Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Aristotle's Politics

I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is. -Percival Everett Erasure
With this line, Everett gets to the heart of the problem when discussing inequality. I cannot even count the number of times I've seen people say in an argument that I or someone else who shares my perspective is being "racist" for seeing race. The line of reasoning goes "it's people like you talking about race all the time that make it exist. If you'd just shut up, everything would be fine."

A similar thing happens when talking about sexism. If you'd just stop seeing it, they tell me, it wouldn't be there anymore.

A Little Magic
Poof. Like magic. 
Here's the thing. Race doesn't exist. At least, it doesn't exist in any scientific way. There are more variances between two people of the same race than there often are between two people of different races, and even though the concept of race exists in cultures all over the world, the way that they apply it is very, very different. (Consider, for example, how relatives could be classified as different "races" during the Rwandan genocide or how brother and sister can be different "races" in Brazil based on skin tone.) Still, as the Everett quote above captures, knowing that race does not have any logical or biological basis, that it is entirely a social construct, makes very little difference when you are faced with someone who is using that social construct against you. 

Aristotle makes a similar point in Politics. There is a confusing passage about whether men and women are equal as he is discussing the optimal way to share resources and sort out who gets to rule in a political city. He makes some similar comments about slaves and their masters. 

It seems clear that Aristotle is struggling with the tension between believing that people are inherently equal and noting that those equalities do not always play out in our lived experiences. 

He has this to say about slaves and masters: "But to others it seems contrary to nature to be a master of slaves (since it is by convention that the one is a slave and the other free, while they are no different by nature), and that it is consequently not just either, since it is by force" (Book I: 3). 

He makes some further distinctions about the power dynamics at play in some different relationships. He sees a free master's power over his slave, a man's power over his wife, and a parent's power of his child as having some similar qualities, but that they are different in key ways:

"while the parts of the soul are present in them all, they are present in differing ways. For the slave wholly lacks the deliberative capacity, while the female has it, but without authority, the child has it, but incomplete" (Book I: 13). 

What does it mean for a woman to be "without authority"? 

It seems to me that it goes back to those "conventions" Aristotle spoke of earlier when discussing forced (and thus unjust) power dynamics. Authority is not a wholly internal act. While authority often requires a certain level of confidence, expertise, and skill on the part of the person commanding it, those qualities alone do not guarantee that a person will actually get it. The problem with authority is that it is beyond any individual's control, and is essentially a status granted by the members of the community to which that person belongs. 

It can be terrifying to be at the whim of a community who has the power to determine your ability to speak or rule. Those "conventions" may not be based in anything real. Race does not exist. The stated differences between the men and women used to construct gender roles are largely arbitrary and remain only because they are reinforced through social pressure and stereotype. 

And yet . . . 

Just because they are not real, just because they do not have a basis in anything logical, just because they are constructed by something like a mass delusion: none of that breaks them of their power when they are being wielded over an individual attempting to claim authority. 

So when someone tells says you are "racist" for seeing race or "sexist" for seeing sexism, what s/he is really saying is that you are calling attention to the constructed nature of the systems with which authority is maintained and controlled. You are pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, and you will be silenced if at all possible lest you rock the boat a smidge too far and it all comes crashing down. 

Girl in a boat
So rock away. 

1 comment:

  1. so so true. i just posted at my own blog and at the Broad Side about the history of black vernacular and Charles Ramsey. the response has been good but i'm still amazed at the comments that want to dismiss race & racism altogether--implying, as you say, that if I'd just stop talking about it, it wouldn't be an issue. Some of this kind of denial comes, i think, from the well-intentioned colorblind movement from the 80s, where we were all supposed to see each other as equal without noticing skin color. unfortunately, that turned out to be code for seeing everybody as white - with whiteness being the status quo we were all supposed to pretend everybody had. discounting racial difference in this way shut down conversations about racism in general, about positive cultural characteristics that didn't correspond to whiteness, and about how race exists socially even though it doesn't exist scientifically. i get so very frustrated with this desire for silence. it's like my dog thinking we wouldn't see her if she snuck into the living room with her eyes closed! as a culture, we need to open our eyes and accept & value difference rather than deny it. so go ahead and rock - i'm right there with you. and great picture btw!!