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Wishful thinking as Right Thinking

April 20, 2010

I probably am distracting myself from finishing up that musical thinking post, but it will hopefully show up soon. 🙂

This seems to be my week for commenting on old articles I’ve run across. A little while ago, I was flipping through an old issue (July/August 2004) of Nigel’s Skeptical Inquirer (ah, hyperlexia!), and a quote from Massimo Polidoro’s Notes on a Strange World column caught my eye. This particular one is “Down with Darwin!”, on the then-recent attempts in (nominally secular) Italy not to include evolution in the curriculum, and the link from his site doesn’t work anymore.

As Dacia Maraini, a respected Italian novelist, recently put it in the Corriere della sera, Italy’s largest selling newspaper: “It seems a paradox that those who, right at this moment, are intent in bringing democracy and liberalism, even imposing it with guns, in countries considered to be underdeveloped, are assuming the same archaic practices of these countries, like the abolition of evolution and the massive introduction of religion in schools, personal use of guns, the glorification of war and racism and, as a completion of all this, the use of torture. When, we ask, will the cutting of hands for thieves be introduced?”

This quote particularly caught my eye because it so neatly ties up, into one neat package, common liberal ideology of the inevitable March of Progress. (Which is an unintentionally, ironically appropriate choice of phrasing, in this context.) So much so that it made my brain hurt a little.

I guess I should not be surprised, by now, to see particular approaches to social evolution accepted as a given in this sort of context. Besides the fairly common criticisms, I must add another: wishful thinking elevated to the position of Right Thinking. This is one of the major problems I have with many people who identify as either Conservatives or Liberals: the specifics may be different, but in many ways, their ideologies are too-similar sides of the exact same coin.

There is more than one perhaps-painful grain of truth in one essay I just ran across: David R. Carlin’s Right Thinking About the Religious Right.

Unfortunately, a lot of us are all too familiar with Liberal Sexism and Hipster Racism, which is just one particular manifestation of liberal racism based in the same old tired ideas of Progress.

Another example, very blatantly based in wishful thinking? Colorblindness. (Ethnic Swedish, from the Stockholm area) Nigel and I have had some discussions about that one. Just because he really doesn’t think in overtly racist terms, and walks the egalitarian walk to great extent, that doesn’t mean that other people do the same. This can cross the line into gaslighting, when one’s own experience really does not tally with that of the person advocating colorblindness as a reasonable strategy.

Then there is the overly literal version: just because I’m only a couple of shades up from Nigel on the eumelanin scale, that does not mean that our experiences in this area are similar. And, yes, people have been obsessed with plotting this–and, indeed, even scientific racists confirmed that a lot of indigenous North Americans started out pretty pale. That did not translate to wonderful treatment, and it’s disingenuous to gloss over this and assume we’re on even footing now.* But I digress.

Laurie Toby Edison did another excellent post on this topic: Colorblindness, Race, and Children: The Elephant in the Living Room:

This is the root of the problem. Most of these parents are not trying to be anti-racist. They’re not trying to be allies to people of color. They’re certainly not trying to teach their kids the truth about the world.

Maraini’s expression of the popular idea that individuals do/should not need access to weapons, thanks to and in accordance with Progress, is very similar.

This bit of dogma also neatly ignores reality, and is frequently based in the same kinds of privilege that leads to “colorblindness”. Just because you do not intend to threaten other people’s lives and/or limbs does not mean that everyone acts in accordance with your ideals. It also does not mean that you are automatically in the right, when you willfully ignore that large numbers of people are in real danger.

This view just does not reflect reality. Look at the U.K. When you severely limit people’s access to firearms, they just stab one another, and create a market for stab-proof hoodies and other clothing (long johns?!). When you continue on to severely limit the legality of knives–constructing a “knife crime” category that suddenly includes carrying knives which were previously legal–they continue to stab one another and hit one another with glasses and bottles at an amazing rate. And cricket bats, and sticks, and bricks…and so on. It’s a mess. I never saw anything like it before in my life.

We live on a busy street, just inside the M25***, near a couple of pubs and a dog racing track. Almost every night, there are belligerent drunken people out fighting on the street. Mostly it’s loud arguments–I am still amazed at what is considered acceptable in public, and not just among the inebriated–but physical fights are not uncommon. It’s amazing nobody has gotten stabbed or bottled on the street out there over the years we’ve been living here, AFAIK. I still watch some of the more heated arguments, in case I have to wade in with a stick to keep somebody from getting seriously hurt. Even growing up in a party school college town, in a neighborhood not quite subsumed by an ill-managed, continuously sprawling student ghetto, I never saw anything like it. And there was no shortage of brawling frat boys. (And that’s without even mentioning relative rates of theft, robbery, and other property crimes.)

