The Modern Survival Guide #61
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And one of my views, although I am hardly alone in holding it, is that racism is one of the dumbest, most ultimately self-defeating, most ludicrously hypocritical ideas that humanity has ever come up with. And that’s a survival-level problem for a lot of people, because racism appears to be experiencing an upswing. I am actually upset that we still have to have this conversation in 2019, but here goes…
Let’s start with a definition.
Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
Racism is bad, m’kay? It’s a social cancer, a blight on our society and culture, and I know of at least seven good reasons why this is the case, presented in no particular order:
- It creates violence and repression
- It limits the cooperative ability of societies
- It limits economic potential
- It limits one’s ability to see different viewpoints
- It limits our ability to make friends
- It is not based in any good science
- It rewards ignorance and sloppy thinking
I would call any one of these sufficient to class racism as “evil” all on its own; putting them all together, I’m prepared to make the argument that racism is one of the most evil intellectual traps humanity has ever fallen for. And I want to talk about each one of these points, because apparently that’s where we are as a society right now, and this needs to be said one. more. time: don’t be racist.
#1: Racism Creates Violence and Repression
Racism is bad because it is a major cause of violent and repressive behavior, which is an obvious and inherent trigger for all kinds of very bad social consequences. We’ve been running this experiment in the US since our founding, and the results are unequivocal. At this stage we barely even need the overwhelming evidence the rest of the world has provided to make this point.
Racism creates violence and repressive tendencies by setting up the worldview that a group of people are somehow worse or less human than another group.¹ We know that this is the first step in justifying atrocity, just generally — after all, a main object of wartime propaganda is to create these feelings about the opposing side, with the aim of making them easier to kill. The same sort of effect happens with racism — a racist may become insensitive to the plight of their targets because they believe them to be deserving of suffering, or not worthy of human compassion.
Ordinarily I would apologize for using the slippery slope argument, but in this case… nah. It’s got too much evidence that this slope really is quite slick.
Similarly, racism generates repression. If one group automatically assumes another group to be inferior, they will treat that group as inferior — less capable of making their own decisions, less likely to be hired for work, less likely to be accepted into relationships, etc. This inevitably creates an atmosphere of repression, even when it has “benign” intent. For example, in US we saw the effects of efforts by white Americans to “civilize” Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. And that’s not even touching Jim Crow, which definitely did not have benign intent.
Neither violence nor repression are good things to build into your society. Violence begets violence, and repression leads to revolution (and more violence, not to mention spinning the roulette wheel to see what kind of nation comes out the other side). These are bad things, both from the moral perspective and from the practical perspective, and it is infinitely preferable to avoid trigger conditions like racism in the first place.
#2: Racism Limits the Cooperative Ability of a Society
Part of the big practical problem of racism is that the violence, repression, and general ill will which it engenders are extremely bad for social capital.² If I think you’re a lesser species, I’m going to have real trouble working with you, accepting your ideas, and finding areas where we can cooperate to the interest of both parties. That’s just human nature. I may find ways to exploit you, but that is a very different thing.
And naturally, if I’m actively involved in repressing or hurting you, you have exactly zero reasons to ever cooperate with me — unless of course I decide to commit suicide and need some help with that.
The problem, of course, is that cooperation is one of the primary survival traits of the human species. Anything that limits cooperative enterprise in a society is, by default, a bad thing; it reduces our ability to respond to adversity, removes options for solving problems, hinders our ability to make new connections, and limits our potential accomplishments.
#3: Racism Limits a Society’s Economic Opportunities
Now more than ever, the central driving question of any economy is simple: how many smart people do you have plugged into your workforce and entrepreneurial groups? More = better. The simple truth of the human condition is that there are only so many geniuses to go around, and of those only a fraction will be competent. A society which can make the best use of that resource will be more prosperous than one which cannot, and neither genius nor competence are racially or ethnically limited.
Racism inherently limits the ability of a society to make best use of smart people. If I am forcing you into a lower social or class strata because of your race, I am depriving you of opportunity. Both genius and competence require opportunity in order to do great things. Otherwise the man who might invent a cure for cancer is stuck hoeing potatoes because he can’t get admitted to medical school.
At the same time, I think it’s safe to say that most modern management theories seem to agree that a happy workforce is a more productive workforce (actual implementation of this concept is a bit spotty, but there you go). And racism in the workplace creates a distinctly unhappy group, which will over time decrease productivity in that group.
Therefore racism in society is an active brake on economic prosperity and innovation. It insidiously limits the contributions of people who could otherwise make a valuable difference.
#4: Racism Limits Viewpoints in Society
Being racist means that you are, by default, less disposed to trust statements made by the group towards which you are being racist. This immediately and radically limits communication and the exchange of viewpoints, which is a serious problem.
Without good communication, it is very difficult to identify potential problems, opportunities, and emergencies. And without a good exchange of viewpoints, it is very difficult for people to resolve interpersonal or cultural disconnects.
Racism, therefore, is a disrupting force in communications and understanding in society. If I can’t tolerate being around another person, or if I automatically put down their ideas, I can’t really talk to them. And if I can’t talk to them, I can’t understand their issues or where they’re coming from — and they can’t understand mine. This radically increases the odds of coming into some form of conflict with that person for no good reason, and worse yet, it removes their ideas from my understanding of how the world works.
None of us are omniscient. Our only choice is to accrue as many views as possible and try to find the ones that work. Racism actively and perniciously hinders that process of seeking truth, understanding, and empathy.
