Bad-mouthing working-class whites

The December, 2018 issue of the Atlantic carries an article by Joan C. Williams titled “The Democrats’ White People Problem.” White argues, in part, that Trump and the Republicans have a strategy of keeping liberals focused on race and racism, instead of addressing class issues:

“These gestures [Trump’s inflammatory comments on race] may seem like pandering to racists. But in truth they are aimed equally at the left, in an effort to keep liberals’ attention focused on race rather than class. If Democrats were to focus more attention on economic issues, they just might be able to win back the non-elite white voters they’ve been bleeding for half a century.”

I admit that I have little skill in political analysis, so I have to take Williams’ political analysis on faith when she outlines some strategies that the Democrats could follow to regain votes.

But Williams is also making an ethical observation here, and ethics is something I know more about. She is speaking of ethics when she says:

“A final dynamic will be particularly hard to fix: the broken relationship between elite and non-elite white people, for which people of all races are paying the price. This is a white-people problem, and white people need to fix it. (I wouldn’t presume to advise people of color on how to respond to racism, or to suggest that they should refrain from seeing the 2016 election through the always-powerful lens of race. But as an elite white person, I do see it as my place to tell elite whites to stop displacing blame for their own racism onto non-elite whites.)” Williams emphasizes this last point later on: “Once you start a conversation about class, elite white people have to admit they have not only racial privilege but class privilege, too.”

We elites whites cannot dodge our own ethical responsibilities by bad-mouthing Trump and his supporters. Fighting classism is as ethically necessary as fighting racism, and in both cases we elite whites have to begin by examining ourselves: How are we contributing to the problem? And then: How can we stop contributing to the problem?

Or, as a sage two thousand years ago put it: Don’t go trying to pull the sawdust out of another’s eye when you’ve got a chunk of wood stuck in your own.

What to do with racist dead white men

Should we repudiate dead white men who made racist comments?

To make it a Unitarian Universalist question: Theodore Parker was an abolitionist. But as has been documented by Mark Morrison-Reed and others, Parker also believed blacks were inferior to whites, and he espoused views that today many would define as white supremacist views. Should we repudiate Parker for his racism?

There’s a strong argument to be made that Parker is morally suspect because of his racism. But in an article on Aeon titled “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable,” philosopher Julian Baggini argues that we should be careful about condemning dead thinkers out of hand:

“Why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment. Even a passing acquaintance with psychology, sociology or anthropology should squash that comfortable illusion. The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.”

In other words, progressives in the early twenty-first century have our own blind spot: we still believe in the myth of hyper-individualism — what Baggini terms the “hyper-enlightenment fantasy.” We believe this myth, or fantasy, even though it is so patently false.

This doesn’t mean that Parker gets a pass. It does mean that, even though he was really smart, Parker could not entirely transcend his social environment.

Rather than rejecting Parker for his racism, I think about the fact that even though he couldn’t transcend his social environment, he pushed as hard as he could along the moral arc of the universe towards justice. And I’m pretty sure that if I could measure his progress along that moral arc of the universe, I would discover he moved further from where he started to the ultimate goal of justice than I ever will. That same statement would be true of most people alive today: I imagine there are very few people alive today who are righteous enough that they are in a position to condemn Parker (I know of none personally); it is given to very few to transcend their social environment that far.

This tallies with an observation I’ve made about how progress is made in the fight against racism. I’ve seen more than one congregational program to get white people to understand how they personally are racist; in my experience, those kinds of programs lead to some personal enlightenment for a few individuals, but don’t really change the system. What works better is setting up policies and procedures in a congregation that dial back the institutional racism; in my (limited) experience, this is more effective than consciousness-raining exercises. We can and should think for ourselves; but lasting change is more likely to happen through changing the social environment than through changing individuals.

Epistemology of identity politics within Unitarian Universalism

“Standpoint epistemology,” according to philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter, is the Marxist idea that our social position influences our beliefs; if you are, for example, a member of the working class, your beliefs have been “distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests.” This is in distinct contrast to current “bourgeois academic philosophy” where “standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported ‘knower’ — usually ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘sexual orientation’ — is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others.” A key point Leiter makes is that this kind of thinking is done by “well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class.” The full post, which is short, is here.

My sense is that much of the thinking about identity politics done within Unitarian Universalism follows a similar pattern. We Unitarian Universalists often do give epistemic deference to knowledge based on social position, particularly for social positions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; recognizing, however, that we tend to assume that the social position of white, male, and/or straight persons is distorted, and therefore should be subjected to serious critique. Contrast this with the epistemological approach of some past Unitarian and Universalist thinkers: early Universalists grounded their epistemology in reason and scripture, both of which were assumed to be equally accessible to all persons; Transcendentalist epistemology assumed that all persons had access to the divine through their faculty of intuition; early humanists relied on the powers of reason which were accessible to all persons; etc. Current Unitarian Universalists tend to be critical of all these earlier approaches, since they were typically written down by white, straight, male thinkers.

I find three interesting points here. First, current Unitarian Universalism generally assumes that knowledge is not accessible by all persons equally; the knowledge of white, straight, and/or male persons is assumed to be in some sense distorted. Second, current Unitarian Universalism (as has been the case through most of its existence) tends to ignore class status; the viewpoint of working class white persons are grouped together with elite white persons like Donald Trump, under the assumption that the standpoint of all white persons leads to a distorted knowledge of the world — the standpoint of all white persons, that is, except for enlightened white persons (such as white Unitarian Universalists) who have questioned their white person’s standpoint. Third, many current Unitarian Universalists are now seriously critical of the notion that there exist some kinds of knowledge accessible to all persons.

