In the world we live in today, I can think of very few things I would lament being labeled as more than a racist. That is a good thing. Racist ideology lies in direct opposition to the American value “All [people] are created equal”. We should work to call out those who do not abide by this framework and protect our society from them.
Thus, the power behind the accusation of racism is immense and it is tempting to use it to eradicate other closely related harmful opinions and behavior. In my eyes, this has gone too far in several arenas. A statement such as “standardized testing is racist”, is a perfect example of the term being stretched to places where it does not belong. I want to talk today of a more subtle example in which I will try to petition you to see the importance of making a distinction even though it may seem a small one.
To illustrate the distinction, I will be making an analogy between humans and computers. I want to compare the hardware of a computer to the immutable characteristics of a human’s behavior (e.g. sexual preference). The software of a computer would be the environmental/cultural influences that a person experiences throughout their life (e.g. taste in music). This analogy is obviously not perfect, but I believe our intuition guides us to the general framework that there are some things about us that would have prevailed regardless of our life experience, and some things that are directly derived from our lived experience.
To look at how this plays into our interpretation of racism let us look at a hateful tweet from none other than Ben Shapiro:
It is a very nasty thing to say, and I am not going to try to exonerate him. Instead I want to look at how his motivations for making this statement matter.
Let us suppose that Ben were to regale us with further explanation and tell us that he believes Arabs are born with these characteristics. Maybe he would make up a story about how his Israeli friend raised an abandoned Arab baby and no matter how hard they tried, the adopted Arab child tried to blow everything up. Ben believes this to be an immutable characteristic of Arabs; or “Arab Hardware”.
Alternatively, if Ben were to inform us that he believes it is the teachings of the Qur’an that encourages Arabs to destroy Israeli settlements, we can tell that Ben believes there is a part of Arab culture that is having negative effects on Israelis; or that he thinks the “Arab Software” is problematic.
I want to make sure I am being clear: I do not agree with what Ben is saying and I do not wish to exonerate him.
The distinction I want to make is that the example in which Ben believes that “Arab Hardware” is inferior, he is being racist. In the example in which Ben believes the “Arab Software” is inferior, he is making a cultural critique.
I can sense that this is the moment in which I have probably bothered people the most: “Cultural critique” is too neutral sounding and does not capture any of the hatefulness that drove Ben to make that statement. Perhaps we need a better term to describe it.
The purpose of my distinction is that if Ben’s motivations are racist (as in the way I have defined it in this essay), he will never support anything but bad solutions: classifying Arabs as second-class citizens, enslavement and exploitation of Arab populations, or genocide. A racist is bereft of reason and compassion.
If Ben is making a cultural critique, then I would argue it is possible to achieve reasonable behavior from him. It is not likely, but perhaps he will support financial aid programs for Arab nations in the hopes that as they grow in affluence, they value the “destructive” teachings of the Qur’an less.
A cultural critique can manifest in ways that are just as ugly as a racist ideology would manifest, but it may also manifest in reasonable ways, whereas a racist ideology will not.
I will be talking more about cultural critiques in an upcoming essay about Multiculturism in which I explore how my girlfriend and I have grappled with coexistence in the context of our different cultural backgrounds. (I am an American born Caucasian and she is first generation Chinese)
In this essay, I have scratched the surface of some issues, so feel free to chime in with your thoughtful discussion in the comments.
P.S. I have only just realized that the tweet was posted on my birthday in 2010. Thanks, Ben, for making the world a little more hateful on my birthday.
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