Last Thursday, Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s main opposition party and the current premier of the Western Cape, wrote on Twitter : “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water.” In another post she included “specialised healthcare and medication” as one of the benefits brought by colonial rule.
The comments provoked a public outcry in social media as well as among other politicians. She has apologised unreservedly, but will face a disciplinary process by her political party.
I am puzzled by the outcry and believe that Zille should not have apologised.
If we cannot engage in an objective, nuanced and morally responsible evaluation of our national histories, including the legacy of colonialism, then we condemn ourselves to intellectual obscurantism and the emotionally-charged political polarization that we now see sweeping the United States and Europe. Is this what we in Africa and Asia really want?
I could understand the outcry if Zille had justified apartheid. Or if she spoke of colonialism as nothing but a blessing and had not emphasized (in upper case) the word “ONLY”. But she clearly was not identifying colonialism with apartheid or slavery- which are absolute evils. And her immediate apology stands in marked contrast to those post-apartheid leaders who refuse to own up to corruption and other criminal acts.
It is only those who see the world in black-and-white (😏) who refuse to acknowledge anything good in their enemies. Even the early Christians could acknowledge some of the benefits of the pax Romana even as they proclaimed as the Lord of Caesar one who was an innocent victim of that oppressive pax. One need not be whitewashing (😉) European colonialism by simply recognizing that we who live in post-colonial societies have benefited from some aspects of colonial rule. Why does revulsion towards the British empire not translate into the rejection of sports such as cricket and rugby? And I would add to Zille’s list of post-colonial goods modern science and technology, parliamentary democracy, and universities (of which South Africa still boasts the best in Africa).
That these were all practised hypocritically, patronisingly and were biased towards ruling elites (and outside of South Africa, the latter included many native people), should be openly acknowledged by Europeans. But just as apportioning blame for slavery should also include those African chiefs who sold their own people to Arab and European slave traders, so apportioning blame for, say, Britain’s “divide and rule” colonial policies should include those native elites who welcomed those policies because they aligned with their own political and commercial interests. (The American historian Robert Frykenberg has pointed out that the British Raj in India was often a Hindu Raj because it served the interests of upper-caste Hindus who desired a Western education in English for their offspring and the state patronage of Hindu temples and institutions).
Is racism only to be named as such when it involves white people? Are we forbidden to call “racist” the black tribalisms in South Africa, or the treatment of Dalits and other dark-skinned peoples in India by Brahmins, or the brutality of the Japanese in China and Korea in the 1930s, or the Chinese government’s current treatment of Uighurs, or the constitutionally-approved discrimination against non-Malays in Malaysia, or the apartheid system that flourishes in Dubai and other Gulf states and to which many Indians as well as Europeans flock? The list is endless.
And are we, in the guise of “political correctness” refusing to discuss in our universities or mass media the many “internal colonialisms” in Asia and Africa that were- and continue to be- no less horrific than the worst expressions of Western colonialism? On a visit to Kenya last year, I was shocked to learn that most of the land is owned by just ten families. European settlers continue to enjoy privileges that the vast majority of Kenyans are denied. But most of those super-rich families are black Kenyans, and the income inequality and lopsided “development” in the country must be laid at the feet of the post-colonial state. The dispossession of peoples from their lands, whether in Africa or Asia, happened in the pre-colonial era and continues unabated today.
If what I have written is taken, like Zille’s tweets, as a defence of European colonialism, then put it down to my failure in communication. But I do believe it is a fundamental Biblical notion that moral outrage should begin with self-examination before it moves out to confront others.
The eminent Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once observed that the history of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament was “the only national history I ever remembered reading which proclaimed the sinfulness of the nation- proclaimed its own nation even to be worse than the pagan nations around them.”
When there is so much jingoism around that parades itself as “Christian”, and everybody wants to adopt a “victim mentality” by blaming their national ills on foreigners (white or black, it hardly matters), it is good to be reminded of what makes Christian faith truly universal and counter-cultural.
There are plenty of good arguments with which to criticize Donald Trump and his supporters without needing to resort to misrepresentation and one-sided rants. The liberal media in the US and Britain have tended to indulge in the latter, both during the presidential campaign and in the aftermath of his inauguration. “Trump wages war against Islam” screamed the front page of a well-known liberal British weekly after his travel ban. But he did nothing of the sort. If it was “anti-Muslim”, why leave out many other Muslim-majority states, some of which have a worse record of repression than the seven that were targeted?
