Monday, May 17, 2010

Racism Is As Racism Does

If you’ve ever studied semantics, you know how unstable word meanings can be. Words change their meanings over time, as old speakers of a language die and new speakers construct the world differently. Anybody who translates from one language to another is familiar with how arbitrarily the world is carved up from place to place and how the range of meaning can vary. Asking people to use words precisely is, in the long run, a losing game.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to impose some order on the world of meaning by asking our contemporaries to “mean what they say” and “say what they mean.” That is, to use words “correctly” even though at some level we have to admit this is an impossible goal.

I sent a link to some friends recently to a South Park skit which satirized the Japanese for their intransigence as whale hunters. One friend wrote back that he didn’t like it because, among other things, it was “racist.”

He would not be alone. I live in the same culture as he does and I have no doubt many, possibly most people of good will, especially those with a progressive life philosophy, would find cause to label this skit racist.

But I do not.

To explain why I think this way, let me start not with the word racist, but with another word, which, like racist, I think is routinely used imprecisely. Such imprecision, I think, takes us off on a tangent to no good purpose. Let me start with the word arrogant.

Arrogance is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” Most people focus on the first part, the “attitude of superiority” and ignore the second part, the “presumptuous claims….”

If you blow our own horn and announce to those around you without humility what you know and what you can do, at least some people will not hesitate to slap the label arrogant on you. But arrogance is only arrogance when the claims one makes are false. Just putting it out there that you can do things or that you know things doesn’t make you arrogant, if you’re right. The worst thing you might be accused of is a lack of humility.

From an ethical perspective, the distinction between arrogance and lack of humility is a difference between an objective and a subjective wrong. Arrogance is made negative by the attachment of misinformation. The worst that can be said about a lack of humility is that one is not following social expectations that one should hide one’s light under a bushel. In fact, ironically, false modesty can do more harm than good, as well, when one withholds useful information or assistance.

Racism is defined, again by Merriam-Webster, as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Like arrogance, it is a word used without concern for useful distinctions. A racist singles out an “other” on the basis of physical attributes and makes judgments about that individual which make no allowances for variation in the arbitrary category to which the racist has assigned them. That’s part one. Part two is the assumption of superiority on the part of the racist and the alleged inferiority of the “other.”

Without the second part, the attribution of inferiority, the so-called racist is merely being foolish or fearful. Race cannot be defined objectively, because it has been shown that there exist greater differences among members of any given so-called “race” than between racial groups. Race is as subjective as things get. Race is a social construction, and as such contains no more objective truth than any other social construction – the belief that the earth is flat and was created in seven days a few thousand years ago, for example. All alone by itself, such foolishness is harmless. Racism only becomes harmful when one moves to part two and begins taking action that derives logically from the division of people into superior and inferior categories. Discrimination against a racial other in the head is no worse than preference for a skinny lover over a fat one. And discrimination for selfish purposes that does not lead to dominance and destruction of the other is also not racism. A Japanese mother who doesn’t want her daughter to marry a white American who might take her daughter out of the country and raise grandkids whom she can’t speak with is not a racist. She is a woman who understands the cost of things. Lots of things look like racism, but are not because the animus is lacking.

The lack of precision in the use of these two words has muddied our ability to outline two things that plague society on a daily basis. If you want to take a stand against lying, the thing that’s really bad about arrogance, you should not weaken your case by watering it down by blending it with lack of humility. And if you want to take a stand against racism, you should not dilute the serious potential for harm with silliness or timidity or fearfulness.

South Park’s skit on whaling does appear at first glance to be racist. The Japanese are portrayed in the most outrageous stereotypes imaginable. They run around grunting instead of speaking, and confusing their l’s and r’s when they do speak, they act like herd animals, and they show absolutely no variation. “Natives” in matsuri happi-coats and headbands, carrying spears. We’re for all intents and purposes back with the buck-toothed Tojo-glasses-wearing bowing cowards of World War II. If one wanted to be racist, this is definitely what Step 1 would look like.

