Friday, September 16, 2005

The Human Race

The debate over race relations in New Zealand has gotten quite polarized. As a result, I find myself thinking that everyone has got it wrong. The racist Right wish Maori didn't exist. The racist Left want to elevate Maori to the superior status of a natural aristocracy, on the basis that their ancestors have been here longer than everyone else's. I don't know which is worse. Fortunately I don't have to decide, because there is an alternative, and that is to overcome these pernicious and restrictive binaries.

Both sides assume that Maori and Pakeha are two separate peoples. The multicultural/separatist Left wants to entrench this divide, whereas the assimilationist Right wants to blot half of it out. I think both positions are harmful to our country. As I've argued before, we need to recognize the third way, of reciprocal cultural integration, which is naturally evolving in our society. No Right Turn notes that we are becoming a Pacific nation, and quotes Colin James:
Maori culture, supplemented by Pacific Polynesian culture, has begun over the past five years to alter "mainstream" culture and the way we live our lives.

We are moving beyond the tokenism of the past 160 years. The new All Blacks' haka - which could do with an English phrase or two to be truly "national" - is a prime example.

This transformation is still in the very early stages, and in any case will modify, not blanket out, European cultural traditions and ways of life. But over the next 25 years, in part driven by demographics, it will make us a Pacific nation, not just dwellers in the Pacific - it will Pacific-ate us.

The inadequacy of the binary model is reinforced by Anne Salmond:
We have had 200 years of swapping with each other, genes, language, and so by now, the binary model is fictional... People get married and end up with a foot in both camps - that should be a basis on which we go forward together, rather than seeing the Treaty as an instrument which cuts us in half as a nation.

My position has two core implications for policy:

1) We should not discriminate between individuals based on their race. That's racism, pure and simple. It doesn't suddenly become okay when a pure-hearted liberal does it.

2) We should acknowledge and promote Maori culture, but in a non-exclusive fashion, which sees the culture as belonging to all New Zealanders, no matter their genetic makeup.

We should look forward to the day when the word 'race' can be expunged from our vocabulary. It is a useless concept, an utterly arbitrary way of categorizing people. We are a nation of individuals, bound together in various ways. The common focus on race blinds us to the complexity of individuals, and the multiplicity of ways in which they could be categorized. I am young, middle-class, white, male, a student, philosopher, atheist, blogger, brother, son, and so forth. Why focus on race? Why is that an especially important category? Whenever I come across a race-based distinction (such as separate Maori seats in parliament), I wonder: why not make similar distinctions based on sex, or age, or religion? Hell, why not hair colour?

Imagine two individuals who are almost exactly alike, but for their genes. One has some Maori ancestry, and the other doesn't. Apart from that, they are practically indistinguishable: same social class, same skills and abilities, same values. How could you possibly justify treating the two differently in any respect whatsoever? Race is a difference that makes no difference.

Leftists commonly appeal to historical injustices. Maori people were harmed then, so Maori people should be compensated now, you argue. But this presupposes that race is a relevant category. We might just as well say that black-haired people were harmed then, so black-haired people should be compensated now. That's clearly absurd reasoning. The link between past victims and present claimants is too tenuous: the mere fact that they share hair-colour just isn't relevant. But why is biological race - mere genes - any more significant than hair colour?

So, we should aim to overcome racial separatism, especially in our laws. I agree with the National party about that much, at least. Unfortunately, National's actual policies - e.g. using white votes to abolish Maori seats - are likely to be disastrously counterproductive, and simply serve to aggravate racial tensions. What we really need is for Maori to voluntarily abandon the path of separatism. If I may wax poetic for a moment: We should invite them back into the mainstream -- or, rather, the "braided river" that we've become. Let our waters mingle, and our people too. When the wounds of history have healed, we will greet the sunrise together: not as two peoples, but one.

Only the Left could credibly make such an offer. The question is whether they want to. Romantics want to preserve 'the Other' as such, which requires separatism and special recognition for the chosen ones of indigenous blood. They are to be set apart from the decadent colonial 'West', and recognized for their moral purity, historical priority, and harmonious connection to the Land.