Did Police stop and search ‘not cutting knife crime’, new figures suggest surprise me? Not really. Nigel has been stopped and searched on his way home from work, supposedly based on a report that he was carrying a knife. IT professionals in their late 30s are not well known for going on stabbing sprees around London, though an awful lot of them carry utilitarian multitools with knife blades on their belts. Stopping them probably helps bring enforcement stats up. He also looks like a geeky version of the stereotypical Big Scary Viking, to the point that I almost laughed my ass off (for multiple reasons, actually) when I caught The 13th Warrior on late-night television; their typecast Vikings looked like his brothers or cousins, down to the red beards. Some people do seem to find his size intimidating here, so I would be less than surprised if someone had reported him to the cops. (My initial thought being that this was just a handy excuse.) He has stopped carrying his useful Gerber multitool around most of the time because of the War Against “Knife Crime” ridiculousness.

Nigel and two of his similarly geeky friends

A dangerous-looking bunch of characters, from this past weekend. (Raiding Nigel’s photos here.) I’d be surprised if they didn’t all have knives on them, especially since they were building stuff.

I, OTOH, do usually carry a knife of now-questionable legality, but could walk around with an RPG sticking out of a shopping bag and not get a second glance from the police–or much of anyone else. Ah, resisting the imp of the perverse… 🙂

Besides the questionable, authoritarian idea that people will actually do what you tell them to do if you threaten them enough, this prohibition mentality is also based on another set of dodgy assumptions: (a) a state-sponsored police force is desirable in the first place, (b) this police force is adequate to protect people from the “few nutters” who go around shooting/stabbing/otherwise assaulting other people, and (c) this setup will not lead to more violence and abuse. Based on these unfounded assumptions, value judgments are then freely handed out.

Again, people whose experience does not match these assumptions are considered wrong and Less Virtous. Hmm, could that reinforce some of the sexism, racism, etc.?

At any rate, this is a ludicrous approach, based more in the same old tired utopian ideals (and we’ve seen how dangerous those can be) than in observable reality and what actually works. It’s easier to gloss over what really contributes to crime, racism, etc.–i.e., the kind of attitudes your society is encouraging.

I do not want to get sucked into any kind of gun control debate, any more than any other political topic which make people want to suspend critical thinking. There is some reasonable discussion of the correllations (or not) between gun ownership and crime rates here.

Inequality is an important predictor of crime rates, among (many) other things. A lot of people want to point to poverty, instead, but it’s hard to get poverty without inequality at some level–and that doesn’t explain, say, West Virginia’s crime rates.** Change common attitudes (near-impossible as that may seem), you’re liable to get fewer people wanting to kill one another.


* This is one of the problems I have with the People of Color designation; this is obviously not meant to describe those of us who are kind of pinkish when we haven’t been in the sun for a while. (Like Joseph Brant/Thayendanegea–also note how, as time goes on, reproductions of his life portraits get darker and darker.) I was interested to see some discussion of how unpopular the term can be outside the US, given the unique American colonial construction of race. See Frank Sweet’s Why Did Virginia’s Rulers Invent a Color Line? (along with some of his other essays) for more on how this played out. This system was meant to exclude an awful lot of people who did not neatly fit into either of two legislated racial categories, and discussions of race based in the same ideas continue to do so to great extent.

** From another post I recently mothballed because I just couldn’t get the rambling under control:
Contrary to stereotypes and expectations, the crime rate is also very, very low. “Despite the fact that Appalachia is high in poverty, it has one of the
lowest crime rates in the United States.”# “West Virginia has achieved the lowest crime rate in the U. S. for more than forty years only in 2000 did West Virginia fall to #2…What types of crimes are most prevalent? Simple theft most offenses relating to this type of crime are shoplifting and theft from vehicles”# (In other words, minor property crimes which don’t involve direct confrontation.) Living 30 miles from the WV state line, the crime rate doesn’t exactly skyrocket.

Not to mention Rednecromancer’s related observation:

How can it be that a region that has one of if not the lowest crime rate in the nation always seems to get stuck lending a voice to any criminal who is not Tony Soprano or a South Central gang banger? Is it that all of the folks who leave the hills become criminals and degenerates?

*** Given where we live, some people might be tempted to go all classist and attribute all of this to chav tackiness–heck, our town is the subject of the most recent post (and hardly the first) to that hateful site. People identified as chavs are hardly the only ones I’ve seen behaving this way. There is possibly a greater tendency toward scapegoating because the demographic profile of both the Borough of Havering (PDF) and our immediate neighborhood are old, fairly affluent, and very, very, White. (And, yes, I have seen more than a few obviously upper-middle-class men in their 60s resorting to shoving and fisticuffs outside our house. Shameful, all around.) Besides, one of my major reference groups here is Dread Hillbilly Rednecks! The urge to scapegoat chavs and rednecks is a pretty good demonstration of inequality, right there.

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