Sunday, 24 October 2010

Modern Epilogue - The Descriminating Individual

2: Prejudice and the Art of Discrimination

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack,
Shoot in the back, with his fist in a clinch,
To hang and to lynch, to hide 'neath the hood,
To kill with no pain, like a dog on a chain,
He ain't got no name, but it ain't him to blame,
He's only a pawn in their game.

How do we define race? Excluding homonyms, states:

noun: people who are believed to belong to the same genetic stock ("Some biologists doubt that there are important genetic differences between races of human beings");
noun: (biology) a taxonomic group that is a division of a species; usually arises as a consequence of geographical isolation within a species.

The operative phrase in the first definition is, ‘believed to belong’. Every human being that is alive today is descended from perhaps 20,000 humans that lived in east Africa 100,000 years ago. We can each trace our ancestry back to one of seven women who lived before this time and right back to a single, most recent common ancestor, who lived within the last 200,000 years1. Before that time, our ancestry is parallel, a single branch on the tree of life, uniting with all other forms as we trace our line back to the primordial ooze from which all life on this planet originated.

The concept of race is put forward in order to arrange humans into species or subspecies and rank them in order of superiority. The author’s race invariably comes out on top (after all, ‘race’ also refers to a contest). And yet studies show that 85% of all genetic variation found within humanity occurs within perceived races, with only 15% found between these groups. As Steve Olson observes in ‘Mapping Human History’:

“Among the elephants of eastern and southern Africa, 40 percent of the total genetic differences occur between groups. For the gray wolves of North America, group differences account for 75 percent of the total genetic variation. Most conservation biologists hold that group genetic differences have to exceed 25 to 30 percent for a single species to be divided into subspecies or races. By this measure, human races do not exist.”

Richard Dawkins uses the idea that humanity can be categorised into discrete races as an example of what he terms, “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.” For example, skin colour. There is no one swatch that we can hold up to any person to identify them as either ‘black’ or ‘white’. Like all false dichotomies, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are abstract concepts that have no basis in reality. Human skin colour is a continuous spectrum of pinks, yellows and browns, with a person’s skin tone as individual as their fingerprints. Dawkins draws on the example of the former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell:

“It is an interesting example to take a colour photograph of Colin Powell standing next to some representative ‘white’ men (they must be next to each other so the lighting conditions are the same). From each face, cut a small uniform rectangle, say from the forehead, and place the patches side by side. You will find that there is very little difference between Powell and the ‘white’ men with whom he is standing. He may be lighter or darker, depending on the particular cases. But now ‘zoom out’ and look at again at original photograph. Immediately, Powell will look ‘black’. What cues are we picking up on?”

Here we see the contradiction with which humanity confronts itself. On the one hand, we are all one. Indeed, within the last 75,000 years Earth suffered an event so cataclysmic (probably an exploding supervolcano), that it decimated the proto human population. Fewer than 10,000 survived, meaning that the humans alive today are far more closely related than would be expected. Without that event we may indeed have broken down into sub species. As it is, an indigenous Khoisan of Namibia can easily mate with a Dutch Irish Pennsylvanian, or a Papuan with a ‘Metis’ person of Canada, and produce offspring themselves capable of producing offspring. If there were any racial barriers to cross, these unions would be barren or sterile.

Despite the reality, we sub-divide our species with ease. Colin Powell’s parents were Jamaican immigrants, and he is also of Irish and Scottish ancestry. However, he is referred to as the first African-American Secretary of State. It would be more appropriate to describe him as the first Afro-Caribbean-Scots-Irish-American Secretary of State. That may sound pedantic, but if we’re going to hybridise our society then why not go the whole hog? Barrack Obama has been elected the first African-American President of the United States. He is truly African-American, his father was African and his mother American. Yet all Americans are African-Americans, whether their ancestors arrived by crossing the Bering Strait, or on the Mayflower, or a slave ship, or signing for a Major League Soccer Team.

America is a fine example of humanity’s ambivalence. The country portrays itself as, “one nation under god” but there are no actual Americans in the United States. There are Native-Americans and African-Americans and Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans and Asian-Americans and Polish-Americans and Creoles and Militiamen and Republicans and Democrats, but no actual Americans. Not one nation under god, but nations perpetually and wilfully divided. Possessing infinite potential: Doomed to a death by a thousand cuts.

