Sunday, May 19, 2013

A question about race and social construction

In the recent dustup involving Jason Richwine, his work at Heritage, and his dissertation at Harvard, there has been a good deal of head-shaking by conservatives and serious thinkers who want to remind us that, whatever orthodoxy may now prevail, race is real and there are real and enduring differences among the races. And, this is to be expected if we take evolution seriously. For instance, here you can see a long argument about enduring differences between Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, and others.
But, of course, that seems perfectly reasonable. Here we have two communities that have been isolated either by geography or by religion, such that they have continued to marry within their communities. To draw from such groups a conclusion that all racial discourse is glomming onto something real in the world and that we can expect real differences to continue according to those other racial classifications is to change the subject entirely.
When people—at least people who are careful about these things—claim that race is socially constructed, they aren't talking about Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, the Aymara, or other groups that are and continue to be genetically, if not geographically, isolated. They are talking about the strange groups we talk about when we pretend as if Whites were a unified group—do the real Caucasians count, as people worried after the recent Boston bombings or should we go back to the characterizations of a century ago when southern Europeans and the Irish didn't always count—or when we decide that Obama is Black and not White, like his mother. They are talking about the fact that we conveniently ignore the European ancestors of almost anyone descended from American slaves, or the African ancestors of a good number of people who think of themselves as White. They are talking about treating Hispanics as a racial group. And, in doing that, they are pointing out that much of our racial discourse is socially constructed. 
Until you give an account of the shared ethnic or racial heritage of the peoples of Iberia and all of Latin America—all of whom are called Hispanic and who include people of many different European heritages, various Native groups, Middle Easterners, Ashkenazis and Sephardis, and East Asians—you are just going to have to admit that much of this discourse is little better than bullshit. And, let's keep in mind that this is the group that Richwine was talking about. 
Just as a side note, a good number of Hispanics never discover that they are Hispanic until they come to the United States. It is an identity and a grouping peculiar to our way of thinking. My own partner loves to tell of when he was told that he was Hispanic upon coming as an exchange student to Ohio. Prior to that, he would have thought he was Argentine, or ethnically Italian. But here, he is a Hispanic. We treat a linguistic group—and the descendants of that linguistic group—as a racial group. That's not serious science and it shouldn't be informing public policy.
There may well be real differences among various groups of humans. This should be no surprise. But how much difference this can make in a world that is not isolated, in which heritages are seriously mixed, is unclear. And, what differences there are will only be found at a level of description much more fine-grained than the one that informs our racial discourse. 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Untimely thoughts about social media

Several years ago, I deleted Facebook. After several months, I had to come back. Or, rather, I came back because I realized that I lost all social contact once it couldn’t be mediated through the site. That made me sad, but I figured it was the way things work now. 

After a few recent experiences, I am going to do something very close to deleting it again. Last week, I winnowed down my list of connections by more than a fifth, eliminating both people to whom I really don’t feel a connection and people to whom I do—or did—feel connected, but who had chosen never to make any real-world connection to me or toward whom I had made the same choice. That is, there are lots of people that I could very easily call up, or who could call me up—or text, given my terror of the phone—to do something, but with whom that never happens. We live in the same city or nearly, but our connection is watching one another live through the mediation of a computer screen. There were also quite a few people with whom I have talked about how great it would be to get together if ever we are in the same city; when that opportunity has actually presented itself, we have seen neither hide nor hair of the other. Sometimes the fault has been mine, sometimes theirs. We’ve been within blocks of one another, but after a decade of talk, ignored each other.

At least one of the people I had “unfriended” then engaged me in conversation about how that felt. And, I thought, we don’t do anything, you don’t care about our lack of connection, but somehow when we can’t look at each others postings, there is the moment when the pain is too great. The way it was put was that it was a hit to the ego when our virtual connection ended.

Just this week a friend—not a close friend, but more than an acquaintance—ended his life, though so many of us were witnessing his life through the medium of social media. We were connected, but not connected at all.

