Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 2017

My last post provoked some thoughtful and passionate criticism which I have deeply appreciated.

So this postscript is a response to those critics and a clarification.

I maintain that respecting human rights, properly understood, is indispensable for a just and decent society. Human rights implies that no one is authorized to define the circle of those who are entitled to them and who is not. Protecting the rights of those whom we dislike intensely and whose beliefs we abhor also acts as a brake on our usual tendency to put ourselves at the centre of things.

These rights are rarely absolute. In many countries, the right to freedom of speech is curtailed by laws pertaining to slander/libel, the verbal humiliation of vulnerable persons and communities, and incitements to violence. I have supported this in previous Blog posts. And it surely goes without saying that the brandishing of weapons in public by pseudo-militias has nothing to do with human rights and should have been addressed by courts and political leaders a long time ago.

The principal target of my last post was the hypocrisy/one-sidedness of much mainstream-media rhetoric about “equality” and “diversity”.

Last Wednesday, the New York Times carried a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the U.S Army: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

White supremacist and far-right groups in the US exist on the social margins and are relatively “soft” targets for the media. But the influence of racism is far more pervasive. A black or Hispanic teen caught with drugs on a street corner in an American city is thrown in jail and carries the stigma of being called a “felon” for the rest of his life- severely restricting his educational and job prospects. No such fate befalls the rich white kid smoking dope in the local college or high school. The entire criminal justice system, with its endemic racism, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many black voters, mortgage discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and other sources of social exclusion?

Attempts to write “revisionist” histories of the American Civil War (histories denying that slavery was the principal cause of the war) have been around for a long time. But so have other versions of “revisionist” history. I alluded to Thomas Jefferson in my post to illustrate how selective and distracting are the calls to demolish “racist” memorials. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861 the Presidents of the United States were Southerners- and all of them slaveholders. The only Presidents to be re-elected were slaveholders. And in 1860, without a single electoral vote from the South, Lincoln won the Presidency on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery, not abolishing it.

While slavery may have been confined to the South, white racism was visible everywhere in pre-Civil War America- so much so that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison declared, “The prejudices of the North are stronger than those of the South.” And these continued well beyond the end of the war.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite writing about the equality of humans in the Declaration of Independence. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

And I mentioned Darwin because there is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century government policies. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

As for the majority of the Asian religions, they do not subscribe to belief in the basic equality of human persons. Many in the West forget that this concept was introduced into European thought via the Bible, even though its implementation in politics and social policy was hampered by a complex combination of factors, including widespread illiteracy, clerical betrayal, the co-option of the church by political interests, and lack of technological development.

India and China are still among the most racist societies on earth. In my experience, Indians, Sri Lankans, Chinese and Koreans in the US are more often dismissive, even at times contemptuous, of African-Americans than most whites. Can I say this in “politically correct” circles? Much of this is due to ignorance of American history, but also the worldviews they have imbibed from their families and subcultures. Further, many devout Hindus and Buddhists believe that people born in poverty or with disabilities are simply reaping the outworking of their karma from a previous life.

Are we to outlaw such beliefs? Demand that people who hold them be expelled from universities or sacked from their jobs?

If we did so, the consequences are most likely to be that we turn such people into martyrs for their cause, whether it is religious or political. It nurtures feelings of resentment, even of conspiracy. It is what stokes the flames of violence.

Isn’t it better to meet lies with facts, poor arguments with better arguments, insults with civility, and false narratives with counter-narratives?

The real test of whether we or our governments understand the concept of human rights is whether we or they are willing to defend the rights of our enemies.

I believe that the near-hysterical denunciation of the white far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with numerous calls on Twitter and elsewhere for their sacking from their jobs and expulsion from universities, is evidence of a lack of understanding about human rights.

The marchers were protesting the demolition of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, one of the leaders of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Whatever Lee’s political views, no historian doubts his military genius. And if city mayors and state governors are going to expunge memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia. And, in Britain, the memorials to Churchill and a host of other statesmen, generals and scientists (including Darwin) should be demolished.

It seems to me that this is another instance of “political correctness” run amok. Dismantling statues rather than unjust structures. Suppression/Denunciation replaces moral argument- something on which I have written before: e.g. The New Intolerance and On Giving Offence. Paradoxically, tolerance is killed in the name of promoting tolerance, intellectual diversity suppressed in the name of valuing diversity. I am reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s quip that, in some strands of postmodernist rhetoric, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”)has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, is the new moral leader.

Another recent instance in the U.S of this new ethic is the sacking of an engineer at Google for suggesting that the reason there may be fewer women in the hi-tech sector is because of biological differences. Note: this was a suggestion, not a recommendation to exclude women applicants from any job. One can disagree with his view and present counter-arguments and empirical evidence, but to sack him as if he had committed an immoral act? Surely that is itself immoral- violating the basic right to be different, to hold contrary opinions.

Racism/sexism is about systemic injustice more than it is about attitudes. But attitudes also matter as they are what shape our everyday social relations. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

The arrogance of those left-leaning secular liberals who disdain or caricature viewpoints other than their own is a mirror-image of their right-wing conservative opponents. Both have created a global financial system and internet empire that perpetuate the most grotesque economic inequalities ever seen in the history of the world. Yet much of the talk of “equality” in the media focuses narrowly on issues of sexuality.

Why do we scarcely hear of protests against the exploitation of children in the mines of Congo, for instance- mines which are producing the cobalt and other metals that are used in electric cars and smart phones? Are we not complicit in this exploitation through our silence and never questioning where our technologies or food or clothing come from? And where were the liberal protesters on the streets of Washington DC when the Indian Prime Minister Modi visited a month ago (see my post India: A Failing State?)

This is why many of us believe that what most undermines “human rights” and “equality” is the hypocritical and one-sided way they are invoked by Western governments and liberal media.

Equality is a relative concept. Equality in relation to what? The worst female athlete in the Olympics is far superior to me in terms of physical fitness, just as I am superior in reasoning ability to a Downs Syndrome person. Empirically we are clearly unequal. The moral questions are whether a given inequality is enforced and whether inequality in one area justifies discrimination or exclusion in another, unrelated area. The intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds. It is why this deeper question is side-stepped (or, as Bauman’s quote implies, shouted out of view) in the polarized discourse about equality in contemporary politics.

But it was this sense of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons that motivated the Christian Church, throughout its history and all over the world, to care for the despised, degraded and forgotten members of society. Whatever their own culpable “blindspots” in relation to internal church politics, the best Western missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (often from under-privileged backgrounds themselves) sacrificed their own reputation and health in providing education and healthcare to women and the destitute classes (often in opposition to both local elites and colonial administrations). If helping women and dalits in India or Sri Lanka become nurses, doctors and teachers is labelled imperialistic, then I am happy to identify myself with that label.


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