in me, then my protests, even my own “absolute” beliefs in my own humanness, mean nothing.

This is the urgency of the point: our humanness can, in fact, be taken away from us. The only way, then, to insure that we are treated as humans is to reinforce our humanness over and over and over again.

It’s like setting down a tent and staking it to the ground: you have to go back round and round and pound those stakes back down to keep the whole tent from flying away.

It is power against power: the force of the hammer, the strength of the stakes, the firmness of the ground, against the wind and the rain and the mischief of those who would pull up those stakes.

If we recognize our fellow species-beings as human beings, if this is a “concrete reality”, it is only because we have made it so, because we have, in fact, poured concrete around those stakes. But even that concrete is not enough.

We have to remember why we poured that concrete in the first place, and be willing to reinforce those stakes over and over and over again.





Humans from earth, pt II

20 01 2014

Why ontological?

I like to make everything ontological, is one answer, but also because this is the level at which the question of being qua being occurs.

What does it mean to be human?

I suggested in the last post that biology may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of humanness, and I hold to that—for now. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future humanness will be extended to non-biologically entities, although I don’t know that such recognition will be so extended during my lifetime. (After I’m dead? Let the living sort it out.)

More immediately tantalizing—and in a kind of reverse-example to offer to TWO—is the de facto semi-recognition extended to chimpanizees by the National Institutes of Health in their decision to restrict the kinds of federally-funded research which can now be performed using chimps.

TWO (or someone) might argue that this half-recognition is extended on the basis of biology, but if the biology is what matters—if biology is all that’s ever mattered—then why was such protection not extended until now?

Thus, I want to bring forward something which I referenced earlier: the necessity of recognition. It is not enough for one to have the biological substrate of the human, but that those with that substrate be recognized as human.

Recognized by whom? Well, that’s the kicker, ain’t it? It’s an inside game: those who are inside give the status to themselves, and decide who/what else gets to enter or may be forced to leave, and/or those with sufficient leverage  either “break” in and force recognition or so change the terms that they take the insider status for themselves.

In other words, it’s about power, which is an historically-contingent phenomenon.

Now, how did anyone come to recognize themselves as human? That’s a very damned good question, one worthy of a dissertation, but even without knowing the origin of this claimed status, it’s clear that some of claimed that status for them/ourselves, and on the basis of that status have granted them/ourselves certain protections and privileges not given to those lacking such status.

TWO argues that DNA (et. al.) ought to be the standard for recognition as it is “scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity”, and, again, as a practical matter, this has a lot going for it. I even think my reservations about the messiness of biology (e.g., what of those with +/- 46 chromosomes) can be assuaged with a very few addenda, such as “created with the gametes and borne of Homo sapiens” to cover those statistically outside of the norm.

(This should hold at least until we figure out artificial wombs and begin decanting our offspring, but again: I’ll be dead when this happens, so let the living figure it out.)

Others might argue for another standard—that we are created in the image of God, say (and let those who make this argument figure out what that means)—or add in various requirements for consciousness or certain characteristics or abilities: the crucial point is that the standard be settled (enough) for us to make practical decisions about those who are human (and not).

Well, that’s one crucial point: the other crucial point is that the standard doesn’t set itself.

We set the standard, and we do so based on commitments to forms of knowledge we find most compelling.

For TWO, the knowledge gained from biology is most compelling, and thus for him ought to serve as the standard. It’s not unreasonable—clarity, intersubjectivity (i.e., “scientifically knowable” by anyone who cares to know it), and concreteness are pretty damned good reasons—but it can’t justify itself, i.e., the reasons to adopt the “Homo sapiens standard” are external to the standard itself.

Huh, not being clear. What I mean to say is the establishment of the Homo sapiens standard  is one thing, and why we should take that standard as dispositive for humanness is another. I may like clarity, intersubjectivity, and concreteness, but why should those be the qualities we use to judge the standard?

This can lead into an epistemological dissolve, but I’ll bring it back to the practical in a moment. Do let me make one further point before doing so: that Homo sapiens is itself an historical construction, and that there has not always been agreement on who belongs in this species.  Again, we could slide down into the abyss on this observation (always a fun ride down, but perhaps a bit much for this particular conversation), but, again, I want to bring that point back up to the practical level.