Trump’s justification was couched in the language of “stopping terrorists” and “making America safe”. As I pointed out in my previous Post (“Selective Amnesia”) this was a foolish as well as immoral and dangerous decision, and I gave reasons for my judgment. But, however “Islamophobic” Trump’s campaign rhetoric may have been, the 27 January executive order was not.
The hypocrisy and double standards practiced by prestigious liberal media such as the BBC and the New York Times is well known. They were supporters of the war against Iraq, but suddenly turned self-righteously against Bush and Blair when the lies propagated by their respective intelligence agencies were exposed. On religious issues, the BBC loves to broadcast extreme viewpoints. Last month, I watched an interview with an obscure black pastor who claimed that Trump was a “wonderful Christian”, but they have given absolutely no attention to several Christian leaders and organizations who have roundly condemned Trump’s polices as deeply antithetical to the Christian faith. So much for the coverage of “evangelical Christian voices” in the liberal media- such coverage is simply a mirror image of the bias in the conservative media. Such media polarization ultimately undermines the sane, mutually respectful dialogue on which a liberal democracy rests.
When it comes to religious persecution, we see the same polarization in media coverage. The BBC, CNN, etc give little airtime to such cases, especially when they involve Christians suffering under oppressive Muslim or Hindu regimes. Terror attacks on Muslim minorities in Muslim countries (e.g. the recent deadly attacks in Pakistan on Shia followers) receive little or no attention to the mainstream news channels, let alone the tabloid press in the US and Britain. We see the reverse in the conservative Christian media which only highlights cases of anti-Christian persecution.
Trump’s decision to give priority in refugee applications to those minority Christians fleeing Muslim persecution is now opposed as “discriminatory” by liberal media and human rights watchdogs such as the ACLU. But where were these critics, when (for decades) US governments gave priority to refugees and asylum seekers who were their allies in military conflicts (such as Afghans during the Cold War) or to the rich or intellectuals- denying visas to the economically poor or disabled? I’m sure that if the Trump regime gave priority to homosexuals fleeing persecution in some African states, there would scarcely be a murmur of criticism. Governments do have a right to decide to whom they will grant visas. This is happening all the time, in every country on earth. The grounds on which such decisions are made should be transparent and open to moral criticism (for example, why favour the rich?), but charges of “discrimination” carry little weight unless they are applied across the board to cover all forms of travel and immigration.
Of course, there are great dangers for the Christian Church if Trump’s America were to be identified in the Muslim world as “Christian” and enjoying the support of those who go to Muslim-majority countries as “missionaries”. Giving priority to Christians fleeing persecution can also lead to many bogus “conversions” and persecution stories. But, given these important caveats, it is also necessary that the plight of Christians in Muslim states be brought to public attention by the secular liberal mainstream.
Anyone who writes on this sensitive issue has to be Janus-faced and so address the hypocrisies on both sides of the political spectrum. Those evangelical Christians who support Trump’s denunciation of undocumented migrants in the US need to ask: why does he not crack down hard on all those who employ such vulnerable migrants? Human trafficking is alive and flourishing in the US; and those who come voluntarily are often working as near-slaves in many hotel chains, restaurants, factories and large farms. Blaming victims is an easy game and it is sad to see Christians playing it- and, at the same time, profiting from the labour of such folk.
In the meantime, it is equally infuriating to watch the smug complacency of European governments as they posture themselves in opposition to Trump’s antics. We have a 20-year old friend from one of Trump’s banned countries who ended up in Sri Lanka after fleeing family and police in his own country after he had been baptized as a Christian. After a long and humiliating wait in the bureaucratic coils of the UNHCR, he was admitted to the US refugee vetting program in December and told that he would likely leave by May. Trump’s executive order of 27 January has demolished that hope. He is now told that he may have to wait another five years or more. He is utterly devastated.
My wife Karin, a Danish citizen, has taken our friend around some European embassies to see if they would consider his plight and treat him with empathy and understanding. She ran into a brick wall everywhere. “The only possibility of accepting him is if he applies from within an EU territory,” she was told. “Well, how does he get on a plane without an EU visa?”, replied Karin. They smiled politely and remained silent. But one official said, “He can arrive with a false passport, like others do.”
