Racism and Bargain-Bin Philosophy

The best explanation that I’ve ever read of how philosophy affects our everyday life was written by author Rachel Jankovich. She writes,

“Worldly philosophers and thinkers have always been something like the high-fashion designers who live in a sort of alternative reality. They make unbelievably stupid outfits for unbelievably tall and harsh looking people with show-poodle hair, wearing cinder-block shoes and pants made out of an inner tube. They do all this while praising each other as stunning and innovative and talented and surprising, taking pictures of everything and putting enormous price tags on it all. Meanwhile, most of the normal world would laugh at what they are doing. But what they are doing, however foolish it may be, is actually driving what we will all be doing next year.”  (You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It)

That’s why there is a lot of value in taking the things we believe and finding out from what philosophy it stems from. Push the way of thinking to its logical end and you will find the extreme version of the idea, which is likely where the idea trickled down from. Now this is helpful, because when you are talking to someone who doesn’t know where their philosophy trickled down, they likely also won’t know the logical end to their philosophy. Then you make them eat it. The fancy latin term for this type of reasoning is called reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity).

For example, some people argue that abortion should be legal because a fetus is not self aware. A fetus doesn’t know that it exists, the argument goes, therefore what is lost if we terminate the pregnancy. Who knows besides the mother and the doctor? But where did that trickle down from?

Enter our good friend Peter Singer. He is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He also ties self awareness with the right to life, and is upstream from a lot of this thinking.  He writes in his book, Practical Ethics, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons… the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” Most people would be horrified. But they don’t realize that this is the logical end of their position; and in a real sense, its logical beginning.

So, how does this help us navigate our current racial waters? First, it is helpful to understand that people are using “racism” in two different senses, and this is why it is so hard for people to get along. The first definition is the most commonsensical one, and the one I think is most compatible with the Bible. I will call it the traditional definition of racism. Under this view, racism is thinking one race is superior to another, or disliking someone because of their race. Why is this type of racism wrong? This type of racism is an affront to God because all races have been made in the image of God and therefore are due dignity and respect.

The second type of racism is based in what is called Critical Theory and will be referred to as Critical Theory Racism. Critical Theory is a philosophy that is grounded in power dynamics. In Critical theory, there are the oppressed and the oppressors. Further, there are power structures by which the oppressed are kept down. So, a non-(traditional)racist white person, by virtue of being white is still part of the “power structure” and still the oppressor. They may benefit from the power structures in their favor or they may have unknowingly committed “microagressions” that they did not know about, This is likely why we see the public apologies we see from individual whites who did not do anything to George Floyd.

Now, because we are so far downstream from critical theory, people will likely not articulate this, nor will they fully hold to Critical Theory Racism. If you asked them what racism meant, they would probably give you the traditional definition of racism. This is because I think that most people would push back against a theory that holds a particular person accountable simply because of his race. This is where the reducio is so powerful in conversations. Push these premises to their logical ends, find out what people are thinking. If someone says that if you do not speak out against racism, you are complicit, ask them if that is the case with all injustices; if someone says that you cannot speak to an issue because you are not the right color, ask them if a single woman can speak out against spousal abuse; and if someone says we need to get rid of the police force because some are corrupt, ask them what we are to do with politicians. The point is not a zinger, the point is to find what they believe, and guide them back to the truth.

So with these issues, let’s think deeply, confront lovingly, and hold some feet to the fire.