And then, finally, on to those examples TWO requested. On to part III!





When I was young

23 10 2013

I should be grading.

I did some, not enough, and the papers aren’t due back until tomorrow, but I wanted to cut down on the number I’ll have to do tomorrow night.

Whatever. I found a link to this Reddit thread, “What is the most philosophical thing you have ever heard a child under the age of 5 say?”  in a post by Tyler Cowen; herein are some winners:

pinkpickuptruck 2255 points 2 days ago

My little sister handed me a juice box as I was packing to move out and said “No one is really a grown up. They just act old because they have to”

whosthedoginthisscen 312 points 2 days ago

“This darn penis.” – my 4 year old nephew reacting to a tiny boner getting in the way of him practicing swimming during bathtime.

pehvbot 415 points 2 days ago

I was rock climbing and a kid and his dad walked by (it was in a publicly accessible park). The kid asked what we were doing and the dad said “Rock climbing”. The kid, his voice dripping with contempt, “Why? The father replies “For fun, you know like when you play video games”. And without missing a beat the kid says “Sometimes I lose at video games”.

JoshuaZ1 300 points 2 days ago

My little brother asked “how do we know that there aren’t any more numbers to count between 2 and 3.”

[–]EgonIsGod 256 points 2 days ago

“What am I alive for?” Existential distress is not the sort of thing you expect from a 4 year old at bath time.

KellyLoyGilbert 95 points 2 days ago

“You don’t know what I’m feeling inside.” A five-year-old boy to his mother as they were walking around Golden Gate Park.

stormborn_ 202 points 2 days ago

I said, E, what’s wrong? She responded “anything.” Perfectly describes that feeling.

tubabrox 155 points 2 days ago

I’ve been babysitting for a family since their oldest who is now 9 was a baby. When the littlest one was about 4 he dropped this one on me and I haven’t been able to forget it since:

“This is how the world works: people bein’ weird, then they die.”

PockyClips 19 points 2 days ago

I had a friend die in a motorcycle accident… He left behind a wife, a daughter, 4, and a son, 1. The day after a bunch of us his went to see them. We get there and his widow is a wreck, of course… She’s cleaning the house, rearranging cabinets, washing all of his clothes… Anything to keep busy. So the girls get her to relax for a bit and I took it upon myself to keep an eye on the kids. As I’m sitting on the couch, the four year old comes over to me and climbs into my lap. She’s says, “You guys are here because my Daddy died, huh?” I say, “Yes, sweetie, we are.” So we sit there a beat… I’m not a religious guy, but their family was. I didn’t know what they told her, what they wanted her to think about the whole sorry mess, so I decided just to keep my mouth shut. Then this sweet little girl looks up at me and says…

“Well, better him than me.”

And she gets up and goes back to playing. It was the most unsettling thing I had ever heard from a child… Yet she was absolutely right. Brrrrrrr…

Ericthemighty 26 points 2 days ago

I was teaching 2 years ago. I went over to the kindergarten where a friend was a teacher to get ready for lunch. I witnessed a little girl ask a boy about a bandage covering where he got stitches, doesn’t that hurt.. “Yeah, but I just don’t think about it.”

So many more.

And really, are you surprised that I picked out the snarky and the ontological?





People who need people

23 08 2012

No no no no no no no.

Just in case it wasn’t clear from my last post, I am against any and all laws seeking to limit access to abortion: Waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, parental notification, time limits—all of them, every damn one of them.

I come by the label Abortion Rights Militanthonestly.

I have also argued for the morality of abortion, that is, that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is, by default, a moral one, albeit of the ontological sort. In other words, because the woman is a moral actor in making decisions about her life, then the decision of whether or not to gestate a fetus into human being is inherently a moral decision.

On a practical level, however, it’s not necessarily a moral decision. If, for example, the woman feels that continuing with the pregnancy is so unfathomable that there seems no choice but to terminate, that there is no deliberation because there is nothing to deliberate, then it might be said the decision to terminate is amoral or beyond morality. It might even be immoral if, say, a woman chose to terminate in order to punish someone else, but, again, the mere fact of ending a pregnancy, of killing an embryo or fetus, is not, to me, inherently immoral.

Which brings me to Shauna Prewitt.

Huh? you say.