This is how European governments encourage illegal migration.
In an interview in 1994, the eminent French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed:
“The history of America is a strange history: émigrés came to territory which was already inhabited by people- the Indians- and exterminated many of them, pushed others onto reservations; but at the same time, these first immigrants brought along other émigrés by force who were their slaves. It is a singular history that has no equivalent in Europe. This is why I always return to the idea of incomparable histories, and consequently to the specificity of ethnic and political problematics.” (from Critique and Conviction: Conversations with Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay)
Of course European nations have their own shameful histories of exterminations; but apart from the Holocaust, they were mostly committed outside Europe. With an irony that hasn’t gone unnoticed, US President Donald Trump signed his executive order on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day.
What has also not gone unnoticed is the irrational, immoral and potentially dangerous insinuation that America’s terrorists come from 7 Muslim-majority states and are not home-grown. I call it irrational because, for a start, not a single refugee or immigrant from one of the named countries has ever committed an act of terrorism in the US (most of the 9/11 perpetrators came from Saudi Arabia, which remains a staunch US military ally and is not in the list of designated countries); and, moreover, the threat of terrorism is so exaggerated in the public mind – the probability of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by refugees has been calculated as less than that of one’s clothes spontaneously igniting!
I call it immoral because it scapegoats people who have either suffered from acts of terrorism themselves or risked their lives to combat terrorists (including many Iraqis who must feel utterly betrayed by the US government). In any case, existing laws and the 1951 refugee convention – to which the US is a signatory- ensure that anybody who could seriously be considered to have committed a war crime or even a serious non-political crime would not qualify for refugee status. (Notwithstanding this, the irony is that many of the most brutal criminals, including gang leaders in the various Mafias, Triads, Yardies, etc from all over the world are all legitimate US citizens and known to the police in every major American city).
I call it dangerous because it will only alienate friendly Muslims and nudge them towards the radical Islamists who hate the West. One extremism feeds off the other. It has also undermined the efforts of all those men and women who have been struggling to promote respect for human rights all over the world, not least in China, Myanmar, the Central African Republic and other states where Muslims are persecuted minorities.
A further irony is that, since the US has a long history of receiving refugees and asylum seekers and resettling them (and is always among the top receiving countries in the industrialised world), Trump’s executive order tramples upon the “American values” that were trumpeted (sic) by his campaign supporters.
The ignorance on which the executive order is founded is also displayed in the charge that all refugees must in future respect the laws and values of the USA. Surely Trump’s lawyers should have pointed him to Article 2 of the 1951 Convention: “Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.”
Millions of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent live in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. Once settled, many of them become bellicose opponents of further immigration. They are often more xenophobic than “whites”. Are there any South Asians in the US joining Black Lives Matter marches or Tamils from Sri Lanka who went as refugees to the UK or Australia publicly arguing today on behalf of refugees from Syria or Yemen?
During the Brexit campaign I heard Indian and Sri Lankan professionals in the UK contemptuously dismissing Poles and Rumanians as “economic migrants”. What were they, I wonder, twenty or thirty years ago? And why do we not use that term to describe the tens of thousands of Europeans who go to the US or Australia every year in search of more lucrative employment or a more comfortable retirement?
Selective memory loss afflicts us all. But it is particularly tragic when professing Christians are no different. Which is why the biblical command to “love the alien among you” is always prefixed by the reminder “because you were aliens in Egypt and I loved you.” Nothing damages the credibility of the Gospel more than the failure of Christians to practise it.
Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869-1948) continues to stir up controversy, nearly seventy years after his death.
Last week, Amazon India’s decision to depict Gandhi on flip-flops sold on their website provoked a storm of outrage on Indian social media. Amazon was told to respect “Indians’ feelings” and the ambassador in the US was asked to demand an apology from the company.
Then in October last year a statue of Gandhi on the campus of the University of Ghana in Accra was removed by the authorities, following a protest by several academics and students. They reminded Ghanians of Gandhi’s demeaning attitudes towards black Africans. The statue had been unveiled by Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, in June as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.
