What’s Wrong with A Sophisticated Racism (or Nationalism)?

I had a conversation with a sophisticated racist, or perhaps nationalist.  He belonged to an ethnic group that he believed had a special aptitude that gave it unique importance in the ultimate scheme of human life.  It was possible to join his group, so he preferred to call it a nation rather than a race, nevertheless belonging to it for many of its members was a matter of genetics.  What’s wrong with my view? he wanted to know.  Aren’t you just succumbing to the modern prejudice that everybody has to be the same?  Aren’t you enslaved to your own dogma, that history happens by means of individuals rather than groups?  Why couldn’t it just be the case that Nation A has special admirable qualities?  He was “sophisticated” because he didn’t claim to believe his group was “better” than any other group — he just thought they excelled along a particular, important axis.

I have had a good liberal education and usually it’s assumed that racism and nationalism are bad.   Moralizers appeal to evil regimes that have used these ideologies to justify themselves — Nazi Germany, the antebellum American South — and to the offensiveness of being on the receiving end of someone else’s group amour propre.   Yet on the other hand many good regimes and groups have thought they were better than everybody else at least along a particular axis.  Weren’t some of them right?  Weren’t the ancient Romans actually better at law and road-building than the ancient Carthaginians for example?  Didn’t the Athenians have a knack for philosophy?

And even if historically they weren’t, couldn’t they have been?   There might be an alien planet in which the dominant intelligent species consists of a number of sub-species of which some are better at one thing and some at something else.   Maybe that planet is full of comparatively agile Lesser Pandas and comparatively majestic Greater Pandas.  Maybe my friend was right that his group were just like that — the Greater Pandas of Planet Earth.  Even if all men are cousins, couldn’t the cousins of one father be good at one thing and the cousins of another father be good at something else?

So I felt the conversation had given me an interesting job: find a non-question begging, non-sanctimonious justification for universal humanism, where universal humanism is the negation of this kind of ethnic or racist boosterism.

Let’s say universal humanism is the doctrine that states:

For all deeply important human traits — spirituality, worthiness, goodness, the ability to perceive beauty, the ability to care about your family, the ability to be part of nature, love — the ethnic group that two human beings belong to is not important for judging whether they differ according to these deeply human traits.  This definition punts on the question of what a human being is, but it says if you want to know what God is or what beauty is or what justice is, you would be wrong to show a preference for asking an Englishman rather than a Javanese.  We can also, obviously disagree upon what belongs on our list of the deeply important human traits.  Clearly speaking English is not one according to this definition, or being tall, since human subgroups do differ along these axes.

What could the argument for universal humanism possibly be?

For me it stems from the empirical observation that I have always learned to understand these human traits and come closer to them myself has come from encountering people from different sub-groups.  In reality I have learned about God, being a member of a family, beauty, courage, justice and so on from Jews and Christians, Asians and Europeans and Africans, the young and the old, straight and queer.

Therefore as a pragmatic maxim I won’t listen to anyone who will restrict my ability to learn and acquire information from different people.

This is an egoistic justification. If you want to know what most makes you deeply human, and thus if you want to learn who you are and what you’re about, you would be ill-advised to ascribe to racism or nationalism.

It’s probably true that universal humanism reduces the probability of a globe-destroying war too.  But I wanted to come up with a justification for the view that was not too preachy.


14 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with A Sophisticated Racism (or Nationalism)?

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Dunno, it seems to me that the justification of universal humanism is simple, unless it tries to do too much.

    First, all people, regardless of group membership, have the same basic human dignity and human rights. We owe them certain things and there are other things we may not morally do to them. Whether one thinks it’s because (what is arguably a metaphor) God made them in His image or because they have reflexive self-value (an argument that as far as I know, only I have made), the conclusion is the same. Humanity carries with it certain inherent moral rights.