This behaviour is not typical of America, rather representative of the whole. Catholicism was meant to unite the entire Roman Empire under one religion and one god, yet since the time of the Protestant Reformation the number of Christian sects has been growing exponentially. Even before then, there were Franciscans and Benedictines and Jesuits and Augustinians and Camelites and Dominicans. The Quran teaches Muslims to avoid those who split their religion into schisms (“As for those who sunder their religion and become schismatics, no concern at all hast thou with them.”). There are still Sunnis and Shiites. And then there are the British, who will sub-divide down into European against American, British against European, English against British, northern against southern, Lancashire against Yorkshire, Liverpool against Manchester, and on, and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, our tribal behaviour is a throwback to before humanity came to be. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, and also share 98% of the same DNA, more than either species shares with any other (Simpleton Alert: Only fools believe we are descended from chimps). Chimp tribes are brutal. When, in ‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan described a day in the life of a female chimp, they called the chapter, ‘Gangland’. Turf wars between rival clans are common. Chimps are also rigidly hierarchical, yet their loyalty to one another is so lassez-faire that they have been observed to randomly snatch infants from their mothers, dashing the head against a rock and consuming the flesh. Is this the behaviour we seek to ape?

In engaging in tribalism rather than society, we display an atavistic attitude. It is the scaffolding of human society, it may have served some purpose in the distant past, but it now obscures us from re-examining ourselves. Once the structure is complete, the scaffolding must be removed before the majesty of the cathedral, the museum, the mosque can be revealed. Which isn’t to say humanity is the finished article. Far from it.

We discussed the folly of prejudice in the previous section, but there is another word, often described as being synonymous with prejudice, but which is in fact its polar opposite. That word is discrimination. We each discriminate, in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the people we idolise and fantasise about. There is nothing wrong or unnatural about that, even our senses discriminate, filtering out 95% of the sights and sounds within our perceptual range. We would be incapable of functioning if they didn’t.

It is only when this discrimination is blinkered by prejudice that we find ourselves in trouble. Prejudice is narrow minded because it removes great swathes of experience by finding nothing worthwhile in anything beyond a restricted field of view. I have met many people who believe that because they live a certain way this must be the only way to live, bypassing any realisation that the world would be an infinitely poorer place as a result. One Dylan, one Dawkins, one Ani DiFranco is a marvel. An entire world of them would come to seem like hell. By stripping away the social layers, we leave only self. Only then can individuality guide you in the something approaching a true course.

This is why I could never agree with the ‘God Hates Fags’ fundamentalists. Aside from the moral repugnance of a supreme being punishing two consenting adults with eternal damnation for the simple act of loving one another, I cannot abide such a one dimensional world view. Fundamentalism fails on three counts; it is unimaginative, boring, and simplistic. A comedian, whose name I forget, once said that God’s great joke was that He created myriad different sexes but told humanity there were only two. He may have a point. Traditional thinking looks to restrict the number of sexes to two. Yet when I look out of my window I observe a universe dedicated to expansion and creation. Yes, in the past there may have been one human sexuality, but we’ve moved on since then. At one time there were no iPods, cars or skyscrapers either. There are now. They say homosexuality is unnatural (which it is, most naturalists agree that bisexuality is dominant amongst higher primates), but so are iPods, cars and skyscrapers.

Fascism fails to hold sway because it fails to agree with the world in which we inhabit. As with all forms of fundamentalism, it demands that the Earth’s pole lie at 90o to the plane of the sun. Unfortunately for the fascists, the North Pole leans at an angle of 23.6o. Without this tilt there would be no seasons and the time between sunrise and sunset would remain fixed throughout the year. Then the world might bear division along primitive lines, but I can’t imagine the creatures there evolving very far. A 23.6o angle gives rise to a planet rich in biodiversity, necessitating myriad solutions to the unique problems of deserts and forests and jungles and plains and tundra and rivers and seas and abyssal oceans. One of those solutions became the human race. Maybe it would simpler if the world could be reduced to the fundamental dichotomies, good and evil, black and white, us and them, but what rational person would want to live in such a world? Fundamentalism demands that the universe be static, when any damm fool can see it expanding. And because its ideology is skewed to reality, its only recourse lies in tyranny.