Shauna Prewitt got pregnant as a result of rape and decided to continue the pregnancy and raise the child (now a seven-year-old girl). She wrote An Open Letter to Rep. Akin describing that, yes, pregnancy after rape is possible, and that the belief that it is not may underlie some state laws which allow—unfuckingbelievably—the rapist custody and visitation rights to the child.

Prewitt deserves all kinds of praise for her willingness to rely on her own fraught experience in calling out morons like Akin (and a certain blue-eyed cheddarhead. . .) and for her efforts to change those unfuckingbelievable laws.

But does she deserve praise for carrying the pregnancy to term? I don’t know.

Clearly, if the choice to end a terminate can be a moral one, then the choice to continue a pregnancy can be moral.

That sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? As if it should be so obvious that continuing a pregnancy is moral that to ‘concede’ the point seems a kind of backwards-day game? But hang with me: Prewitt continued her pregnancy because she felt attached to the fetus:

You see, to my surprise, I did not altogether hate the life growing inside of me. Instead, I felt a sort of kinship, a partnership — perhaps the kind that only develops between those who have suffered together — but, nevertheless, I felt a bond.

She goes on to note that the decision to continue the pregnancy and raise her daughter wasn’t easy, but it was the right one for her. Ontologically, she made a moral decision.

Is it a moral decision in a more day-to-day sense? Sure. Yeah, things are fucked up on this earth, but when have they not been? And while we humans may have played no small part in that fucking up, we’re not all bad; bringing in new people beats the alternative.

Anyway, note as well the role that desire played in her decision: Prewitt decided to gestate the fetus which became her daughter because she felt a bond, because she felt “enlivened” by the life inside of her. She had the baby because she wanted to.

Does action in accordance with the fulfillment of desire nullify the morality of that action? Well, the argument that passion drives reason has a long history in philosophy, but that we act on our desires, because we do what we want does not mean those doings are morally tainted. If that were the case, then morality would have no place for humans, and we would have no place for morality.

So how do we adjudge the morality of decisions shot through with desire and need and fear and hope and confusion? How do we say that this decision to do what we want is moral and that decision to do what we want is not?

I’m not  sure. This blog post has gotten way away from me—I was going to write about my sympathy for the position of those who think abortion is murder and admit of my own ambivalences—so at this point I just want (!) to bring this to a close and go to bed.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even have a way to the answers, beyond that of saying that, perhaps, the place to begin is by paying attention to what people have to say about their own lives, and how they come to live with themselves.

~~~

ETA: It’s now Thursday morning and even though I haven’t had nearly enough coffee, I’m awake enough to observe that I do, in fact, have a way to the answers (or, at least, a way to the way): that’s kinda what the whole “we might as well try” series is about.





We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.

________

*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.





They tell you not to hang around and learn what life’s about

4 06 2012

Another late-late, quick-quick:

Started my summer class last week, and man, it was a good start. A small class, but lively, and ready to talk about anything—crucial when you’re stuffed in a room together for 2 1/2 hours at a pop.

(I give them my standard warning: I do love the sound of my own voice, but ye gods, that’s too much even for me. If y’all don’t participate, we’re all going to want to throw ourselves out the window. . . .)

Anyway, what I wanted to mention was their reaction to my standard epistemological-ontological-practical mini-lecture: they could not get enough of it; specifically, they could not get enough of the ontological piece.

Only one student had any familiarity with the word (which, for the purposes of this course, I define as being or being-in-the-world) itself, but they keyed in immediately on the meaning of the concept, especially after I mentioned that while most folks don’t think much or ever about epistemological matters, and while most of live day-to-day at the practical level, the ontological does intrude. Moments of crises or transition, I observed, are when we really question ourselves, who we are and what are we doing.

And with that, they were off, offering all kinds of insights about being and how they’ve handled their own experiences with the question of being. They kept going and going and it’s quite likely almost the entire class would have stayed past the third hour had I not signaled that it was time to go.

And even then, that wasn’t enough: They came up one by one to say something more, anything more, to keep the conversation going. One man, probably around my age, came up to me, eyes wide, and said, I never heard of that word before, but I know exactly what that is. I didn’t know there was a word for that, but I know it, I’ve lived it. He was, simply, stunned.

I joke that my pedagogical mantra is I aim to trouble you, but, honestly, this is the best kind of trouble.

This is why I teach.