But the test is in the judgment of intent. Just as there’s a difference between arrogance and lack of humility, there’s a difference between trashing a race or ethnicity and satire. Arrogance and racist ridicule are methods of domination and weapons of destruction. Satire breaks taboos and runs counter to political correctness in order to stimulate thinking and discussion. When done right, as I think it was in this skit, the real object of derision is human folly, not racial, cultural, class or religious criticism outside the larger human context.

Furthermore, the real focus in the South Park skit is not on the comic characters with the spears – Japanese with their racial characteristics – but on the West’s stereotype of Japanese who kill animals for pleasure, simultaneous with the bumbling incompetence of those out to stop the practice of whaling. Also barbed, in case you missed it, are those who join a cause only after it achieves some success and those in it for the money. Larry King is satirized and the ease with Americans can be led away from dedication to a cause if offered a little bit of media fame. Even the solution is satirized – deflecting the kill, as opposed to stopping it outright. And the arbitrariness of the line between killable and unkillable animals which the West and Japan draw differently.

Racism without intent to do harm is not racism. A satirist is by nature impatient with the routine of reasonable debate and the slow give-and-take of diplomatic negotiation. A satirist understands that more can be gained through humor and that cutting to the chase usually works. One of the appeals in this South Park sketch is the reference to racial stereotypes of an earlier age which no longer carry weight. One is far more likely to want to ask, “What on earth are you thinking?” than “Die, you Toyota-driving sushi-eating pig.” Toyota-driving sushi-eaters are us.

It’s true that it’s often hard to find the line between satire and ridicule. And people making jokes about other people probably ought to check more to see whether those people are laughing too. When that Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, carried the cartoon of Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, the issue got out of hand because what started as a joke at the expense of radical extremists got reframed as a Western secularist lack of respect for Eastern religious culture. The Muslim world felt justified in claiming injury because of the unequal power relations between West and East, and satire got recast as ridicule.

The question then is whether this is an analogous situation. Are the Japanese in this skit being satirized? Or ridiculed? An important question, since ridicule would be the negative that would justify the charge of racism.

For ridicule to work, one must have power over another. Bullies ridicule the weak and vulnerable. When the “ridicule” goes the other way, it’s something else. Satire, if it’s clever and artful. Flailing about, if it’s not. “Nigger” has more power then “honkey” because the former word is historically interwoven with slavery and segregation. Honkey is a word used by the historically powerless to ridicule and dismiss. Nigger has been used with far more devastating consequences. Knowledge and understanding of power relations are essential to the definition of ridicule and racism, just as accuracy of claim is to the definition of arrogance.

Japanese have no need any longer to defer to the American way of doing things and they know it. They’re in no need of protection from the barbs of an American satirist. They are today a powerful people with international standing, free to give back as good as they get. They have a culture admired by all the world. Their art, their cuisine, their economy, their film industry, their fashion industry, in fact, all contribute to putting Japan out ahead of most of the rest of the world. Interracial marriage, always a marker of social equality, is now commonplace between Japanese and non-Japanese. They are second to nobody.

When it comes to whaling, they are out of step with most of the rest of the modern world. Nobody’s going to war with them over this difference. Nobody’s advocating indiscriminate action against Japanese individuals. They are out in the world making choices. Just as Americans are generally well-received in Latin America and elsewhere despite near-universal disapproval of American foreign policy, there is no danger that Japanese individuals are at risk as the objects of satire in this South Park anti-whaling message. Just as arrogance requires false claims to complete its meaning, racism requires the power to ridicule, humiliate or worse. If the Japanese ever lose their position of power in the world, we may have to lighten up. Until then, there should be no holds barred.

My grandmother used to refer to our bedrooms, my sister’s and mine, as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” She exaggerated.

I once heard someone refer to the loss of a basketball game as a “holocaust.”

Metaphors enrich language, but they have to be used artfully. Words like holocaust and racism describe evil in the world. They should not be used lightly.

Meanwhile, the debate over whaling rages on.

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