This is the pernicious ideology we have to overcome. Leftists needs to recognize that race has no intrinsic impact on who you are as an individual. We need to embrace Maori culture and make it accessible to all New Zealanders, rather than standing it on a pedestal to idolize from afar. Finally, we need to recognize that conservatives are "culturally insecure" for a reason: the separatists among us keep implying that Pakeha are somehow less authentic New Zealanders! This offensive rhetoric has got to stop. We are not British colonialists. We are native New Zealanders too. So please, show some respect.

19 comments:

  1. Nice post - you give essays a good name.

    1) On discrimination. In this blog, and in a previous one, you appear to say something like this: different groups of people are either treated in the same way, or they are treated inequally. Is this is what you are saying? If it is (and even if it is not) it seems to me to be a little simplistic. Can two different groups not be treated differently, and yet still be treated equally? By "differently" I mean a difference of kind (perhaps different groups of things do not desire the same things, and therefore should be given different things) rather than of quantity (ie. giving some more money, and others less). I see that this is problematic (how can one equate two things of different kinds?) but I think it is more plausible than the discrimination/equality binary.


    2) In a previous blog, you drew a very clear line between seeing people as individuals, and seeing them as members of groups ("You are seeing the individuals as mere tokens of a type ("African Americans") rather than the people that they really are.") This also seems a little suspect. Adjectives only mean something if they have been used to describe something before (don't they?); therefore, any description of a person is, effectively, an act of identifying the similarity between that person and the persons to whom the adjectives have been applied in the past.
    In saying that, you seem to revise your position in this post ("I am young, middle-class, white, male, a student, philosopher, atheist, blogger, brother, son, and so forth. Why focus on race?")

    3) I agree that race is over-emphasised, but I think that you might have gone too far in the opposite direction here.
    In particular, here: "Why is that an especially important category? Whenever I come across a race-based distinction (such as separate Maori seats in parliament), I wonder: why not make similar distinctions based on sex, or age, or religion? Hell, why not hair colour?" It is not completely silly to make distinctions based on race, is it? I do not think it is simply a matter of genes: surely a persons race makes them more likely to hold certain views, practise certain customs, honour different versions of history, make certain art, eat certain food and have different goals in life. How much more likely is impossible to say exactly, of course, but I think the likelihood is greater than you suggest.
    Further, we *do* make quite reasonable distinctions based on things such as sex and age, (even if it does not mean giving the elderly extra seats-drinking ages? pensions? maternity leave?), not because government or society is unfair but because they can see that different kinds of people require different services, perform different tasks, and have different abilities. As in (1), different treatment is not necessarily unfair treatment.


    4)We should of course also be wary of forcing cultural uniformity, or to artificially hurry a cultural process simply because there is already a trend in a certain direction: we may be a braided river, but we do not want to become a canal.

    I think these are mostly minor quibbles, though.

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  2. Hi Mike, thanks for the thoughtful comment. To respond to your points in turn:

    1) It's okay to treat people differently if there is a reasonable basis for doing so. But I just don't see how race is such a basis.

    2) I stand by the clear-cut distinction: I think my abstract/concrete post makes the distinction clear. While it's true that I have something in common with other brown-haired people, namely, that we all have brown hair, this doesn't provide any concrete basis to think that I will also be similar to them in other ways. Also, I'm not sure why you think this post 'revises' that position. My list was to illustrate how very many different 'groups' each individual can potential be categorized into, so to focus on any one such property to the detriment of others, will necessarily give a very incomplete picture.

    3) I agree that there are correlations between biological race and other properties. But they are just correlations, not deep-rooted causes or explanations. There are other properties that are more worth focusing on, e.g. economic class, culture, etc.

    Again, I agree with you that real differences can justify different treatment. I just deny that biological race is a real (significant) difference.

    4) Agreed.

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  3. In order to strengthen your argument Richard, you need to include more into the concept of race.

    I completely aggree that the the distinction based on biological lines is completely arbitrary. There is where the strength of your argument comes from.

    The problem is, the word race is being used to mean two different things. Assimilationists (for the lack of a less emotive term) see race as a pure fiction based on incorrect biologt. But I think seperatists (again, apologise for un-PC term) see race as broader than biology.

    Culture is also included in the concept of race. Maori people have a seperate value system, seperate language, seperate history, seperate family structure, seperate power networks, seperate support networks and so on. They have a different identity.

    Whether culture is also a misguided fabrication is more difficult proposition.

