Monday, May 29, 2017

follies of ethnocentrism

More and more as of late, I've noticed that commentary about right-wing American evangelicals has been asserting that their racist leanings are beyond question. I realize that there is excellent past and present evidence that supports this generalization. I agree that, for a substantial portion of them, it's applicable.

However, in the portion who I know through personal experience—which I confess only represents a subgroup of a subgroup—the prejudice I detect is a smidge more complex...or at least flows along more complex channels. For lack of a better label, I'll use "the respectables" to refer to this set. (Yes, I'm glad to report that I'm familiar with some whose warmhearted behaviors and outlooks are unobjectionable. I'm not referring to them.) The respectables are shocked by accusations of racism. After all, they never suggest that race is at the innermost core truth of someone. It's not a biological limit on abilities or personality. It isn't destiny.

Part of the reason why is because the respectables treasure the sentiment that all people are targets for the duty of universal evangelism. Attendees of any race are admitted to public events. In large gatherings, some of the regular goers are likely to be in the so-called "diverse" category. Officially, all people-groups domestic and foreign need to be afforded every chance to convert. Adventurous stories of evangelism in faraway nations are more praiseworthy, not less, when the setting is "exotic", and that goes for the exoticism of the setting's races. Although the pompous and intrusive quest to Christianize all humanity is nauseating, it certainly undermines the very idea of using race alone to disqualify people.

So the respectables aren't hostile toward races in theory. They don't believe (or believe but refrain from saying?) that a race is genetically inferior or superior. Adopting a child of another race is accepted, as is marrying a spouse of another race. Their anxieties have oozed in a less obvious direction. In the most general terms, they're dismissive and fearful of dissimilar cultures. They rank each one according to their estimate of its deviation from their own. Whatever else they're disciples of, they're disciples of ethnocentrism.

Its effects are less vicious than raw racism but unfortunately are tougher to discern and exterminate. It might not motivate angry attacks, but it'll motivate avoidance, or just chilly distance. The barrier it creates isn't necessarily impossible to cross, but in any case it's significant. Individuals face the extra burden of first overturning the immediate verdicts that were assigned to them. They aren't utterly excluded, but they have...unsettling questions surrounding them. In the race for social status, they begin from behind the starting line.

Like any human behavior, the kind of apprehensive ethnocentrism I'm trying to describe doesn't stay neatly contained in the boundaries of its dictionary definition. It's a frequent teammate of the racism of thinking that a race is synonymous with a culture. With this link, the outcome of stigmatizing the culture becomes, well, synonymous with stigmatizing the race. The difference is negated.

Nevertheless, at least race isn't a unique cultural sign. Ethnocentrism's domain is broader than race, because culture itself has many details occurring in endless varieties. The list of additional cultural signs to exploit includes clothing, hair/skin styling, etiquette, economic class, language, slang, accent, geographic region, religious adornment, occupation, food/music preferences. To the ethnocentric person, race as well as any of these may end up functioning as clues of reassurance or dread about the culture that controls the stranger. Because they have rationales about why theirs is the best, they choose which signs matter the most to them and which cultures are better or worse approximations of theirs. A stranger who displays enough signs can be successfully pigeonholed as a member of an admired culture, despite showing some signs of a scorned culture too.

Yet, ethnocentrism's potential to take several observations into account at once cannot manage to compensate for its unfair perceptions. Usually it's already committing a pivotal error: it's really sorting among slanted and incomplete abstractions (impressions, clich├ęs) of cultures. This is to be expected. A vast culture, with a long history and a wide footprint, has numerous types and subsections and components, and upsides and downsides of each. It cannot fit as well into ethnocentrism's coarse rankings of worthiness unless it's drastically pared, flattened, summarized, frozen in time, severed from outside influences. A largely uninformed collection of selected fragments is hammered into a convenient lens. And the distorted lens is used to impatiently classify anyone who has (or seems to have) some of the signs. The problem with this result is predictable. Regardless of the culture's shared elements, it probably accommodates a host of almost opposite opinions on a host of topics. There's no visible hint to distinguish where the stranger falls in this range.

Furthermore, patchy awareness of the culture could be magnified by patchy recognition of the various levels of influence that cultures have. In order to believe that the culture the person supposedly signifies can sufficiently explain them, their capacity to make their own decisions needs to be disregarded. Again there's a spectrum. Some are devotees who fully embrace it. Some opt to be nominal: primarily detach their identities from it. And some are selective in what they absorb or ignore, and these selections can change over time. Depending on their environment, they could simultaneously be selecting from other cultures, even if they're overlooking the logical incompatibility of the mixtures. Or to some degree they could be declining a preexisting path, instead inventing special ideas and novel ways of life. The point is that perhaps the majority of their choices are dictated by a culture, but that can only be speculation until their personal stances are known.