I am a bit of a curmudgeon. This is true. But, I remember when being a friend meant a good deal more than liking a status or leaving a snarky comment or even a clever one. I miss that. And, I sort of wonder why we let Facebook take that from us. Or, why we gave it up. But, for the most part, we did. And, that makes me sad.

I should say that a lot of things make me sad. I have basically two states: sad and lonely. And, Facebook feeds both of them. Seeing what people are doing without me doesn’t make me feel happier or more connected. Is this a problem with me? Absolutely. But, I doubt that I am alone. 

Anyway, I am reminded that Facebook makes me sadder and lonelier than I would be if no one were connecting with me—and I am pretty sure that without it, my phone and email won’t be full of messages. So, starting this weekend, I am going to be deleting most of my connections. But, this doesn’t mean in any way that those connections don’t matter to me. Instead, it is largely because those connections do matter. But I want real connections—like Aristotle, I believe that friendship is essential to the good life, but ersatz friendship is no more friendship than masturbation is sex.

I am going to be keeping family; professional connections; people from high school, college, and grad school; and people who live on other continents or far, far away. (Were it not for them, I would delete the whole thing.) I hope that I will still have contact with the rest of you. But, I’d really like that contact to occur in person. Even if it doesn’t, you will be in my thoughts. My email will stay the same, my phone number will be the same, my blog will still be here, and I will still be on Twitter at @tylerhower. But, Facebook will be mostly gone. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

When a right becomes a duty

I've a had few conversations recently that have come around to the question of whether we want to or are going to have children.  When I answer that we aren't going to, I get a number of responses—and so does the other half—but responses that seem to circle around either the idea that it is selfish for us not to have children or that our lives don't have much meaning if we don't prepare another generation.

At the ends of these conversations, I always end up feeling bad, but not because I think I am selfish as much as bad because that's the way I am pictured. And, because it is now coming to be an assumption that a couple that has been together for a long time has to have children.

The recent dustup about Niall Ferguson's comments on Keynes' supposed lack of concern about the future because of his homosexuality—for a good discussion, see this—has got me thinking more about this.

It is strange to me that so many gay men have begun to drink deeply the arguments offered by social conservatives that a relationship is only of value if it is a relationship that has children. Or, maybe it isn't strange; maybe it just saddens me. 

To be clear, I think it is great if people—gay or straight—want to have children and I like children. I cannot wait to see our new nephew this summer. But it doesn't follow from that that I must want them for myself. To see value in something is not the same thing as believing that I must, therefore, have it. That would be a kind of selfishness, it seems.

There are many reasons why we aren't going to be having children. Whatever the evolutionary-psychologist types may like to say, my genes just don't want to reproduce. Or, if they do, they aren't doing a very good job of recruiting my conscious mind. I don't particularly care whether my line continues—it has some spotty parts—and my brother-in-law is taking care of the other family's line. Both of us are involved very heavily in the formation of the next generations; we do care about the future and the people of that future. We just don't particularly care that our genes continue or that we raise one or more members for that future. 

There is the very large issue that, especially if what is desired is a biological child, the cost of the necessary arrangements and procedures puts it beyond members of our economic class. When you get paid to think, you don't get paid very much. That's why the characters on shows like The New Normal aren't lecturing about non-realist conceptions of the self or strategies of resistance to military governments. 

But, perhaps what makes me saddest is the notion—a bad one and one actually seen by Keynes—that a life cannot have value in itself. That is, there seems to be some idea that a life only has value in its production of another generation. But of course—and here I am paraphrasing Keynes, channelling a little bit of Nietzsche, and expressing the sort of old-style conservativism that values the here and now—the value of that generation would only be in its production of another. And, the value of that generation only in its production of another. There is no value, because it is always just over the next generational hillock. But, that's just nihilism.

