Saturday, September 3, 2011

The good and bad of discrimination

A friend of mine ta few days ago asked me what my views on 'race' are. "You know," he said, "The whole issue of 'black versus white'". In South Africa, this is a touchy subject. We have a sordid history of racial intolerance, so talking about race is pretty much like juggling a conceptual atomic bomb. But, just because it's a dangerous subject doesn't mean it isn't worth talking about. Accordingly, at the risk of turning myself into the next Hiroshima, here's what I think:

To begin with, I'm a big supporter of difference. God, as GK Chesterton suggests, cut the world up into pieces because that is what love does: love is only possible because otherness is a reality. Love in the absence of otherness is just narcissism. So, well, instead of being one big ball of sameness and monotony, the universe is one big collection of differences. And, let's be honest, difference is what makes us who we are. Identity is not a singular event but collection of fragments; it is a drama of interactions between othernesses.

Consequently, insofar as the construct of 'race' is a means to affirm difference and the humanity of the other— that is, to celebrate his being different — I think we're on good, solid ground. Insofar as 'race' is the absolute negation of difference — the loudspeaker announcing the terror of otherness — I think it is of no use to anybody. And this, in short would be my view on race, except that even this is not that simple ...

Because the whole issue of 'black versus white', as my friend calls it, is a terrible simplification. It takes missing-the-point to a level that is difficult to even believe. It is never just an issue of black and white. More often than not, differences in opinion are cultural, religious and political rather than simply racial. And even then, such differences, or "styles of being" tend to operate on a complex dialogical continuum rather than in clear dialectical terms.

The main problem with confusing race with styles of living or with confusing the surface (skin-colour) with the substance (beliefs, identity and ideologies) is that discrimination on the whole is deemed evil. Sure, discriminating on the basis of race (and thus personhood) is wrong, but surely we are allowed to discriminate on the basis of ideas and ideologies? After all, your cup may be the same colour as mine, but yours may hold water while mine holds poison, and surely we should be able to speak up about such differences? And if someone, who has a different culture or skin colour from mine, is stealing from the poor and giving to the rich, then surely the issue is not race, but simply that he is doing what is wrong?

In the name of racial tolerance and acceptance, then, we should be careful not to discard the necessity of discriminating against bad ideas.

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