    Second, many people get confused about group averages. Harvard professors, as a group, have higher IQs than truck drivers as a group; but that doesn’t imply no truck driver has a higher IQ than a Harvard professor. On average, men are taller and stronger than women, but there are many exceptions. And so forth. These are matters of fact, and they do not have any direct moral implications.

    Third, a good moral story — because that’s what moral codes and ethical theories are, *stories* that reflect our human moral intuitions — a good moral story does not assign different human rights to people based on their group membership. I should say “according to me,” because it’s the story *I* tell about morality.

    I must enter a mild dissent from your statement that: “If you want to know what God is or what beauty is or what justice is, you would be wrong to show a preference for asking an Englishman rather than a Javanese.”

    If I want to know what those things are, then I’m asking for a story, and the story I want is *my* story, the story told by my own group and civilization. To get that story, I should ask a member of my own group, whatever it happens to be. Of course, just as it’s helpful to be well-read in literature, it’s helpful to know lots of other people’s stories about important issues. The Bhagavad-Gita is not my story, nor is the Koran, but I know them — albeit not as well or as intimately as people for whom the stories are “their own.”

  2. Mikey says:

    I don’t think there’s a problem with anyone thinking that one group of people are better than another at something, even if it’s something really important and human, but the problem comes with identity. If you say “Jews are better comedy writers than other people” then I might have a glance down the list of names of comedy writers I admire and say “Oh well, yes, there are more Jews in there than you’d expect if there weren’t some sort of bias here.” But then you might say “I’m a Jew. And Jews are better than other people at things” and that starts to sound a bit nasty.

    I think if your friend had said his group had a unique importance in life as part of a long list of other groups which also have unique importance in different ways, it doesn’t come across as unpleasant.

    Here are things my groups are good at: taking over the world (humans); reasoning (humans); inventing games (English); swimming (white people); making cakes (Church of England); taking over the world (Christians); taking over the world (English). It’s quite easy for me not to be very nationalistic or racist. My groups are all a bit bland.

      • General response to the whole thing, followed by a specific response to this one remark, re blandness…
        My father was a Jewish chauvinist. He did hold those stereotypical beliefs that, while Jews were not necessarily better at everything than everybody, and while individuals varied, he took comfort in believing that on the whole, Jews just were better… maybe only a little, maybe a lot. And he collected to his breast some of that feeling of superiority to make himself feel better in his many moments of refugee anxiety.
        But he never took statistics. I did, and just thinking about normal distributions or bell curves really takes the shine off any sentimental feeling of group distinctions. I mean, take male/female upper body strength, for instance. Imagine you could boil it down to a single number. Take the average for all women, and mark your X axis, then take the average for all men and also mark that on your X axis. The male number will be higher. But note that these are averages. Now if your Y axis is number of people, draw the actual plot – the bell has its peak at that number you marked, and then it descends gracefully on either side. There will be significant overlap – there will be quite a few women with greater upper-body strength than quite a few men. Now, if the numbers we marked were quite far apart, and the overlap small, I might be confident that I could challenge any random woman at arm-wrestling and have an excellent chance of winning. But if the overlap is greater, my chance of victory shrinks. My ability to stereotype women as weak and men as strong evaporates. When I meet any particular individual, my preconceptions are less likely to be to correct the more overlap there is with those bell curves.
        Since, without very good data collection I can’t know the real shape of those bell curves, and most of the time the criteria people like to boast about are very hard to quantify at all, much less collect real data on (stuff like “talent”, “intelligence”), the painful fact is you really can’t know as much as you’d like about the truth of these assertions, even when making claims about large groups, much less about any given individual.
        Comforting conclusions about one’s group characteristics are simple storytelling abetted by confirmation bias.
        As to the thing about “bland” Christians, I’m a half-Jew from NYC. A good friend is a Jew from Sioux City, born in the 40s. She really does believe that by and large, Protestants are bland. They are the majority population, they share a smug satisfied belief system; she feels they don’t question their majoritarian power. It takes a minority person, an outsider, to observe them and remark on their absurdities – hence the Jewish comedy writer, the Jewish photographer, and so on. My being from NY, I barely met any Protestants, certainly very few who claimed it out loud. Many more Catholics, with their much more dramatic bloodthirsty crucifixion scenes and rituals and confessions and so on. So I never thought Christians were bland. If I had been from the Midwest, I might feel differently.

