Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

déjà vu

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 28, 2008

Americans of a certain generation will recognize photos of street conflict in Birmingham, Alabama, as clearly as today's children recognize jpegs of Abu Ghraib. Indignation at the images of Sheriff Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses loosed on largely peaceable marchers gave rise to a national examination of conscience resulting in broad support for needed legal changes. Yet the images also were exploited in the service of a destructive mythology of social conflict which was, in essence, as crudely biological in its moral judgment as the race-baiting it was meant to remedy. We see it unchained in the Diversity Dictionary of a contemporary university:

Racism: The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). This subordination is supported by the actions of the individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices of society.

By definition, on these terms, a black person can't be a racist; whatever he does, however he tries. Of course such a wholesale nominalism moves the black person outside the realm of moral responsibility (in matters of racial justice), and for that reason treats him as less human -- because less responsible -- than his white oppressor.

A decade later, feminism erected an exactly parallel mythology to account for and adjudicate sex-based inequalities: once again it found a biological basis for moral praise and blame. Theorist Barbara Ehrenreich blithely admitted that she and her fellow feminists simply assumed (her words) "that women were morally superior to men" -- NB: not that those women who didn't commit cruelties (e.g.) were morally superior to those men who did commit them, but that women were morally superior to men full stop. It was, in fact, the conduct of certain female soldiers at Abu Ghraib that persuaded Ehrenreich she had over-simplified matters.

The problems with biologism are obvious. It overlooks whatever moral decency is exhibited by the disfavored group; it overlooks whatever moral baseness turns up in the privileged one. More radically, by locating moral worthiness and blame in characteristics that are unchosen and unchooseable, it undercuts the significance of all moral choice. Part of the contempt that every decent person today feels toward universities [notwithstanding his benign view overall] has to do with their shocking and inexcusable cowardice in the face of biologism. Confronted with this bullying nonsense they toppled at a touch.

The current horrors in Kenya bring this folly home in a painfully obvious way. Here the tribal hatred is as biological in its root as any race-based or sex-based antipathy: what matters is nothing you may say, think, or do; what matters is who your parents were. And the murders and maimings that stem from tribal hatred are indistinguishable in every morally pertinent respect from the murders and maimings of the Jim Crow South or Nazi Germany or Ottoman Turkey. Yet even moral repugnance can so overreact as to deny the humanity of the agent. It's tempting to say that men who use the teeth and jaws of dogs against other men become dogs themselves. But they don't. Even in their cruelty and apathy they remain men, endowed with intellect, imagination, and will -- like the rest of us. In a way neither Bull Connor nor Huey Newton would be pleased to acknowledge, they're our soul brothers.

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