Monday, July 02, 2007

Here's what I wonder about:

Is there any credible model on earth of a non-racist society, institution, culture, etc.? Or all we all (i.e., those who are working to become non-racist) struggling to create something new, something never before seen?

It seems to me that the "other-phobia" which underlies racism (as well as other oppressions) comes from the knowledge of difference; it is the fear of not having enough to survive if "others" take it from us, the fear of "others'" different appearance? The will to survive keeps us alive and keeps us alert to threat of deprivation and extinction. It also puts us on the defensive and offensive, to protect our lives, our families, our possessions. This appears to be an inborn human trait, regardless of culture or other marker. But this drive to survive does create fear in us, fear which often goes to the extreme of oppression, not acceptance.

How do we survive adequately without taking from others or fearing others to the point where we mistreat them? And if this is an inborn human trait, is it reasonable to approach it from a different direction, rather than from the accusatory model?

A commenter on an earlier post challenged my use of the word "homophobia" as a word of prejudice toward those with different values. But if you break down the word into its parts (correct me if I'm wrong, LinguistFriend), it is a combination of "homo", meaning same or like, and "phobia", meaning unrealistic fear. It was coined as a word to mean antipathy toward homosexuals. Much fear and contempt toward homosexuals arises from the ancient Jewish purity laws, which were enacted, according to my seminary professors, to preserve the cultural purity and religious distinction of the Hebrew people from the polytheistic non-Hebrews in whose lands they lived.

This coincides with my thoughts about fear being an outgrowth of the drive to survive. Fear was used in the purity laws, as well as I can tell, to enforce the separation of the Hebrew people from the non-Hebrews around them. The fact that modern day religious doctrines use these ancient laws to justify antipathy toward homosexuals takes it out of the realm of reasonable fear and into the realm of unrealistic fear.

I don't want to veer off into a discussion of purity laws and homosexuality. My point is that our human drive to survive has fostered fear of The Other. And we struggle to keep our fear realistic, needing to protect our lives and our safety but not at the expense of mistreating others. How do we do this? Is there some illustration out there somewhere that we can look to for a model or are we all trying to do this without any outside help and managing to step on each other's toes every step of the way?

16 comments:

Joel said...

The fact that modern day religious doctrines use these ancient laws to justify antipathy toward homosexuals takes it out of the realm of reasonable fear and into the realm of unrealistic fear.

If the human person is more than merely a collection of actions, then this doesn't work. Antipathy toward actions does not have to equal antipathy toward the actor. In many cases it can, but it doesn't follow as the night the day.

Nor does all disapproval stem necessarily from fear, at least not unreasoning fear. You disapprove of having aphids on your tomato plants, but I doubt you live in fear of them running up your credit cards.

ms. kitty said...

I am wondering where that antipathy for certain actions comes from. I think antipathy for some actions (murder, dishonesty, etc.) comes from an understanding that this is harmful to self and others. I'm not so sure about antipathy toward actions which do not harm me or others. It seems to me that unrealistic fear has been used to create a sense of forboding about certain actions and therefore to justify antipathy toward certain groups.

But this is a discussion about racism, not homosexuality, if you please.

Adam Becker Sr said...


For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; – Romans 3:23

Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

The free church doesn't preach a doctrine of original sin. But racism / bias / xenophobia comes close to being a demonstrable original sin. It seems we're born to it. We cannot teach our children not to fear other peoples. What we can do is teach them how to develop trust, even as they fear.

Chalicechick said...

(((Is there any credible model on earth of a non-racist society, institution, culture, etc.? Or all we all (i.e., those who are working to become non-racist) struggling to create something new, something never before seen?)))


Societies made up of people only of one race come to mind.

Other than that, I very much doubt it.

CC

ms. kitty said...

I think that the fear of the Other was, at one time, a reasonable fear; when humans lived in tribes and their existence felt threatened by other tribes, fear of the Other made sense. But human knowledge and experience have led us into societies which are pluralistic and this is where we have trouble.

Evidence suggests that children who are raised with a healthy sense of self-esteem have fewer unrealistic fears and therefore fewer antipathies toward those who are different.

Perhaps this speaks to your comment, Adam.

Joel said...

But this is a discussion about racism, not homosexuality, if you please.

Sorry; I misunderstood. I was responding to your response to Christina, and I let the other point go right by me.