I don't think I live my life only for myself and I don't think it makes me selfish not to want my own children—I also don't see how it could be selfishness, since that implies looking only at my interests and ignoring the interests of another, but who is this other with interests?—but I also don't see how what should be a right (the having and raising of children by those who want and will love them) has somehow turned into a duty. 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

On the cruelty of love

Rhode Island today became the tenth State to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Before the ink had dried on the law, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence had issued a letter to the faithful of Rhode Island. In it, he reiterates the Church's teaching on homosexuality ("same sex attraction" is one of the ickiest phrases possible and I think that is its intent) both as orientation and as action. He also reiterates that the Church loves its homosexual members. The Catechism itself says that there must be no unjust discrimination against homosexuals.

But this is a strange sort of love. On the one hand, the Church teaches that all homosexual activity is "intrinsically disordered," while recognizing that for most gay men and lesbians their orientation is deep-seated (even though the inclination is itself is, in the words of the Catechism "objectively disordered" and "a trial").

The story is that there is a large group of people for whom this inclination is deep-seated—I think, the Catechism almost wants to say "innate," but for the deep problem this causes and which is not actually avoided—but that this inclination means that they are disordered, broken, at the very center of their affective being. (Since this disorder has been around in almost all cultures through time, one might almost think that God gives some people this inclination.) But, having told them this, and essentially recognizing that there is no way that this brokenness can be fixed and they may never act in any way on this afflictive inclination—and, according to the last pope, they are so broke that they may not be ordained—we nonetheless love them.

The love that tells me how horrible I am and then pulls me to its bosom is, in many ways, worse than the hate that just tells me I'm horrible. And, really, once you've taken this position, what discrimination would be unjust? Given the intrinsic disorder, wouldn't almost all discrimination be just?

It is a hard and ever harder thing to even think of this as part of my cultural identity, but to lose it is to lose so much.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Questioning Dennett's narrative self

I've spent part of this week thinking about Daniel Dennett's account of the self as narrative and, at the moment, am reading Roger Scruton's The Face of God, where he deals with accounts of the self as a perspective, inspired by Thomas Nagel.

Thinking about this recalls a puzzle that I have long had about Dennett's account of both the self—to which I am sympathetic—and consciousness—less so. Roughly, he believes that the self is a narrative—a story or a web spun out of words. I like this idea. It is supposed to be authorless, that is, he does not think there is some particular faculty or authority or homunculus that is putting the narrative together. I can understand this idea. It is as if it were a story being written by committee or better one written as a party game, with each person adding a line or two. 

But, here I start to get confused. The narrative self, like the web of a spider or the dam of a beaver or the bower of a male bower bird, is supposed to be part of a survival strategy. It is spun as a presentation and representation of my____ (I hesitate to say "self") to make sense of my____ and to make my____ understood to others. This mutual understanding is necessary for success: for planning, for cooperation, for mating, etc. 

But this means that there is something that must understand it. What is this thing? It seems that it has to be a thing with a perspective. I can understand that the system—like the termites in a termite mound, says Dennett—creates the narrative without any guiding intelligence, but it presents the narrative to something. And, it seems that it is this something for which the narrative is the strategy.

Again, he compares the narrative self to a blip on a radar screen: a representation of the location of a boat that allows the captain of the boat to steer it successfully. But, in that sort of case, it is the boat (and the captain, really) who matter, not the blip. The blip is a tool for the captain in his project of protecting the boat. If the narrative is a strategy, isn't the thing for which it is the strategy, i.e., the audience to whom the narrative is presented the thing about which we are concerned? And, since, unlike the case of the termite mound, there is a perspective had by that thing, isn't that really what we mean by the self?

And, once we are there, why not think whatever has the perspective is also the selector of the bits of the narrative, the thing that decides to include and exclude items from it—as he thinks the narrative is edited but without an editor? Why not just then go to a full blown self?

There are, I think, similar issues in the account of a non-centralized consciousness.