In an online petition, professors at the university cited a series of Gandhi’s own writings during his time in South Africa (1893-1914) to illustrate his racist sentiments. One of Gandhi’s writings cited in the petition reads: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
In South Africa, too, Gandhian universality has been called into question. Last year, an online campaign using the #GandhiMustFall hashtag was launched; while a statue of his in Johannesburg was vandalised during a rally attended by protesters holding placards reading “Racist Gandhi Must Fall”.
In India, meanwhile, what of his legacy? His iconic status has long been demolished by serious historians even as successive Indian governments and the Hindu middle-classes adulate him as the Father of the Nation.
Gandhi had a visceral revulsion towards all aspects of Western civilization and defended this with arguments verging on the absurd. The principal evils of the West were railways, hospitals and law courts. Every principle in his “back-to-nature” philosophy by which he hoped to shape India was not only impractical, it was denied in his own life. If not for the railways he would never have reached the Indian masses. He always insisted on traveling Third Class, but reserved an entire carriage to himself. “It takes a great deal of money to keep Bapu living in poverty”, wryly observed Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, one of his political companions. He had believed in and practised indigenous medicine, but when dangerously ill always called in the practitioners of Western science which he held in such contempt.
Western observers know him as a man who renamed the downtrodden dalits (those outside the Hindu caste-system) harijans (“children of God”). But the dalits themselves disliked him for upholding the caste-system and using his blackmailing technique of fasting-unto-death to oppose their right to choose their own political representatives (Poona Pact 1932).
Gandhi’s sons grew up to bitterly resent the way he had denied them a formal education. As Arthur Koestler noted in a perceptive essay written in 1969 on the centenary of his birth, Gandhi’s hostility to intellectuals with an English education who “enslaved India” did not prevent him from adopting as his political successor young Jawaharlal Nehru, a product of Harrow and Cambridge. “If Western civilization was poison for India, Gandhi had installed the chief poisoner as his heir.”
Gandhi had a shockingly shallow understanding of the depths of evil in human affairs. It was only in the aftermath of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan that he confessed privately to friends and foreign journalists that his non-violent methods were not a universal panacea. During the Second World War he had advocated that the British should not resist Hitler but allow him to overrun their country. He had been lavish in his advice to Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs and others to submit to injustices more horrendous than those committed by Muslims in Pakistan. In the most irresponsible advice of all, he called European Jews to commit “collective suicide” so as to “awaken the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence”.
As George Orwell observed in 1949, Gandhi had no understanding of totalitarianism and saw every political situation in terms of his own struggle against the British Raj. Orwell wrote: “The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity…It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.”
Post-independence India, thankfully, repudiated Gandhi’s scorn for science and technology. However, while combining Gandhi hagiography with the (anti-Gandhian) pursuit of nuclear weapons, disproportionate spending on military arsenals, contempt for dalits and other dark-skinned peoples, and almost daily anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani rhetoric, the Hindu middle-classes show themselves to be faithful exponents of the Gandhian Legacy: viz. double-thinking.
This has been a year of blatant contradictions. No more so than in the way politicians in the “developed” world turn cartwheels on the issues of unemployment and wealth inequalities.
We were told that both Brexit and Trump’s popularity were “populist” reactions to the elitist control of politics and the loss of jobs to immigrants. As for the latter, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, recently announced that the government would devote 2 billion pounds to the development of robots and automated processes. So no jobs for locals, unless you happen to be non-human. And Donald Trump’s choice for Labour Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is the boss of several big fast food companies and a fan of automated customer services: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case.”
Nearly half of current jobs in the U.S. will be automated by 2033. Not only will 3D printers eliminate jobs in manufacturing, but “truck drivers” (the most common job in some American states) will also become obsolete in the age of driverless cars and trucks. Algorithms are used to analyse intelligence data for the NSA and CIA, perform medical diagnoses, hire employees, trade derivatives on financial markets, detect plagiarism, develop new drugs, and change the nature of warfare. Soon computer programmers will become redundant. And once robots start being designed and repaired by robots themselves, even robotics engineers will be superfluous.
What is it that drives the quest to replace humans with “intelligent” machines? Japan has a low birth rate, an ageing population, and a traditional xenophobic hostility to migrant labour from other Asian countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that it leads the world in robotics research linked to the care of elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And Japanese religious traditions do not recognize the irreplaceable dignity of a human life.