As for racism, it seems to me that it's kind of an arbitrary sort of other-ness. For that matter, "race" itself is hard to pin down a definition for. I doubt that there's ever been a culture that we couldn't call a racist one, simply because cultures form within a defined group, and the first definition of the group is its boundaries. There is always "us" and "them" in some form. Since our concepts of race are formed by the us-and-them dynamic more than necessarily by either ancestry or physical features, I think some form of racism is inherent in the human condition.

Your example of the Hebrews is a good one. While most people were born into that culture, there were converts, who had only to undergo circumcision (assuming they were equipped), and after that, they were part of the race. There was, so far as I know, no distinction made between the descendants of converts and those of Abraham himself. So race hasn't always necessarily been defined genetically. But I don't know of any culture that didn't have some boundary drawn between the people and the outsiders.

Joel said...

Evidence suggests that children who are raised with a healthy sense of self-esteem have fewer unrealistic fears and therefore fewer antipathies toward those who are different.

My experience has been that the antipathy is transferred from those differences they've been taught to tolerate, like race and sexual inclination, to those they have not been taught to tolerate, like religious scruples or political opposition. Look at any pro-Palestinian demonstration and count the totally un-self-conscious racist signs. Those people would be appalled to be called racist; they're demonstrating against racism. Prejudice is like heresy; it's something the other bloke does.

So I don't think you can educate the "isms" away; all you do is transfer the instinct.

LinguistFriend said...

To answer a question posed, "phobia" is a Late Latin word created from a Greek stem meaning "fear". Its formation does not specify whether the fear is irrational, although the irrational shade has tended to become an established use of the term. I can't find the word "homophobia" in any large Greek dictionary from classical, NT, patristic, Byzantine, or modern periods, although I'd expect that it is in the medical dictionaries. Neither is it in English in the older OED or its supplements. From the New Shorter OED, it is attested only from the 20th century.
Changing topics, it is odd that the Hamito-Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one example are found to be spoken by both white and dark races (Cushitic and Chad), for whatever the term "race" is worth. The biological markers taken to depict race are mostly recent and superficial. But some things really vary across races; e.g. the upper part of the larynx, above the glottis, varies to a startling degree in different racial groups.
It is not hard to find special cases in a limited system in which race is ignored. My adopted black youngest son, who was adopted at two months, insisted when very young that he grew in the stomach of his blonde white mother, who was of Dutch background. A Greek proverb says "the mother is not the one who bore the child, but she who raised it". I also remember the anger and pain of my oldest son when he realized on one early occasion that the youngest was being treated with racial prejudice by someone outside the family. Both are my sons.
LinguistFriend

Mile High Pixie said...

I'd have to say that we are indeed striving for a new society. For most in the world, a society where men and women are equal was a new thought. The Netherlands during the Middle Ages is something of a model--they were more tolerant than most societies, and turns out that they were the least damaged by the Black Plague. But a deep fear of the Other will always be with us to some extent. They couldn't even get rid on it in Star Trek.

ms. kitty said...

You people are amazing! Ask a simple question and get a wealth of intelligent thinking. And, LF, I can always count on you to offer something completely unexpected and helpful. I even understood this comment on first read!

hafidha sofia said...

Yes, I do believe there were credible models - but our institutions and culture do much to convince us that we are truly living in the "best of all possible worlds." What better way to suppress the impulse for more justice than to have people believe there can be no such thing?

In any case, I'm spending the next several months (possibly years) learning about these models, and will share more about them throughout the process.

ms. kitty said...

Thank you, Hafidha, I will look forward to what you learn. I am distressed about our inability to find and institute non-racism.

kim said...

While I think that fear of the unknown, which includes fear of the "Other", is natural to us, I am under the impression that if you go to Mecca you will see an example of a non-racist culture. I have no personal experience with it, but I have heard....

Joel said...

I have no personal experience with it, but I have heard....

You have no personal experience in part because if you were to go there you would probably be beheaded. (Assuming you aren't Muslim, that is.)

The only way it could be called "non-racist" is if race is narrowly defined as genetic. I can't think of a place where antipathy toward the "Other" would be more obvious, except maybe the Temple at Salt Lake, for the same reason.

Robin Edgar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joel Monka said...

Sorry for being late to the discussion- I'm still catching up.

Racism may well be older than mankind. At the stable where my wife keeps her horse, there are two "racist" horses; one who will accept gray or brown horses, but not black, and another that will not behave in the presence of a paint. I strongly suspect that this kind of behavior is hard-wired, and we have to overcome it in the same that we overcome instinctive fear of heights or loud noises.