Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Simplifying the world, i.e., racism

Nothing about the world in which we live is simple. Whether we are talking about the physical laws underlying the universe, the biological and evolutionary processes determining life on earth, or the complex psychosocial world of human behaviour... Everything is very messy and very complicated.

Part of the scientific method involves simplifying certain complex processes so that they can be partially understood. For example, in order to model complex processes such as weather patterns or climate, simplifications are made. It is impossible to account for every variable, so some attempt is made to identify the most important factors. In experimental science, hypotheses are tested under controlled conditions, as much as possible. This means that conditions are created in which only one or a few variables can influence the outcome of the experiment. This is an attempt to exclude the many thousands of other factors that can influence events in uncontrolled conditions. Science always arrives at a simplified view of reality. This is a necessary and constructive process, without which we would be floundering in the chaos that is reality.

Human beings take the same approach in the psychosocial realm: we generalise and simplify. We give things names and we group them together. Consider an object with four legs supporting a level platform above the ground. There are a vast number of such objects, and it would be utter chaos if every single one of them had to be assigned its own, unique name. So we generalise, we draw out common features, and all such objects we designate by the term ‘table’. We are even able to accommodate objects with more or fewer legs under the same term. This is a very useful exercise.

Nevertheless, having carried out this procedure, we do not then draw the incorrect conclusion that all tables are the same. Nor do we think that we have completely and comprehensively defined an object by calling it a table. Is it a wooden table or a plastic table or a metal table? Is it round or is it square? How tall or long is it? What colour is it? We are able to accommodate these differences and acknowledge and value these nuances within the framework of ‘table’. When it suits us, we can do that.

We can also choose not to.

Racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ are cases in which we choose not to.

In such cases we choose to ignore or devalue the differences and nuances, and convince ourselves that all ‘tables’ are the same. Once a ‘table’, always a ‘table’. A ‘table’ never changes its... erm... spots. You can never trust a ‘table’. I’m not furniturist, but, you know, it’s not fair that ‘tables’ get all the tablecloths.

We need structure in the world, and names and categories help provide some of that structure. Unfortunately, we abuse such structures when it suits us, when it becomes convenient to ignore difference and nuance, to score political points. I’m not even the same as me from one day to the next, so it is silly in the extreme to think that all ‘tables’ are the same.

At its best, science recognises that its knowledge of the world is provisional. What we know and understand today is only an approximation of what the world is really like. Furthermore, it is the exceptions, the counter-examples—the things that don’t quite fit in the box—that serve to expand our knowledge of the world. In the myth of the Garden of Eden, God gave to Adam the task of naming all the animals. But naming something is only the beginning, not the end, of fully understanding and appreciating it.

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