Thursday, 03 May 2018 18:18

Decolonization

So the other day I ran across this awesome website: Decolonize ALL The Things. And, happily, its companion: Decolonize ALL The Science.

In the spirit of privilege-checking, I should point out that I am as white, male, hetero, cis..... basically, I'm as vanilla white dude as they come. Despite that, I firmly believe that the Decolonization movement is ridiculously important. Here's why.

There is such a thing as 'Western' science. In fact, most science is 'Western', because despite the usual homilies about science being impartial and objective, concerned solely with facts and the proper methods used to generate them, science itself crucially depends on philosophy. What counts as a fact, what doesn't, isn't a determination that comes out of thin air. It comes, in the Western model, from a group of people with similar backgrounds and interests who get together and agree on two key questions: how they go about deciding what counts as a fact (the jargon-phrase for this is epistemology), and what facts are considered to pass the threshold of fact-hood and so are accepted implicitly as constituting what is "real" (the jargon-phrase for this is ontology).

This is what the "peer-review" process in science is all about. Groups of "peers" read one another's work and decide whether it passes muster as science according to their collective opinion.

Scientists don't usually like to discuss this too openly with laypersons. But this basic reality of science as being a social endeavor, fundamentally bound to the identities of the people doing the science, cannot be denied. As much as practicing scientists are loath to admit it, pure objectivity is impossible in science. Bias is always present, because people can't help but be biased in at least some dimension. Scientists, no less than the rest of humanity, are psychologically and culturally shaped by the circumstances of their upbringing. What they are prone to accept as real or not-real is bound up with their life experiences.

The basic problem with contemporary science across all the disciplines is that this inherent bias is rarely considered. It gets swept under the rug at every opportunity. And because it is effectively taboo to discuss, extremely damaging prejudices and assumptions have been allowed to persist and thrive within the scientific community for far too long.

And here is where colonialism comes in. Most scientists living today have been trained to accept that the European Enlightenment was a time of explosive growth in knowledge and technique, where brilliant minds laid out the fundamentals of what we know today as science. Scientists are trained to uncritically accept that they are, in effect, the intellectual descendents of these Enlightenment luminaries. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. And further, they're trained to believe that these Enlightenment types were themselves working according to traditions dating back to the European Renaissance, and before that, of course, Ancient Greece itself.

Notice something? This model of science, which is taught throughout North America and Europe, roots itself entirely in a European (and male) perspective. And what contemporary scientists are by-and-large loath to accept, is that these scholars baked in their own narrow prejudices into their writings. Because, like all humans... they were human. Limited in perspective. Limited in time.

They were also direct beneficiaries of Europe's 500-year effort to dominate and enslave the rest of the world. Consider who, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, had the time and education necessary to do science, write down their results, and report them to other scientists. Science at the time was an upper-class and male endeavor. It was also intrinsically bound up with, and served, the European colonial effort. Edward Said's classic book Orientalism shows how this worked in literature, where White Europeans were always the default and proper identity for a protagonist, while the African or Indian was always a secondary or supporting character, often described in atrocially racist terms, denied independent will or capability. And scientists, part of the upper classes who read this literature, couldn't help but have their opinions of other peoples shaped by this European conceit.

And, of course, there was the whole theft of resources (and bodies) from the colonized, which fed the rapid economic growth and industrialization of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is why, at the turn of the 20th century, insane ideas like social darwinism emerged from and were supported by the scientific community. Eugenic theories proliferated that insisted (falsely!) African brains were smaller and less intelligent by nature than European brains. The Nazis in Germany, insane as they seem now, actively deployed science and scientists to justify their dehumanization of anyone not sufficiently aryan. And there were many Americans, writing in the early 20th century, who agreed with them.

The heritage of western science is directly tied to the colonial effort. And the rot goes back even further in time. Consider, for example, how many scientific papers and books at some point or other quote some Ancient Greek or Roman philosopher. Only rarely do they quote someone from China, or the Islamic world, or Africa, or the pre-colonial Americas. Consider too, how the "Socratic" style has permeated higher education over the years. Isn't it interesting, that scientists who would otherwise be skeptical of any argument rooted in the ideas of one thinker, will happily commit the basic logic error of arguing from authority - so long as that authority is a dead Greek man.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans who imitated them, were nothing more than sexist, racist, elitist, slave-owning murderers. Both societies depended on using war to obtain slaves, who did the actual work necessary to keep Athens and Rome up and running. Citing Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cato, whomever, isn't that different than citing Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein, if either were to write a book of philosophy. That modern universities continue to teach the words and style of these disgusting creatures is one of the greater ironies of our time. Particularly when there are scholars from numerous other traditions, whose ideas go back as far as those of the Ancient Greeks, who were themselves merely minor players in the Axial Age.