      • The thesis that there exist significant traits between groups such that for all members of group A and for all members of group B, A is higher along that trait than B is a straw man. Even a Nazi does not have to believe that there is not a single Jew who is more moral than a single depraved Aryan for example. It is enough to be racist to claim that statistically the average Aryan is more moral than the average Jew. In other words the racist argues if you need a moral person you will be rational to pick a random Aryan rather than a random Jew. This is the thesis that I’m denying in this article.

      • Unless you can quantify something, saying that one person has “more” of it than another is meaningless. “More moral” is nonsense – I’m sure people say it all the time, but people say a lot of nonsensical things.

  3. This doesn’t directly meet your requirements, but here’s an argument for why all “groups” of humans are necessary:

    Can there be a group of humans that is better than all other groups at every possible thing that exists or will exists? No. Such a group would nearly meet the definition of a god and therefore not be considered human. (There are also scientific reasons to believe such a group couldn’t exist, e.g. a group that’s very physically powerful is, due to anatomy, likely not to be good at fitting into small spaces.)

    Once we accept that no single group can be the best at everything, we must accept that multiple groups of humans are necessary in order to assemble a supergroup of humans that are the best at everything.

    Furthermore, because the list of things that a human can be best at is infinite, we can’t quantify whether a group of humans is better than another group by counting the things they’re best at.

    Therefore all human groups are equally necessary.

    • If someobdy tells me that members of Group G has a better sense of justice than all other groups, I consider that racist, even if they don’t maintain that Group G is better than other groups at every possible human trait. That’s because justice is so important.

  4. N.S. Palmer says:

    ” … the ethnic group that two human beings belong to is not important for judging whether they differ according to these deeply human traits.”

    By the way, that’s entirely consistent with the existence of group differences. If the traits are normally distributed, then the problem with talking about group averages is that they tell us nothing reliable about individual members of the groups.

    • that doesn’t follow. if groups differ statistically then it would be important. For example: East Asians are statistically less good at digesting milk than Europeans are. It’s not true that there are no East Asians who can digest milk or that there are no Europeans who can’t, but the odds of being lactose intolerant if you are East Asian are higher than if you are European. Consequently if I want to hire somebody to teach me about cooking with milk it would be better, all things being equal, to take a bet on an East asian as compared to a European. The person I was responding to in this post claimed that something similar was true regarding his ethnic group and spirituality. He did not say there were no spiritual people outside of his ethnic group or no materialistic people within his ethnic group. He did claim that if you needed a spiritual person then your odds would be better going with his ethnic group. I deny that this is true. What I’m claiming is that for deeply human traits that is not the case.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        You’re right, of course, but I’m not sure how much we really disagree. You caught my mistake in saying that group averages tell us “nothing reliable.” I suppose the correct thing would be to say that they tell us nothing “morally relevant,” for precisely the reason you cited: “for deeply human traits that is not the case.” Populations differ in various ways, but all human beings are moral persons and they all have the same amount: in statistics, that’s called a “uniform distribution.”

        To take my go-to extreme example, even a war criminal has basic human rights that we should respect, because in so doing — or not — we define ourselves as much or more than we define the war criminal. That doesn’t exclude shooting the b*stard, but only after due process and a fair trial, and even then, not with avoidable cruelty: that defines us if we do it.

  5. The MAD Jewess says:

    People naturally segregate.
    Asians hang w/ Asians. Indians, Indian. Mexicans, Mexicans, Blacks, Blacks.
    Only whites MUST not segregate, they must not be a people, ever.
    Or thats racist…
    It’s getting old and tiring to deny only white people of a nation type identity.
    People should be allowed to do what they want to do without everyone telling them what to do.

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