When the Data is Errata

You may have seen an open letter that was recently written by some indignant Black students at Claremont Colleges, a consortium of pricy schools in Los Angeles. The occasion of their letter was a planned lecture by Heather Mac Donald, in which I understand the Black Lives Matter movement will be denounced, and to the delivery of which these students are consequently opposed. The burden of their letter is that speech is Power, so power is speech, and censorship therefore enjoys Constitutional protection.

Or something like that.

I’m here to quibble with a couple of the students’ facts, which will hardly bother the students, but may interest some of you.

The students write

Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples.

Historically, white supremacy was actually the doctrine that whites should not submit to being governed by non-whites. This sometimes became the doctrine that whites were a “master race” that was destined to govern all races, but most white supremacists understood that European empires would not endure forever, and were deeply worried about the fate of whites in the post-colonial world. Charles Henry Pearson’s National Life and Character (1893) is a good place to begin if you wish to understand what white supremacists actually believed.

One thing white supremacists most certainly did not believe was that whites were in every respect superior to other races. In fact, the doctrine of white supremacy presumes white inferiority in certain vital respects. That’s why white supremacists argued that there should be white countries. Pearson, for instance, believed that whites could not compete with the superior industry of the Asiatic or the superior fecundity of the African, and that this white inferiority justified the “White Australia Policy.”

One can, of course, dispute this doctrine on factual, moral, or religious grounds, but conflation of the doctrine of white supremacy and the doctrine of white superiority is a mark of historical ignorance (or mendacity).

White supremacists believed they were engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival—what the sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz called race-struggle. Here’s Gumplowicz describing the thesis of his book Rassenkampf (1883).

“Humanity undoubtedly derived from a single birthplace . . . . Thereupon followed a long period . . . in which the race spread in countless branches, which grew, under the influence of different environment . . . into the many races and varieties.”

“In historical times . . . the reverse process occurs . . . . The heterogeneous elements come into contact . . . .There follows a struggle for existence . . . . We live in the later age.”

This idea of race-struggle was not distinctly right-wing. Listen to the premier socialists of early twentieth-century Britain, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, writing in Problems of Modern Industry (1902).

“The lesson of evolution seems to be that inter-racial competition is really more momentous in its consequences than that struggle between individuals.”

“The real interests of the community . . . to hold its own in the race struggle—that competition between communities which is perhaps now becoming the main field of natural selection.”

“White supremacists” were far from certain that whites could “hold their own” in the race-struggle, which would seem a very morbid pessimism if they were at the same time confident in white superiority.  I submit that their respect for “objectivity” derived from a belief that, in this struggle, truth would be more useful than falsehood.

Back to the Claremont students:

The idea that there is a single truth—’the Truth’—is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain.

If the first clause of this sentence means that the Law of Noncontradiction is an invention of the eighteenth century, then we must, with all due respect, demur. This Law has been propounded for millennia. If it means that the West is unique in believing in a reality independent of men’s thoughts about that reality, this is also false. The Chinese, for instance, have for a very long time believed in what they call the Tao, by which they mean “the way” that conforms with what is actually so.

If there are, indeed, enlightenment thinkers who believed that black and brown people are “impervious to pain,” I have yet to encounter them. If these students would take a look at Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), a landmark of the European enlightenment, they would, for instance, find an unqualified argument for the greater sensitivity of tropical peoples. The idea in fact goes back to Hippocrates, but Montesquieu gave it a distinctly eighteenth-century twist with his famous experiment with ice and a sheep’s tongue.

It was this greater sensitivity of tropical people, according to enlightenment philosophers, that accounted for their aversion to hard work, their overactive imaginations, and their limited success with chastity. Here’s Montesquieu explaining the seclusion of women among the brown people of the Islamic world as a consequence of their greater sensitivity.

“There are climates in which the physical aspect has such strength that morality can do practically nothing. Leave a man with a woman; a temptation is a fall, attack is sure, and resistance null. In these countries there must be bolted doors instead of precepts.”

It is true that many philosophers of the European enlightenment did not hold Africans in especially high regard, and that many wrote about them in ways that were less than flattering, but I do not believe they credited them with imperviousness to pain.

Please point me to countervailing examples, if you know of any.

9 thoughts on “When the Data is Errata

  1. Pingback: When the Data is Errata | @the_arv

  2. I can point you to at least one countervailing example, but it takes a good deal of paranoia on one’s part as well as wrenching of the passage in question out of context, to arrive at the conclusion that the author considered Africans in particular to be “impervious to pain.”:

    In the section of his Physical Geography (c. 1873) titled The Human Family, under 2. Diversity, Arnold Guyot wrote that,

    The temperament is here ardent and impulsive, the emotions responding with the vivacity of childhood to every impression, whether joyous or sad; there it is cold, passive, as in old age, almost insensible alike to pain or pleasure.

    By “here” Guyot must mean, well, here I guess; by “there” he must mean over there, as in Africa from whence Africans hail.

    He does go on to say of the native Africans (or Negro Race, as he later refers to them) that they

    have, by themselves, made only the first steps in civilization, and the great mass are still in the savage state. Where they have been brought under the influence of cultured nations, however, they have shown themselves capable of a high degree of progress.


    • I’ve read the quote in context and believe you’re construction is correct. Over the course of the 19th century, anthropology grew more more empirical, and it may be the black and brown peoples of the world grew more sullen. Enlightenment anthropology, like enlightenment thought generally, was derived from first principles rather than careful observation. Montesquieu’s theory said the “fibers” would relax in a warm climate:

      “A cold air constringes the extremities of the external fibers of the body . . . warm air relaxes and lengthens the extremities of the fibers . . . People are therefore more vigorous in cold climates . . . In cold countries they have very little sensibility in pleasure; in temperate countries they have more; in warm countries their sensibility is exquisite.”

      He then went looking for examples to “prove” his point.

  3. Pingback: When the Data is Errata | Reaction Times

  4. “Objectivity” is a slippery word. Object of what? Object of perception? (which is what the English Empiricist tradition means by it) What of e.g. patterns, such as a tune, which are not perceived by the senses, but grasped by the understanding?

    If you accept “object of perception,” one runs into a number of puzzles. Thus, Wittgenstein notes, “”But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain-behaviour accompanied by pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?”—Admit it? What greater difference could there be?—”And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing”—Not at all. It is not a something., but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here.

    The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts—which may be about houses, pains, good and evil, or anything else you please.”

  5. most white supremacists understood that European empires would not endure forever, and were deeply worried about the fate of whites in the post-colonial world.

    Silly white supremacists.

  6. Just as (g)od does not equal (G)od…

    “white supremacist” does not equal white Supremacist…

    And all of the most radical relativists know this to be so.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.