The pernicious persistence of sexism and racism in the modern university is in large part due to most scientists accepting what amounts to little more than received wisdom. And a graduate student or other aspiring scholar questions this received wisdom at their peril. Because whether or not they are allowed to join the science club is heavily determined by their willingness to parrot this mythological version of science. And this in turn produces powerful selection pressures, which are partly responsible for the continued over-representation of white males in the Academy (the political economy of the modern university, as with other major institutions in our society, is another key factor).

One of the greatest projects of the 21st century will be reclaiming science from the basic failures of the Western model. The institutions must be reclaimed and rebuilt to allow a new generation of scholars to break free from intellectual traditions that, in the end, reduce to arguments from authority, where authority is granted to a narrow and unrepresentative set of perspectives that have fundamentally biased huge swaths of what we accept today as "science".

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Saturday, 12 January 2019 06:00

Black Lives Still Matter

I probably shouldn't write anything about the state of Black Lives Matter as it currently stands. For several reasons:

1. My heritage pretty much boils down to WASP. I am a beneficiary of white privilege, and I can only ever (at best) half-understand what it is like to be 'other' in America.*

2. I am absolutely furious about how much violence American society deploys against black people, at home and abroad.

3. The voices we need right now are those of the people who live this violent reality, not coddled and ultimately safe people like myself.

*Sure, I have my own set of socially constructed vulnerabilities, but because they aren't intrinsic to how much melanin is present in my skin, so I can usually hide them. CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE.

That being said, I can't justify remaining totally silent, when our society is morphing to actively exclude (such exclusion usually resulting in violent repression of one form or another) black people from political and economic opportunity (again). Probably the most fundamental principle that we, all of us - particularly those of us who are safer in this society due to our inherited melanin deficiency - must both accept and live:

No one gets to use violence, under any circumstance, except to defend self or others from it

That's pretty much the most basic rule of any society. Or should be, I think the vast majority of living human beings would agree. It is purely functional: a society where anyone is consistently afraid for their safety is a society where no one can be truly safe, because if either "I am afraid of you" or "You are afraid of me" is true, we both exist in a state of fear. If society has any point at all, it is to create a situation where, at least in some spaces and times (but ideally everywhere, all the time), we can all co-exist without having to worry about our safety.

Black Americans do not live in a society that accepts the universal validity of this rule. They are forced to exist in a grey area, where we elevate the irrational fears of a few white people (we are all biased, but most humans are capable of setting bias aside in order to get along) into a different social rule, where misbegotten anxieties about black people and violence (that stem largely from racist ideas dating back a couple hundred years) is used to justify objectively ridiculous behaviors (like justifying and or minimizing the harmful actions of bad officers and departments) by people in positions of authority.

Consider the video, there in unedited, horrifying pixels, in which Philando Castile is killed by a police officer, while following that officers instructions. As Trevor Noah points out, this means that there is literally nothing a black man can do to guarantee he won't be killed by a police officer, if he happens to have been stopped by an officer who decided that suburban America is basically an expy for Baghdad circa 2006.

Yes, Baghdad. To anyone with decent military training, the stupidity of the entire scenario that led to Castile's killing (differentiated from murder solely by lack of pre-meditation) should be apparent. A police officer stopping a strange vehicle is in an objectively dangerous situation, and has to solve a problem similar to what soldiers have to solve when performing occupation duties abroad: do his job, while not getting killed. Because an officer or soldier can't see everything inside a vehicle, there is always the danger of a hidden gun or bomb to consider. This produces an extremely stressful situation, and in moments of stress people will often do stupid things.

Which is why checkpoints in a military occupation are one of the most horrifying places for both soldiers and civilians, and are basically a magnet for mistakes. Soldiers are scared that this is the car that will contain a bomb or suicidal gunman. Civilians are terrified that this soldier will be the one to misperceive the situation and start shooting. Many of the deaths at checkpoints in Iraq during the occupation happened because of a civilian panicking or simply misunderstanding a soldier, who then also panicked and unloaded a magazine full of bullets into the vehicle. Because violence of this sort, when people are separated by a hard power divide, is a result of mutual fear.