    I hope that I haven't misrepresented your argument, thought this might give you something to think about in order to beef it up further.

    p.s. The NZBORA 1990 had to struggle very hard with this issue. They ended up disagreeing with you, so now it is legal to 'discriminate' against the majority, as long as it is for the benefit of a particular minority group.

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  4. > Maori people have a separate value system, separate language, separate history, separate family structure, separate power networks

    I disagree. And think this is actually the epitome of racism even if a fairly benign form
    1) Maori have a diverse variety of value systems largely within the spectrum of those carried by white people and Asians. There may be a difference in the average but you might as well say blond haired people have different values to black haired people or brown haired people; there may well be a difference on average but not a particularly useful one.
    The difference you observe is probably mostly a "high culture" difference.

    2) The Maori language is English. Some also speak Maori but it is nonsense to say the "high culture" is the "real" language - the common culture is the real one.

    3) "Separate history" - yes - but that is irrelevant. Your grandchildren should not be burdened with your sins or your glory.

    > separate family structure, separate power networks

    4) Again this asserts the tyranny of culture. I don’t want to be a slave to my culture and I reject some (if not most) aspects of it and embrace some aspects of other cultures. I oppose any assumptions that might prevent me from doing that.

    Anyway the sum of a set of discriminations against the majority is a discrimination against a minority.

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  5. T, culture is conceptually independent from race -- someone of European descent might have more "Maori" values and historical and linguistic knowledge than a biological Maori who grew up in a South Auckland ghetto. (This ties in with Genius' apt comments about "high culture".) The important point is that culture is flexible and non-exclusionary: any New Zealander might use the seabed & foreshore for Maori-style customary purposes. The government could protect Maori culture by ensuring the right to so act; but it is a right that extends to every New Zealander, regardless of their biological descent.

    The alternative is to say that what I'm allowed to do depends on who my parents are. That's mere aristocracy in disguise. It's just wrong.

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  6. (I'm not sure if anyone returns to quaff down the day-old dregs of these comment strings, but I hope so)


    Thanks for the reply Richard - I think we probably agree, and if we do disagree, it is probably largely a result of seeking excessive precision on a matter that is inherently vague. Part of the problem stems from the fact that we simply don't know precisely what "culture" or "value" means, and even if we did have reliable definitions for these terms, I suspect we would have great difficulty gathering the data required to ascertain what the "values" or "culture" of people (or a people) are.


    General comments on your theory of discrimination (“Why Discrimination Is Wrong” and others). These are not really objections, I think, but clarifications. Basically I’m just checking that your instincts agree with mine, and making sure we are not misled by simplifications.

    1) “We ought to care about people for who they are, not for what groups they belong to”. ----- Of course, but governments cannot treat people for exactly who they are. Hell, people go through life with friends that they never quite get to know, and governments cannot be expected to know or respond to every nuance of a persons character. This is why people must, for many purposes, be treated as “tokens of a type.”

    2) “……[You treat me] merely as a token of a type..when individuals are so much more than that.” ------- what you mean, I think, is not that individuals should not be treated as tokens, but that they should be treated as tokens of many types, and not just one type; or, if they are treated as tokens of a single type, then that type should be relevant to the context. (ie. “You are 70. Therefore you deserve a pension” is good, but “You are Maori. Therefore you are likely to have commited this crime.” Is bad) Is that right?

    3) “If you prejudge me, you shrink me as a person, down into your little ‘box’. And that’s insulting.” ------ I think you make slightly dubious use of the connotations of the word “box.” It implies confinement, reduction and oppression, with hints of cages and carrying-cases. I think these connotations are at odds with some (only some) of the meanings of the word “prejudgement.” “Prejudgement” means (I assume) identifying people as part of a larger group, and this is not always a bad thing: to want such belonging, to desire to be part of something bigger, is (it is generally agreed) a deep and ineradicable human impulse, and if “belonging” means anything, it means sharing certain traits with other people – that is, it means being a “token” of a larger “type.” After all, the whole point of having a unified NZ is that we can all fit securely into the “box” of New Zealandness. The problem is not putting people in boxes per se, but in putting people in those boxes that they do not fit in to. I am reasonably sure that you agree with me, but it is good to clarify the point.

    Cheers.