We need to remove the blinkers and learn to discriminate with the scalpel rather than the sledgehammer (to borrow from recent political parlance). If you wish to hang out only with people who look like you, fine, but ask yourself, what is it which leads you to believe that you have anything else in common with those people other than an approximate skin tone? And what is it which makes you believe you’re so pure anyway? If you are British and your family has been resident here for several generations then you’re probably a mongrel of the highest order. Britain is prime real estate and has been invaded many times, by the Picts and the Romans and the Vikings and the Saxons and the Normans, as well as absorbing people from all over its once all powerful empire. There are over 1,000,000 words in the English language, compared to an average of 50,000 in other languages. This is because English consists of words from Gaelic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Norse, Saxon, French, French Latin, Spanish, Sanskrit, Urdu, and many others. Should we expel these immigrants too?

“He not busy being born,” sings Dylan, “is busy dying.” Any society which is not absorbing new cultures, new ideas, new technologies becomes stagnant and slides into the historical mire. Multiculturalism is not only preferable, it is essential for the evolution of the species and the continued creation of high art. The works of Shakespeare are multicultural, he absorbed the work of European poets and dramatists from the previous three thousand years and advanced them to the next plateau in his own inimitable style. The same is true of the music of the Beatles. And if a densely populated, multicultural society is so disadvantageous, explain New York then. Is there a more vibrant city on Earth?

Look, the average person will have nothing in common with 95% of the people they meet in their lifetime, maybe because of colour or nationality or religion, but more likely because they like a different sport, or support a different team, or listen to a different style of music, or have personal habits others find distasteful, or hold political views different, even abhorrent, to others, or any number of other criteria. If we are extremely lucky there will be one, maybe two people in our lifetimes with whom we feel sufficiently comfortable to allow the mask to slip. No man is an island, but he is a peninsula, perennially inaccessible on three sides. Doesn’t that already seem restricting enough, without allowing the arbitrary lines of race and nation to reduce our sphere of influence to zero?

Free yourself. Move towards a natural conclusion. Every element in your body was created in the heart of a supernova billions of years ago and travelled light years across space to randomly arrive at this point. Migration is encoded into your very DNA. Like King Cnut before the tide, the far right thinks it can stop immigration, but it is a futile endeavour. The seas swirl, the tectonic plates shift, and mankind beats to the drum of its nomadic roots. Yet it is possible to step beyond that stampeding herd, recognise your uniqueness, follow the Hicksian way, assess the world with a truly subjective world view (rather than being indoctrinated by paper, party, or the latest vacuous celebrity cult), and come to conclusions based on information, rather than fearing and despising those with whom you only ever interact weakly. You might also come to realise that the only real barrier to success is self. All the ethnic minorities in the world can’t thwart the truly talented or motivated individual. If you’ve sunk low enough to blame whole sections off society for your low station, you’re probably exactly where you’re meant to be. Get used to it, 'cause ya ain't going nowhere.

Of course a person’s ethnicity and nationality do have a bearing on whom they are as a person, but this is at least in part due to the underlying prejudices which still exist in human society. A ‘black’ person has a different perspective on the world than a ‘white’ person due the stereotypes with which both are judged. Moreover, a Nigerian has a different experience of being ‘black’ than a ‘black’ New Yorker or Parisian or Londoner. Skin tone, nationality, sex, sexuality, physical ability, mental prowess, height, weight, eye colour, hair colour, sexual endowment, these many layers go to make up who we are as individuals, shaping how we view the world and how the world views us.

It’s the difference between seeing your ego as a point particle and a matrix. The difference between:
  • 'black'
  • 'white'

Female Financial Administrator Arsenal Fan Batman Tattoo Rose Drinker Sci-Fi Fan Atheist
Bajan Mother Jamaican Father London Born Makes a mean mutton curry Fave Novel: The Great Gatsby Brown Eyed Black Hair
Collects Shoes Stubborn Sea Food Lover Loves Purple and Silver MG Driver Geek Perfect 10 Listener
6 Music Listener Dog lover Practical Mac User Cynic Sarcastic Hates ITV
Allergic to coffee Independent Reader Radiohead Fan Scrubs Fan Green Party Member Heterosexual Grazia Reader
Gardener Omnivore Wii Owner Theatregoer Mother Passionate Antifascist
Unticklish Eldest Child Pro-active Right Handed Gregarious Hates Celery Resolute