This is not meant to justify, in any way, these officers' actions. All I'm trying to do is point out that the situation as a whole is so tense as it is, that it is easy to see how these sorts of stops are now a major front line for the repression black Americans experience in what is supposed to be their country too, a place where they should be able to expect to be free from having to be afraid of the police.

When I see the video of Philando Castile's death, I don't see any sort of 'America' where anyone should live: I see a brutal military occupation. Resulting in real, devastating consequences that are traumatizing an entire population within America. I don't know how anyone can see this video, and fail to accept that things are very, very bad, and need to change.

In our society, the police simply do not experience the same level of threat as black Americans. Hell, they are rarely even convicted of a crime when they have done something objectively wrong. But - and this is the crucial part - we have to recognize this endless (and accumulating) stream of video evidence indicates that many of them perceive themselves to be in a situation equivalent to that of a military occupation. And here is where rests a major component of the 'fault' for the violence American society directs against black people: a militarized, paranoid, increasingly dysfunctional culture of fear pervading our police departments.

This is not to say that officers are not individually responsible for pulling the trigger (again, and again, and again), just like the officials who decided that the poisoning of Flint Michigan's water supply were guilty of criminal neglect, and the officials who were put in charge of Detroit due to its financial crisis and then decided that if people couldn't pay for water, they didn't deserve to have it (access to clean water is now considered by most of the world a basic human right, by the way) were guilty of similar criminal neglect. But it is essential to recognize the institutional racism that still permeates our society, and the degree that it pre-figures the level of danger inherent in black-police interactions.

Institutional racism is what keeps this system, which the past ten years have shown disproportionately harms black and native Americans (though consider that we're only just now, as a society, becoming aware how how bad it probably has always been in black majority communities), rolling along. And institutional racism isn't ever fixed quickly, or without major reforms.

The truth is, America has always contained shades of apartheid society, and has always struggled to guarantee equal rights to all our citizens regardless of birth circumstances. We've suppressed our awareness of our nation's ongoing moral failings under a culture of individualistic, can-do-ism, that faults people for failing to transcend their circumstances. That we now seem to have slid into a formal apartheid society, where  our legal system functionally divides Americans into white/non-white, rich/not-rich, and metes out 'justice' accordingly. In South Africa, apartheid was formally ended after years of international sanctions that helped internal anti-racist elements come to power. How it gets ended in the United States of America, I don't know.

I'm not sure anyone has come up with a good solution. But given that black Americans keep dying at the hands of the police, something has to change. Given that one of the most common elements appears to be traffic stops, maybe there needs to be a total moratorium on them. Cars get treated like homes - unless the thing is on fire, everyone else is required to stay out. Police chiefs won't like it, because I'm sure they justify half their budgets by citing how many routine traffic stops and tickets officers give out. But maybe, given how stretched police budgets are, they should focus their efforts on something other than, of all things, traffic stops. Though this might have the unanticipated side effect of putting half of Los Angeles news teams out of business no more high speed chases :( -  but it is an imperfect world...

A more radical effort might enshrine the principle that the police force must reflect the full diversity of the neighborhoods where they operate. And that if a department starts to do stuff like, oh, I don't know, run a black site for interrogations or treat a protest like an armed rebellion, it gets put under some kind of receivership or other form of more stringent oversight, until the 'bad apples' are weeded out.

And by that I mean all the cops who like the militarization of the force. The ones who look forward to donning the over-used SWAT gear and kicking down doors. Let them join Seal Team 6 - if they've got the moxy.

But whatever the solution, it is my firm belief that everyone must be on the same page in realizing that America's systematic refusal to confront its racist treatment of its black citizens has to stop, if we believe that 'America' means anything at all. Despite our Founders' standard-grade 18th century white racism, they at least enshrined in our formal institutions the idea that denying one American fundamental rights threatens all Americans' enjoyment of their own.

And if, as a society, we can't get this right, then maybe we need to go back to the old idea of giving black communities total political autonomy, like Malcolm X once considered.

In the meantime, I'm starting to like the world DJ Khaled seems to inhabit. Maybe when reality starts to suck badly enough, retreat to the land of unicorns and ride-able cheetahs is our best bet.

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