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  7. Yeah, I pretty much agree with you. But I would want to draw a distinction between (A) recognizing that someone belongs to such-and-such a group, but also that there is much more about them that we do not know; and (B) conceiving of them as nothing but a token of a type.

    Although in both cases we can only act on what we know, at least in case A we also recognize our own ignorance. B is quite different in that regard; it treats the group information as providing exhaustive (or at least sufficient) information about the individual.

    Prejudice is not merely "identifying people as part of a larger group". Rather, it consists in assuming that any particular individual will have the stereotypical characteristics of that group. It is this assumption that I think undermines an individual's dignity. (And the unreliability of it is brought out by considering what different results you'd get by generalizing over different groups that the individual belongs to. Suppose Tom is a black professor. Conceiving of Tom as a black person might lead one to predict that he is more likely than most to be a criminal; but conceiving of him as a professor will lead to the opposite conclusion.) Any one group characteristic - especially one as causally impotent as race - will necessarily give a very incomplete picture of the individual.

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  8. "Prejudice is not merely "identifying people as part of a larger group". Rather, it consists in *assuming* that any particular individual will have the stereotypical characteristics of that group."

    I would emphasise *stereotypical", rather than *assuming*, in the second sentence.

    But I think that to go any further in this trajectory would be to go round in circles.

    Cheers,

    Mike.

    PS: I saw somewhere that you had written some fiction. The English department puts out an anthology each year (you may have seen the posters) called "defect perfection." If you think your storie(s) are any good, or if you have written anything that might be relevant to a Cultural anthology (God knows we need a bit of Philosophy in there; and if you don't submit any, I'll have to submit my own efforts) - Fiction?, Linguistics? Aesthetics? (although I haven't found any of that yet, on your blog), then point them out and I'll do the rest.

    It's an annual publication, and although it has a far narrower readership than Canta, it does target a slightly different audience. If nothing else, you'ld get to write more than 500 words.

    PSS: I would be interested in your response to my (very behind-the-times) queries about "Conceptual Nominalism".

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  9. > This is why people must, for many purposes, be treated as “tokens of a type.”

    Ypou may have to but you should try not to certainly try not to do it with the really simple definitions such as race since they are the most likely to cause irrational social divisions which are quite dangerous.

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  10. Thanks for clarifying your position, Richard.

    I agree with you that the concept of race is completely arbitrary, if it is to be based on (non-existent) biological differences.

    Many of your opponents however are using the term culture, which is wider. So, in order to put the nail in the coffin - and get rid of race based policies (by which they're mixing race with culture), you need to illustrate that culture is equally arbitrary. I'll hunt around and try to find some examples of where people have used culture/race interchangably, that way I'll have some basis to what I am saying.

    As something completely offtrack, I don't think aristocracy is "just wrong". It's served many different cultures, nations and peoples well for thousands of years. If it was so obviously wrong, it would have been established, nor would it have remained (I realise I'm confusing might with right, but I saw LOTR - King Aragorn was the true ruler of Gondor, etc. There's some romanticised rightness to it.)

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  11. Richard :
    I think the whole concept of race in your argument is a strawman.

    Your argumentation against the concept of "race" is undeniable; yet largely beside the point.
    The fact that there are cultural differences between those who identify as Maori, and Pakeha New Zealanders, is undeniable. The fact that these differences have been transmitted (while evolving) from people who lived in NZ before colonization from Europe, is undeniable. It is therefore not necessary to acknowledge the concept of "race" when discussing differences and relations beween Maori and Pakeha.

    The fact that Maori are over-represented in prisons, and under-represented in universities, tells us what? Leaving aside the explicitly racist notion that it results from them being born dumber or more violent, it points us to a poor fit with the dominant system, due to historical and cultural baggage on both sides.

    Now, if we are not allowed to make distinctions based on "race", we can make these problems go away very easily : stop collecting race-based statistics. (sounds silly? that's how the French do it...) Lots of brown people in prisons? Not a problem : we're all colour-blind here.

    Hypothetical : Let's say Maori suffer disproportionately from certain medical conditions, because they tend not to access the resources of the health system which are theoretically available to them. A government program which has begun to project resources into Maori communities, taking into account and adapting to the encountered cultural values and practices, is canned by the incoming government because of a brash promise of "no race-based funding"... Discuss.

