Racism, 1 (long)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Tue, 19 Mar 1996 16:24:47 +0900

I would like to reply to John McCreery's posting on March 15th
titled "Davenport on Taiwan <long>." First off, I would like to
say that JM's discussion in this posting of his views on the
situation in Taiwan was insightful, reflecting no doubt the
fact that he lived in Taiwan and has endeavored to keep up
with affairs in Taiwan even after he left for other pastures.
In general, although, I often find myself disagreeing with him
concerning various points he expresses in our discussions, I
admire both the extent of his knowledge in a wide range of fields
and his gift of expression in the English language. However, I
cannot not let pass his comment in the final paragraph in
"Davenport on Taiwan <long>" that his charge that I was racist
was justified, and that he was entitled to use the crude language
he did to express this point.

I feel that his insinuation that I was somehow racist (an
insinuation expressed by attributing the crude "'They're only
*racial epithet deleted*. *expletive deleted* 'em.'" to people of
my ilk) was a step backwards from what had been an interesting
dialogue/debate. And I don't "buy" his justification for his attack
on my character: "I deliberately chose to use the language I did to
impress my readers with the seriousness of my feelings in this
matter." If JM wished to impress his readers with the seriousness
of his feelings, rational critique of the deficiencies in my point of
view (I'm sure there are many) would have been sufficient. As it
stands, by making the unfounded charge of racism I believe he
lessened his credibility as an intelligent person with interesting
and important things to say.

Actually, what surprises me in all this is that I'm sure that JM
himself knows that rational critique is more effective as a style
of argumentation than attacks on the character of one's opponent.
Also, as his writing usually evidences, if rhetorical devices intended
to achieve some effect on readers are to be used, a more
sophisticated language will be more persuasive (particularly
considering the nature of the "audience" on Anthro-list). That JM
has strong, even passionate, views on the relationship between
Taiwan and China is from my point of view all the more reason for
engaging in logically rigorous argumentation and sophisticated tools
of persuasion.

Of course, though, in regard to his stubborn refusal to admit any
wrongdoing in his charge of racism, I might be partially responsible
myself. I myself engaged in a little bit of mocking in saying: "I
suggest that you look in your soul to see why you have used this
rather serious charge of racism in our discussion. And while you're
at it, why don't you clean up your language." I am not sure how
effective this perlocutionary act or rhetorical ploy was in fact, but
it was intended to be as condescending as possible (although
naturally this intention was concealed in the air of moral
righteousness with which I seemed to make this "suggestion").
In other words, if JM wanted to play rhetorical hardball, I would
try to match or exceed him. And here I would like to go into a
little detail about how I deliberately attempted to create a retort
which would pack as much condescension and mocking into it as
possible, without however descending to the level of crude language.
The reader, though, will have to judge who was the more successful
rhetorician, JM or myself.

Here I will delineate more or less what my thinking process was
in constructing my retort. I will make all the concealed intentions
of my perlocutionary act transparent. "I feel displeasure that you
called me a racist. I think this was an unfair charge. I also feel
angry because of the way you implied I was a racist by attributing
crude language to me. Thus, I want to treat you in the same fashion
that you have done me by belittling your character. To do this, I will
first treat you a person who lacks self-knowledge. And I will couch
my intention to treat you as a person who lacks self-knowledge as a
suggestion; in other words, as if I am saying this for our own (and not
merely your own) good, I will "suggest" (and not merely "advise" you)
that you should look into your own soul. The word "soul" is perhaps
old-fashioned, but at least it suggests here that we have a moral
problem, a deficiency of morality. Second, I want to treat you like a
child who has in a temper tantrum used dirty language. Thus I will
say as a form of casual advice ("Why don't you . . . ?) that you should
not use dirty language. However, to increase the force of my "advice"
I will not use the negative construction "not use dirty language" but
the positive one "clean up your language" since the latter implies
that you have somehow been shirking a responsibility to do
something (the former would merely imply that you were ignoring
a prohibition, something which would provoke sympathy perhaps).
Also by using "your language" I imply that the language you use is
habitually dirty and crude. Concerning my use of "why don't you,"
while at one level it can be considered a form of advice (and a
condescending form of advice because it is too casual for the
situation), at another level it can be considered a form of insult
in that it implies that the addressee is too stupid to understand
that he or she is supposed to do something (e.g. "Why don't you shut
up?"). In this latter kind of usage, the meaning bearing predicate,
in this case "clean up your language" retains an imperative force.
Thus, I will sarcastically order you to "clean up your language," but
you will not be able to directly respond to this because this
meaning is concealed in the words. Also, by this "clean up your
language" I hope to have readers also think of the expression "clean
up your act" which it resembles, this latter expression being used
in regard to people who are in need of major changes in their
lifestyle. Finally, as an afterthought, although readers won't know
this unless I tell them like I am doing here, I will insert "And while
you're at it" in between the bits about the lack of self-knowldge
and the childish language, which will intensify the sense in which
"clean up your language" is a put down: not only are you unable to
understand your own soul, but you also forget the simple thing of
using "clean," "nice" language apparently because for some stupid
reason you prefer "dirty," "crude" language. Finally, because "And
while you're at it" is often used to signal exasperation, I want to
make it appear here that although I don't really want to get
emotional, I can't help but let some of my (justified) irritation
spill out which I'm sure my readers will understand and
sympathize with because I'm only human after all."