The pitfalls of pursuing ethnocentrism don't end there. Its approach is characterized by warily eying culture mostly from the outside, i.e. not by talking to the participants. It should be no surprise that it's prone to misinterpreting the actual practice and meaning of the contents. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Statements might not be serious or literal. Symbols might have obscure, even ironic, meanings. Problematic items might be rationalized or downplayed. To add to the confusion, the pronouncements published by "authoritative" organizations often diverge from what many of the participants genuinely think. The area of interest should be how the culture is lived, not on naive, superficial analyses of its minutiae. If everyone within it views a puzzling story as a mere exaggeration for dramatic effect, then highlighting the story's outlandishness accomplishes nil. An external critic's disagreement about what is and isn't a figure of speech isn't pertinent to them.

In combination, these considerations justify being initially unmoved by the declaration, "I'm not a deplorable racist—I'm a respectable citizen who's concerned about the cultural mismatches between us and them". Clearly, placing focus on "culture" nonetheless provides an abundance of chances to maintain one-sided ideas about massive numbers of human beings, hastily erase all fine distinctions, and typecast the undeserving. The possible consequence is another pile of simplistic attitudes which are barely an improvement.

Cerebral followers, who've learned their lines well, can swiftly repeat the customary retort to remarks such as these: the horrifying spectre of moral relativism. Namely, they assert that people with positions like mine are obligated to say that the morality of every piece of every culture cannot be judged consistently. But I'm not that extreme (or that hypocritical). I cheer well-done critique, if its aim is narrow and precise. And, as much as possible, I prefer that its aim isn't excessively pointed toward, or conspicuously avoiding pointing toward, any singular group of cultures. Thoughtfully learning then delicately responding to an issue isn't the same as sweeping demonization of an entire way of life or of the people who identify with it. When disputing a specific item, I want to hear an explanation of it violating a nonnegotiable ethical principle, not its level of contradiction with sacred tenets or with some alternative's "common sense". Cultures, like other human creations, have sinister corners and blind spots that thoroughly earn our distaste. But we can extend the courtesy of not presuming that sinister appearances are always correct and of reflecting on whether a startling difference is trivial or shallow rather than perverse.

Sometimes this is easy to decide and sometimes not. If it were never complicated for the people deciding, I'd wonder if they're paying enough attention to the whole picture...or if, like an ethnocentrist, they make up their minds beforehand anyway.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

a question of substance

When one group in the habit of ridiculing an opposing group's beliefs, the easily attacked topics become customary. Mentioning them is so commonplace that no additional explanation is necessary anymore. They typically act as familiar, comforting reference points to casually toss in with other remarks. "Well, we shouldn't be shocked by this, after all. Don't ever forget that the mixed-up people we're talking about also believe _____."

For example, the people on the other "side"—I mean those who still follow the set of beliefs that I scrapped—often parrot the superficial story that a lack of sound religious commitment forces the lack of sound ethical commitments. Their false presumption is that ethics are always shaky and individualized apart from systematized religion's supposed timelessness and objectivity. They imagine that people without religion can't have steady principles to work with. Unbelievers' rootless ethics are to blame for every "incorrect" view and behavior. Their morality is said to be hopelessly deficient because they're inventing right and wrong however they wish.

At one time, I would've glibly agreed that this prejudicial story is self-evident. Needless to say, now I object to virtually every aspect of it, from start to finish. I've become part of the group it stigmatizes and seen for myself that it's wrong about us. Fortunately, we can console ourselves with the numerous targets that religious beliefs richly offer us in return. In my setting, usually these take the form of peculiar Christian myths and doctrines. Transubstantiation certainly fits that demand. It's the doctrine that a ritual can replace the substance of food and drink with the "sacred presence" of Christ. Its plain definition is enough on its own to stand out as bizarre and questionable. Quoting the belief of literally eating the real substance of a god suffices as an open invitation for biting commentary.

Simply put, it presents endless possibilities for wisecracks. Let me emphasize that that's mostly fine with me. I'm not broadly opposed to jokes about an idea...especially the rare jokes which manage to be funny and original. Calling attention to an idea's absurdity shouldn't be confused with "insulting" the idea's followers. Too many nations have created oppressive laws through that confusion. Though, at the same time, the more that a joke strays off topic and verges on outright jeering at people, the less I like it. And back in my former days, the more likely I would've been to briskly skip over the joke's message altogether.

My quibble is something else: the humorous treatment of transubstantiation risks an underappreciation of its twisted philosophical side. When a critic shallowly but understandably chuckles that after transubstantiation the items are visibly no different than before, they're not responding to the doctrine's convoluted trickery. According to its premises, the change wouldn't be expected to be detectable anyway. Everything detectable is dismissed as an attribute (some writings use the word "accident" as a synonym of attribute). But the ritual solely replaces the substance.