    I contend that REFUSING to envisage this sort of adaptation of existing systems (noting that these systems are not god-given, but evolved in a certain cultural context) is functionally racist.

    So, when it comes to nuts and bolts, how do you idealists propose to handle such issues?

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  12. > differences between those who identify as Maori, and Pakeha New Zealanders, is undeniable.

    The problem is that there is probably a statistical diference between people with brown hair and people with red hair but we probably won't use that as a reason for determining policy because there will be other traits that have stronger correlations and more meaningful relationships.

    > it points us to a poor fit with the dominant system, due to historical and cultural baggage on both sides.

    Indeed,
    But the problem is that such a culture would rationally have a good with with neolitihic culture (ie the environment in which it was selected) while for example a jewish or chinese culture would have a good fit with a currency/trading baised economy (fairly continuous and currency baised ecconomies - do the mental experiment yourself with any group - you will find it works pretty well). In a sense the choice of such culture is a choice of your standard of living even more than the fit between that culture and your own personal culture.

    > "A government program which has begun to project resources into Maori communities, taking into account and adapting to the encountered cultural values and practices, is canned by the incoming government because of a brash promise of "no race-based funding"... Discuss."

    How on earth could you support that? You would have to can EVERY policy because every policy accidentily helps one race more than another. We would be libiterian in no time.

    > So, when it comes to nuts and bolts, how do you idealists propose to handle such issues?

    Basicaly you do a survey of al the people in prison and figure out how to "fix" "prisoners" if they are 50% maori then so be it.
    this is not only fairer but probably also more effective than just looking at the maori (or white) people in prisons and helping/punishing them.

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  13. Yes, simply put, we should look into the real causes of disadvantage (possibly including cultural practices, etc.) and do whatever is necessary to ameloriate them.

    If race happens to be correlated with disadvantage, then removing disadvantage will (as an innocuous side-effect) happen to help that race. But it's purely incidental. It's not as if the skin colour of my great grandmother (which is how we officially measure race, isn't it?) has any intrinsic import. So why pay any attention to it?

    I'm simply arguing that the state should pay no attention to the genetic/racial makeup of its citizens. Culture is entirely different, and of course local programmes should be tailored to fit the community's values & practices so as to maximize its chances of success. Who would ever suggest otherwise? (Talk about a "straw man".)

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  14. of course local programmes should be tailored to fit the community's values & practices so as to maximize its chances of success.

    So it's alright to base your policies on Maori culture, but not OK to base them on Maori race!

    Well exactly! I agree with you 100%.

    Yes, a strawman is what we're talking about.

    Perhaps you'd like to list some of these baaaad, baaaaaaaaaaad policies based on race not culture that you're talking about?

    (I'm not saying there aren't any, mind you. But I think it'll be interesting, and would clarify the discussion a lot.)

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  15. this is not only fairer but probably also more effective than just looking at the maori (or white) people in prisons and helping/punishing them.

    Let's test your point of view with a hypothetical :
    In a certain prison, 50% of the population is Maori. Local elders organise Maori language and culture courses for prisoners, and a kapa haka group.

    Are you for or against?

    It goes without saying that the activities are neither compulsory for Maoris, nor closed to Pakehas, they are open to all prisoners.

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  16. I would probably not oppose the programme if it was free, effective and there was no other alternative. No point opposing somthing that is a net gain - from the governments point of view there is no consideration of race there only from the point of view of the elders (which I find mildly annoying).

    one has to wonder where it would end... I expect a similar argument could be used to argue for teaching islam & strict christianity in jail.
    Maybe we just allow what the prisoners collectively want?

    Anyway, if i was developing a full policy towards the justice system I would suggest that prisoners should face a range of educational opportunities largely oriented towards things that will help them intergrate with society for example english and budgeting and maybe a suitable trade. I would be happy for the government to fully fund this sort of thing and I would expect this to displace things such as learning "maori" language and culture.

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  17. Why are Treaty issues framed around race relations at all?

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  18. Apologies for the double post.

    I think there is some mid-way in your argument on Treaty issues and race relations. Whilst race relations did in fact galvanise Treaty issues, I don't think the two things are as linked as they should be. If, for example, there is a clear distinction between settling the past via the Treaty and race relations, then the issue becomes less complicated.

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