I know I’m cynical, but I’m tempted to believe this complicated identitarian epistemology helps Unitarian Universalists maintain their comfortable belief in capitalism.

Universal concepts — or not?

Are the concept of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding universal and shared across different cultural and religious traditions? Or are there no important philosophical concepts that are shared among people in all cultural and religious traditions?

The interdisciplinary team of the Geography of Philosophy Project aim to find out. They’re taking an empirical approach, and just opened a Web site where they plan to report at least some of their progress. Not much there yet, but I plan to keep an eye on the Go Philosophy Web site.

(Thanks to.)

Progressive Confucianism

Progressive Confucianism is a new Web site, primarily in Chinese, though with a small amount of English-language content as well. I wish I read Chinese, because the material on Progressive Confucianism in English makes the concept sound pretty interesting, such as this passage:

“The idea that ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue, lies at the heart of Progressive Confucianism.”

(Thanks to.)

Global vs. local atheisms

In a post on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Elisa Freschi distinguishes between global and local atheisms:

“The Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy started as an atheist school since its first extant text, Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutra. At a certain point in its history, however, it reinterpreted its atheist arguments as aiming only at a certain conception of god(s). In other words, it reinterpreted its atheism as being not a global atheism, but a form of local atheism, denying a certain specific form of god(s) and not any form whatsoever.”

I find this an extremely useful distinction, which in my experience is mostly absent in Western thought. In the West, our religious thinking has been dominated by monotheistic religion — Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism — which have tended to force our thought into either/or, binary thinking: either I believe in the the monotheistic Christian (or Jewish) deity, or I believe in nothing. It is difficult for us to conceive of any other option.

In the Indian religious landscape, however, there is a multiplicity of deities. I suspect that kind of landscape allows a more nuanced approach to thinking about deities. In one example, Freschi quotes one Indian philosopher as saying: “I have refuted the inference to the existence of the Lord said by other scholars, but I have not refuted the Lord Himself” (Nayaviveka, tarkap?da, end of sambandh?k?epaparih?ra).

But I can see other possibilities that could also be interesting, such as refuting the existence of certain classes of deities. This brings to mind Xenophanes, a thinker from the pre-Christian West, who made some well-known criticisms of the class of anthropomorphic deities:

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds” (fragment 15, John Burnet translation); and

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (fragment 16, John Burnet translation).

Xenophanes also criticized the class of deities that not only looks like but behaves like humans:

“Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. (fragment 11, John Burnet translation)

All this raises an interesting line of thought: arguments supporting atheism in the Western tradition tend to argue against the monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Judaism. And indeed, Western atheists have developed some powerful arguments against these monotheistic deities. But because their arguments focus so narrowly on the specifics of Western monothesitic deities, I find their arguments less convincing when considering, for example, panentheism. (And no, that’s not a typographical error; see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on panentheism.)

The most interesting point here for me is that in an increasingly multicultural world — that is, in a globalized world where cultures previously separated by comfortable distances now find themselves living literally next door to one another — arguments against the Western concept of “God” might suddenly be revealed to be a local atheism. Similarly, arguments for the Christian or Jewish deity might well be a local theism.

Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Define “human”

What does it mean to be human? It is the fashion in liberal theology today to state that humans are embodied beings; we are not just some disembodied soul temporarily trapped in flesh; rather, you can’t separate our being from our flesh. If you want to leave any transcendent reality out of this definition, you might wind up defining humans as the entirely biological product of evolution; extreme versions of this would say that humans are nothing more than DNA that wants to replicate itself.

Now consider the fact that less than half of the cells in your body carry your human DNA. In article posted today, the BBC reports on the latest research about the human microbiome; latest estimates hold that only 43% of the cells in your body carry your DNA; the rest are “bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.”

This would imply that to be an embodied human means, not that you are a solitary organism, but rather you are an ecosystem. In fact, the boundaries of your ecosystem may be less well defined than you have thought. Indeed, the latest thinking in medical science is that we might want to begin monitoring the information stored in the DNA of all those organisms. The BBC quotes Rob Knight, professor at the University of California San Diego:

“It’s incredible to think each teaspoon of your stool contains more data in the DNA of those microbes than it would take literally a ton of DVDs to store. At the moment every time you’re taking one of those data dumps, as it were, you’re just flushing that information away.”

“Data dumps”? Ah yes, the Brits do seem to find ways to include poop jokes where you least expect it. But seriously, this seems to bring us back to that older definition of what it means to be an embodied human, but with a twist: to be an embodied human is still to be a collection of information encoded on DNA; but now there’s a lot more information, not just from humans but also from archaea, bacteria, viruses, etc.

Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Ch’ang-O, the Moon Goddess

Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:

Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:

Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.

The Rabbit in the Moon

The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:

To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.

How divine is Ch’ang-O?

Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:

1. Ordinary human
2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage)
3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess)
4. Human who became divine
5. God or goddess with a non-human form
6. God or goddess that acts like a human
7. God or goddess that is far above humans
8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it

In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.

Ch’ang-O in popular culture

The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.

Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:

03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]:
…The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.

03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]:
Go ahead.

[some material omitted]

03 23 17 28 CC:
Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]:
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription,” Tape 61/3 page 270 [Houston, Texas: Manned Spacecraft Center, July, 1969], pp. 178-179.)

— And don’t let the conspiracy theorists fool you: the Apollo astronauts saw no sign of Ch’ang-O, nor of any rabbits, nor of a cinnamon tree (actually a cassia tree in the myth).

 

Updated 3/7/18 with revised drawing and Apollo 11 transcript.