But, all over the “developed” world, the thirst for greater and greater profit margins is the principal driver. In the United States, real wages have been stagnant for the past four decades, while corporate profits have soared. Six of the fifteen wealthiest Americans own digital technology companies, the oldest of which, Microsoft, has been in existence only since 1975.
In 1964, the US’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.
As the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote a few years ago in The New York Times: “Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but they will also reduce the demand for people-including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.”
If anybody is interested to know further my views on robotics and AI, and the moral and theological issues they raise, you can watch a lecture of July 2016 at http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk (simply go to Resources → Multimedia and enter my name).
Thus there is a strong link between unemployment and the growing wealth disparities in today’s world. And that link is going to deepen as our politicians and economists seem to be bankrupt of ideas.
As for the elitist control of politics, it is business as usual. In fact, Trump’s cabinet boasts more billionaires than any other in U.S. history. The bankers and oil men rub their hands in glee. It will not be long before the Rust Belt voters discover that they have been taken for a ride.
Banks and the IT industry are major recipients of public funds. Yet the average taxpayer is unable to afford the products that these industries sell. Similarly cancer research is heavily funded by governments and philanthropic charities. Yet the new cancer drugs are beyond the reach of most of us. The transfer of public funds into private profits (which are then salted away in offshore tax havens) is going to worsen in the current global political climate which has divorced morality from politics and economics.
But perhaps for Christians the worst contradiction of all is to see- from the United States to the Philippines- large swathes of so-called “born again” Christians electing to power men who embody everything antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It is this that must fill us with shame and call forth the apostle’s prayer for the church that crucified Christ: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved. For I can testify that they are zealous for God but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10.1)
It has become fashionable of late, following Brexit and the U.S election fiasco, to bemoan the corruption of democracy and the triumph of “post-truth” politics. So I found it faintly humorous to discover recently these words from the great Greek sage Aristotle lamenting the state of Athens “nowadays” by comparison with “the old days”:
“Formerly, as is natural, every one would take his turn of service [in political office]; and then again, somebody else would look after his interests, just as he, while in office, had looked after theirs. But nowadays, for the sake of the material advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office.”
While those of us in the Majority World have become perhaps too blasé about politicians who tell blatant lies to win votes or stay in power, many Americans naively assume that their Presidents never lied to their publics. Hence the view expressed by many non-Americans that they preferred Trump to win simply so that naïve Americans would wake up to the rottenness at the core of their political culture.
I am not so optimistic. To begin with, a Clinton victory should surely have been no less revelatory. There seems little difference, morally speaking, between Trump money and Clinton money; or between promoting Islamophobia and being in the pocket of Wall Street and the Zionist lobby. And why was advocating mass foeticide less reprehensible in the left-liberal media than advocating a ban on free trade deals? (It is Mexicans who have suffered most under NAFTA, but that fact was of no concern to either political camp).
I suspect that the reason Clinton won the overall vote was simply because many of those who voted for her were repelled by Trump. But the terrible choice faced by American voters- and a system that does not encourage multiple contestants- is unlikely to provoke serious soul-searching, apart from in a few liberal academic circles.
In his book Nationalism, first published in 1917, the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore went as far as to say “The nation is the greatest evil.” He boldly stated his “conviction”- formed in the context of the Indian independence struggle- that “my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Unfortunately the education that Tagore repudiates is alive and well in India today. Like their Tea Party Republican cousins in the US, Hindutva ideologues trade on mythological readings of Indian history and a search for national scapegoats. Hardly a day passes when the mainstream Indian TV and print media do not whip up frenzy over alleged Pakistani border violations in Kashmir. The Indian army is always innocent of atrocities. And any criticism of Indian government policy by students and human rights activists is labelled “sedition” by senior cabinet ministers. Christians in India, like their fellow Muslims, have been intimidated by Hindu nationalists who charge them with being agents of foreign powers. Patriotism has been reduced to the slanting of meaningless slogans (the Indian equivalents of “Make America Great Again”) while aping Western consumerist lifestyles.
Christians, wherever they live, need to cling fast to two paradoxical truths:
(a) The Incarnation declares that the “Word made flesh” within a locality, a context, a culture is no less than the Word that creates and sustains all creatures with his love.