Again I have no way of knowing how effective my retort was,
whether it achieved some or all of the perlocutionary effects I
intended it to have. And in some senses, my recourse to fighting
fire with fire was as childish (I believe) as JM's initial move to
label me a racist. Hopefully, though this whole incident will
prove educational in making us all more aware of the problems
associated with certain rhetorical uses of language.

Here I would like to move along to the second point I wish to
discuss which concerns how we are to define racism. JM in
"Davenport on Taiwan <long>" defines racism as: "any claim
whatsoever that people should be treated in a certain way because
they were born into a certain group is, ipso facto, racist." No
doubt, even JM would probably not agree with this definition if
he chose to examine it with the analytical skill and attention for
detail that he usually brings to bear in his writing. Thus, I feel that
he must have been in a hurry when he wrote this definition, and that
in his intention to frame this definition was too much caught up in
his desire to justify his calling me a racist.

To my mind, what makes racism racism is not that we treat people
who are born in different places differently. People born in
different places will in some ways naturally be different. This is
because of the influence of culture and language. For example,
because JM is born in the U.S. I assume that he knows American
English. My manner of talking to him will be different than my
manner of talking to say a Japanese person who even if they know
English will not have the same fluency. Or, to take another example,
if I were to meet JM in person on friendly terms I am sure that we
would shift soon into a more casual style of conversation as
Americans like to do even among non-intimates. On the other hand,
in talking to a Japanese person it would take a long time before we
could make this shift (if we could indeed ever make this shift), unless
of course we were talking in English and the Japanese person was
familar with the cultural style that people born in the U.S. have of
very rapidly shifting to a more casual style of encounter.

As an ordinary speaker of a natural language, my feeling of what
constitutes racism is based on my interpretation of the other
person's intentions. If a person hates, fears, sees as a threat, looks
down on, etc. people of other ethnic or racial groups, then that
person is a racist. On the other hand, if a person, while
recognizing that different ethnic or racial groups can look, act,
think or feel differently, does not see anything particularly hateful,
fearful or threatening about this, and instead welcomes this kind
of difference (or at least does not pay it any undue attention), then
this person is not a racist.

What makes racism, though, such a serious problem is that this
kind of intentional analysis of racism has its problems. Having
no intention to be racist, we can base our conduct on racist
attitudes which we pick up from our environment; in other
words, without really thinking about it, we treat different ethnic
or racial groups based on the prejudicial stereotypes which exist
within our own racial or ethnic group. Anthropology, naturally, has
a positive role to play in this problem because anthropology provides
us with a way to acquire non-stereotyped knowledge of the diverse
groups of people which inhabit the globe (as well as helping us to
question the idea that there is really something called "race," since
all races overlap).

That, in a rather simplistic way, is my notion of racism and/or
ethnic prejudice. And I do not want to belabor my own nonexpert
views. Rather I wish to look at the work of someone who knows a
lot more than I do about this important issue. This is the scholar
Teun A. van Dijk. Let us look at some of the things he says on this
topic in his book, _Communicating Racism: Ethnic Prejudice in
Thought and Talk_, Sage Publications, 1987.

End Part I