Male Writer Liverpool Fan Dylanite Theatregoer PC User Atheist
Scots- Anglo- Irish- Welsh- German- Arabian- African
Radiohead Fan Hates UHT Milk Amnesty Supporter Collects Books Cognac Drinker Brown Eyed Black Hair
Independent Reader Eyebrow Stud Private Eye Reader Fave Novel: Ulysses N.I. Reader Sci-Fi Fan Geek
Eldest Child Perfect 10 Listener Scrubs Fan Radio 4 Listener Heterosexual Omnivore Hates ITV
Sarcastic Gregarious Socialist Cat Lover Left Handed Ticklish Antifascist
Imaginative Stubborn Passionate Lazy Distracted Cynic Eponymist

No two people are alike (even twins have unique world lines), we merely converge at certain points. Inversely, no two people are entirely unalike. I have long believed that you could take two people with disparate ideologies, a white supremacist from Alabama say, and a member of the Nation of Islam, lock them in a room and after a few hours of intense hatred they would discover a mutual love of flower arranging. This idea is perfectly illustrated in a story I heard on Radio 4. It was told by Jon Holmes of The Now Show and featured Abu Hamza, the radical Islamic preacher, and Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, back stage at a debate at Cambridge University. As Holmes recounts, “Griffin couldn't open a packet of Hob Nobs (let's face it, biscuit packets are tricky) but the Hook-Handed Hob Nob Hacker was a dab hand. In a manner of speaking.” Hamza came to Griffin’s aid, slicing open the packet of biscuits with one of his hooked hands. “It was a wondrous and beautiful moment. Then they went onstage and had a massive row.”

So what are we worrying about? I don’t mean to put on a hippy wig and start singing, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ here, but if Nick Griffin and Abu Hamza can come together over anything, even a packet of Hob Nobs, then there’s hope for us all.

History begins at conception. I was born in Britain, but do not consider myself British. The former is where I was born, the latter a state of mind to which I cannot subscribe2. Great Britain is an arbitrary border, less arbitrary than any mainland continental country, but still determined by centuries of conquest and immigration of which I played little if any part. I have not been to every city and town in the UK and am unlikely to. My country is my country, as individual as I am myself. “What ish my nation?” asks MacMorris in Henry V. “Who talks of my nation?” My nation is Cardiff and Manchester and Liverpool, but it is also Paris and Madrid, Amsterdam and New York. My nation is the halls of Elsinore and Gormanghast, the island of Pianosa during World War Two and the streets of Dublin, June 16th 1904. Yes, the geographical location in which I live, in which I have spent most of my life, has a bearing on the person that I am. My sense of humour, for instance, is typically British, motivated by suppressed anger, but my personality is also determined by the authors I read, the music I listen to, the films I watch, to create a unique consciousness, never to be repeated. I am a distinct blend of experience and influence, and pride in my individuality outshines all other considerations.

Human civilisation stands at a crossroads. For thousands of years its basic structure remained unchanged. A person from the 14th century would have been able to converse with someone from the 19th on roughly equal terms. Yet with the onset of the industrial age, into the mechanisation of the 20th century, through to the computer and internet ages, the technical evolution of humanity has progressed at something approaching an exponential rate. With this explosion, the foundations on which society was based for millennia have borne the strain and cracked. It is now possible to communicate with someone on the other side of the world as if they were in the next room. Fixed, national boundaries start to give way to the virtual, floating lines of cyberspace. Where once there were the English and Scots and French and Pakistanis and Nigerians, we will increasingly come to find nations of Trekies and Lost fans; Jazz aficionados and classic car enthusiasts; Wine tasters and Joycean scholars (not to mention the inhabitants of Second Life, World of Warcraft et al.). In antiquity humanity was required to bond to those who shared a common space in order to survive the ravages of winter and invading armies. On the virtual plane we are finally permitted to unite with those with whom we share a common interest. Accidents of birth need no longer confine us, the only borders now are our own imaginations. There is still such a thing as society, it is merely undergoing a transformation. When the Harry Potter fans secede from the union, we will know the transformation is complete.

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

Brian: You're all different!

Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Man in crowd: I'm not...


1 It’s actually a little more complicated than this, but accurate enough for the purposes of the present discussion. See the ‘Eve’s Tale’ section of ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ for a more detailed explanation.
2 Bill Hicks was once asked if he was proud to be an American. “I didn’t have a lot to do with it,” he replied, “my parents fucked there and that’s about it.”

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