So Christian political witness arises out of a Gospel that both affirms all cultures and nations and critiques/relativizes them at the same time. We do not have to choose between the cosmopolitan vision of Liberalism and the (historically) Conservative stress on tradition and the virtues necessary for citizenship. The Gospel unites and transcends.
(b) To fail to love (especially those who are different to us) is not to be fully alive; but to love truly and deeply will lead to death. If you cannot love you remain imprisoned in yourself. But if you do love, you will be seen as a threat by the powers of domination in your society and you will be killed. Or, be thrust out of your church.
That is what Advent teaches us.
The social sciences develop within a historical context which they influence even as they study.
This well-known “reflexivity” is often illustrated in the Indian context by referring to the British colonial practice of taking censuses. Census operations necessitated the drawing of sharp distinctions- of religion, caste, language, or whatever else the administrators had decided on as worthy of being counted.
The historian Sumit Sarkar notes that “Colonial modernity helped to tighten community bonds: it has less often been noticed, however, that it also stimulated forces that made them more fragile. What was coming into existence by the late-nineteenth-and early twentieth-century was a situation conducive to the growth of not one but many community-identities- religious, caste, linguistic-regional, anti-colonial ‘national’, class, gender, in interactive yet often conflictual relationships with each other.” (Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History)
The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of American social life in the 1820s has become a political classic. He was struck by the observation that the strong Puritan streak in early American religion meant that, since clerical authority was viewed with suspicion, every American was expected to form his own judgments, to aspire to self-sufficiency in thought and action.
This, of course, was unrealistic. The capacity to form independent judgements is something that one grows into during the course of a life. Individuality is formed though community and the practice of tradition, not in detachment from them. So, forbidden to follow custom or ecclesial authority, we look around to see what everybody else is thinking or doing. “The demand to be an individual,” observes Matthew Crawford in his recent book The World Beyond Your Head, “makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.”
The founders of social polling such as George Gallup and Elmo Roper believed passionately that they were promoting democracy by constructing “rational citizens”. The supposedly “neutral” vocabularies of social science surveys thus structured new modes of self-understanding, prompting Americans to take a detached stance towards their own lives. This, ironically, led to the collectivisation and homogenization of the “public”, whether organized as a national polity or as demographic “communities”.
Sarah Igo tells the fascinating story of the birth of social surveys in The Averaged American. She observes that the Kinsey Reports on Americans’ sexual practices became objects of intense popular interest, maybe because they arrived (in 1948 and 1953) just as the received norms and mores were losing their authority. Everyone was left to her or his own devices. People were anxious to know if they were “normal”, where the only norms now available, were statistical: What’s the average? How many do it? The normative centre of gravity has shifted from parental or religious sources to the middle of a distribution.
Kinsey himself had once been an entomologist in a Midwestern university, and used this fact to present himself as a man of science who had turned from the study of beetles to human sexuality. He himself had unconventional sexual tastes, and it seems that his reports were attempts to reconcile these two aspects: liberation from sexual “hypocrisy” meant bringing everything out into the open. Igor writes that the “statistical reassurance” found by those who eagerly enrolled in the second survey was located in membership of “a community of potentially similar, though anonymous, others”. One could think of these as the first virtual communities. Kinsey’s data on homosexuality became a tool in the movement for gay rights, providing the epistemic foundation for gay identity politics. New links were forged between strangers, even as older bonds of family, locale and religion were eroded. One could leave the closet and find company in the box.
The format of the surveys structured a respondent’s identification with these anonymous others by way of categories such as professional, upper middle-class, black, etc. Igo notes that “individuals were coming to view themselves though the social scientific categories [Kinsey] and others had made available.” This gave birth to communities based on “sexuality”, ending isolation through the solace of numbers.
So emerged what Crawford labels “the stackable self” of identity politics.
The United States is one of the few countries that continues to use the dubious category of “race” in classifying its citizens. The Census Bureau is planning to add a new racial category for those from Middle Eastern/North African backgrounds. Given that most Americans equate Arab with Muslim, and with anti-Muslim rhetoric rife in some quarters of the media, Arabic-speaking Christians as well as Muslims are rightly fearful.
A white South African friend of mine told me how, during the apartheid era, whenever he was asked to enter his personal details on official forms he would write under “religion”, “none”; and under “race”, “Christian”.