#5: Racism Limits Our Ability to Make Friends
If I see you as inferior, and you know it, it’s very unlikely that we will ever be friends. I might be polite to you, maybe even pleasant to you, but that’s not the same thing. A friend is someone you rely upon and who can rely upon you. Racists are rarely friends with their targets, for exactly this reason: why would you be willing to rely on someone you hate or disparage?
Good friends are almost always in short supply, and they are a critical component of social capital and a good life. Limiting the possibilities of friendship for no good reason hurts you. It removes the opportunity to make connections that can improve your life. And from an altruistic perspective, it removes some of your ability to help others.
#6: Racism is Not Based on Good Science
There is a pernicious pseudo-scientific myth that is still going around today and it is this: that people of different skin colors can be demonstrated to be either superior or inferior. This is patently, totally, ridiculously false. Modern genetics has conclusively proven that skin color is simply a function of our ancestors’ homes’ latitude — different skin colors simply reflect different mutations designed to allow us to absorb more or less sunlight, thereby controlling vitamin D production and providing protection from overexposure to UV radiation.
This is real science, not pseudoscience, and it undercuts the logic of even thinking about different peoples as different “races” in the first place. Genetically speaking, all modern humans are extremely similar, with minor variations corresponding to ancestral environments — and given enough time we should expect even those minor variations to slowly vanish in an interconnected, mobile world.
What has been conclusively proven is that there are no genetic differences between the “races” which would make one naturally superior to another in any kind of general sense.
#7: Racism Promotes Ignorance and Sloppy Thinking
Playing off of the previous point, racism promotes concepts that are antithetical to a rational, scientific viewpoint. And this has consequences, one of which is to expose people to the pseudoscience community in general. It’s not that much of a step from believing racist pseudoscience to believing other pseudoscience — it’s reliant on the same faulty implementation of the scientific method. Normalizing racism is a step toward normalizing a non-scientific worldview.
See, the trouble with ideas is that they’re the proverbial djinn in the bottle — once they’re out in the world, they’re harder than hell to stamp out or retract. And a lie can generally get around the world before the truth has its boots on. Racism is a particularly nasty example, because racism relies primarily on heuristical³ ideas and views of the world, and as we discussed earlier in MSG #4, that leads to all sorts of cognitive traps but it feels truthy. It’s very hard for someone, once indoctrinated to racist ideas, to get away from them.
In this sense, racism is a bit like a virus. Like a virus, it spreads, and it has side effects beyond its core purpose. People generally do not react well when simply told they are wrong, for example.⁴ Smart people, especially, will find rationalizations for their reasoning regardless of its actual veracity. Confronting racists directly often leads to a loud, public discussion about racist ideas. And whoever wins, this generally results in the spread of bad ideas, because at least one of the people in the audience to that discussion will be an idiot, and will think the racist was right. Bad ideas tend to pup.
How to Not be Racist
Racism is bad. Therefore we ought not to be racist. But that’s very, very hard. Hell, even singing puppets figured that out. We’re racist because our brains are pre-programmed to make broad judgements based on very little information, and are also programmed towards tribal in-group/out-group responses to threat stimuli. In normal English, that is to say that once we have a bad experience with someone of a different race, we are naturally going to view all people of that race the same way. This mental strategy worked great for sabre tooth tigers, but doesn’t work very well with people.
And the sad truth is that, even if you know this is happening, your brain will do it anyway. Which is why you often see a lot of very vocally not-racist people doing racist shit.
So — avoiding racism is about fighting an inbuilt mechanism in your own mind. Isn’t that just peachy. Actually it is, because there are strategies you can use to do exactly that thing. We routinely employ them, even glorify them — what do you think bravery is, anyway? That’s what happens when someone’s fight-or-flight instinct gets triggered and they make the choice to do something else. We can draw a lesson from that:
Avoiding racism is about making choices.
Not being racist will involve experiencing an event that would normally prompt a racist heuristic, recognizing that your brain will default to that response, and then making the considered choice to not let that event determine your attitude towards whole groups of people.
This choice rests on two big foundations: purpose and education. You will need to have a firm grip on your purpose — to avoid falling into racist patterns of thought and thereby avoid the evils of racism. And you will need the education to recognize situations that might engender a racist reaction, or which might tempt you towards racist views.⁵
The first foundation is purely on you, and you can make that choice right now, if you haven’t already. The second should be treated as an ongoing personal challenge, but you can get started on it right now by going to Google (or your search engine of preference) and typing something like “Why do people become racist?” into the search bar. And then I guess happy reading, because when I did that I got about 105 million results, and somewhere in there you’ll probably find some good information.
Ultimately, racism isn’t going away. We’re never going to find the “end of history” scenario for this subject. There will always be racist people, as long as there are people, and that’s just all there is to it. But racism is bad and you don’t have to be racist. So hold to your purpose, and wake up every day ready to make the choice to treat people as individuals — not as ill-defined, misconstrued groups.
¹I’m not addressing “positive” racism here (the idea that a group of people is naturally better in some way, as opposed to naturally worse), mostly because I’ve always thought that the distinction between the two was somewhat silly. Positive racism is just normal racism inverted; the favored group is simply likely to develop negative racist attitudes about everyone else and then we’re back to normal.
²Social Capital: factors of effectively functioning social groups that include such things as interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity.
³Heuristics are mental strategies or ways of thinking derived from previous experiences, are not necessarily rational or scientific, and are characterized by generalization and first-information-received solutions to complex problems.
⁴Your humble author usually immediately forgets this bit of wisdom when arguing with internet people.
⁵Also, just know that if you ever need to qualify a sentence by saying “I’m not racist, but…” then you can rest assured you’re about to say something very, very racist.