The distinction between attribute and substance is strange to us because it's a fossil from old debates. These debates' original purpose was to analyze the relationships among the multiple parts of conscious experience. If someone senses one of their house's interior walls, they may see the color of its paint, feel its texture, measure its height, and so on and so on. Ask them twenty questions about it, and the responses build a long list of attributes. After the wall is repainted or a nail is driven into it to hang a picture, then a few of the wall's attributes have changed. But the wall is still a wall. The substance of what it is hasn't changed. After a demolition crew has blasted away at a brick wall, and left behind a chunk, the chunk is still a wall; it's a wall with smaller attributes. In this scheme, a thing's substance is more like an indirect quality, while direct observations of the thing yield its attributes. The attributes are the mask worn by the thing's substance, and the mask has no holes.

The transubstantiation doctrine reapplies such hairsplitting to justify itself. It proposes that the items' attribute side is kept as-is and Christ's presence is on the items' substance side. By a regularly scheduled miracle, the presence looks like the items, tastes like the items, etc. It's subtler than transformation. How exactly is the process said to occur? The answer is mystery, faith, ineffability, magic, or whatever alternative term or combination of terms is preferred. The doctrine asserts something extraordinary, but then again so do official doctrines about virgin births, 3 gods in 1, eternal souls. Merely saying that it violates common sense isn't enough; common sense can be faulty. And merely highlighting its silly logical implications doesn't address its base flaws.

I think it's a fruitful exercise to articulate why the core of it, the split between attribute and substance, isn't plausible. The first reason is probably uncontroversial to everybody whose beliefs are consistent with materialistic naturalism: human knowledge has progressed in the meantime. We can catalog an extensive set of a thing's innate "attributes" through reliable methods. The discoveries have led to the standpoint of understanding a thing through its attributes of chemical composition, i.e. the mixture of molecules of matter within it and the molecules' states. This standpoint is deservedly applauded for its wide effectiveness because, as far as anyone has convincingly shown, human-scale attributes derive from these composition attributes. (Emergence is a strikingly complex form of derivation. Its turbulent results are collectively derived from the intricate combinations of many varied interactions in a large population.)

Asking another twenty questions to gather more attributes isn't necessary. Ultimately, the composition attributes are exhaustive. Removing or modifying these wouldn't leave untouched a remaining hypothetical "substance" of some kind. These have eliminated the gap in explanation that substance was filling in. These aren't on the surface like the attributes obtained by crudely examining a thing's appearance. The suggestion that all factual examination only goes as deep as a thing's outside shell of attributes stops sounding reasonable when modern examination is fully sophisticated and penetrating.

The second reason why the split between attribute and substance isn't plausible is more debatable, although I sure restate it a lot here: the meanings of thoughts should be yoked with actions and realities (outcomes of actions). The connections might be thinly stretched and/or roundabout. At the moment the actions might only be projected by the corresponding thought(s), but if so then there are unambiguous predictions of the real outcomes once (or if) the projected actions take place. The actions might be transformations of thoughts by the brain: recognition, generalization, deduction, translation, calculation, estimation. Under this rule, thoughts of either a thing's attributes or of its substance could mean less than initially assumed.

Attributes are marked by tight association with particular actions considered in isolation. Wall color is associated with the action of eyeing the wall while it's well-lit or capturing an image with a device that has a sufficient gamut. A wall dimension is associated with the action of laying a tape measure along it from end to end, for instance. Substance is marked by the inexact action of classifying things, perhaps for the goal of communicating successfully about them using apt words. It's an abstraction of a cluster of related characteristics. For a wall, a few of these characteristics are shape, i.e. length and height longer than depth, and function, i.e. enclosing an interior space from an exterior space. When the thing matches "enough" of the cluster, the average person would lean toward classifying it as a wall.

The observer is the one who decides whether to treat a characteristic as a flexible attribute or a member in the abstract cluster of a given thing's "essential substance". This is in line with the composition standpoint, which conveys that particles are indifferent to the more convenient labels people use for larger formations. There isn't anything embedded in each particle that evokes one of these categories over the other. The composition standpoint asserts that particles of the same kind are freely interchangeable if the particles' relevant physical properties are alike.

Indeed, particle interchangeability happens to be doubly significant because, as we all know, things deteriorate. A thing's owners may choose to repair or replace its degraded pieces. When they do, they've removed, added, and altered a multitude of its particles. Yet they may willingly declare that the thing is "the same" thing that it was before, just marginally better. In other words, the substance of it hasn't been lost. Like the famous Ship of Theseus, cycles of restoration could eventually eliminate most of the thing's original particles—which may be presently buried in landfills or turned to ashes by fire. Meanwhile biological contexts withstand continual flows of particles too, as cells die, multiply, adapt. If the action of declaring a thing's substance "unchanged" continues on despite its shifting composition, then the meaning of its substance apparently isn't even bound to the thing's matter itself. Part of the substance has to be a subjective construction.

Nevertheless, the consequence isn't that the entire thought of substance must be discarded as utterly false or fake. The coexistence of objective and subjective parts underpins a host of useful thoughts—such as self-identity. Rather, the need is to remember all the parts of the meaning of substance, to avoid the mistake of interpreting it as if it's an independent quantity or quality. Such a mistake could possibly feed the curious conjecture that a wielder of uncanny powers can seamlessly substitute these independently-existing substances upon request...