18 Aug 2007

Graduation: a Question of Judgement.

The sizes of stones vary from the finest dust particle to enormous boulders. There is a machine which grades stones; it is like a sieve with a mesh which can be varied in size - say for building a road. The mesh size that separates sand from gravel, or gravel from pebbles is a social construction; it is arbitrary in relation to stone in the sense that the largest grain of sand is closer to the smallest piece of gravel than it is to the average grain of sand. Nevertheless, the grade is set to suit the purposes of the builder, and in relation to the builder it is not arbitrary but meaningful. No one is going to try and tell a builder that there are no such things as ‘sand’ and ‘gravel’ really, that they are just social constructions. Of course size isn’t everything, colour, hardness, chemical composition may be more significant for some purposes…

The grading of students at graduation is similarly arbitrary at the margin between, say a 2/2 and a 2/1. Students don’t divide into ‘natural’ kinds in this way, but academics find it useful and meaningful to make these distinctions as social constructions. There is an important difference from the case of stones though, that academics have themselves been through the grading process - 2/2s don’t generally ‘make the grade’ of becoming academic graders. It is as though sand itself decided what was gravel and what was sand, and gravel had no say in the matter. Academia constructs itself, or defines itself, by this recursive process.

‘Human nature’ is similarly constructed in a recursive way; the Catholic church, for instance, operates according to a ‘one cell rule’, where a fertilised egg is already human, whereas the legal position in this country is rather different. Where exactly we draw the boundaries of humanity is debatable, but whatever falls outside the boundary, has no say in the matter because ‘having a say’ is a human attribute - we do not ask chimps to comment! It seems that we have explored the limits of the world and established or decided that there are no debatable individuals as ‘races’ or ‘subspecies’. Yet we know that it could have been otherwise; Neanderthals could have survived for example, talking hairy apes might have been discovered.

The boundary of human nature is fundamental to morality in the sense that what is not human may be treated instrumentally - as an object, whereas what is human may not be so treated. This boundary has changed over time in this society, and indeed in academia. In particular, black Africans were excluded from humanity, and treated ‘like cattle’, as possessions. Women have also been excluded in this way - by the recursive process of self-definition, from that very process. We still have to remind ourselves occasionally, that ‘mankind’ includes women. It is tempting to believe that we can escape from this recursive self definition into an objective view of human nature, but my thesis is that this is impossible, and that recursive self definition is the defining feature of humanity. And there is no escape into vagueness available, because the boundary of what is human defines what it is acceptable to eat, to exploit, to have sexual relations with, etc. We cannot do without a clear distinction here. Whether one analyses philosophically or not, life decisions are continually being made on the basis of sameness and otherness, as to who/what one has to care about, take account of etc.

Ideas of Race are similar to, and closely involved with the idea of human nature; they are in a sense, (at least nowadays, and according to respectable opinion) subdivisions of ‘humanity’ and partake of the same features of recursion and arbitrariness. The one-drop rule sets an arbitrary limit on blackness; it is at the extreme end of the black/white spectrum, so that on one side the distinction is very fine (the finest sand) and on the side there are many variations (gravel, pebbles, great boulders). In South America there is a different grading system. But remember, the grader in this case, is also a stone and whatever mesh you are using, you have to jump through it too.

In this country, people do not generally eat dog or horse meat - horses are regarded almost as part of the family, human by association, and therefore taboo. Intellectual rigor gives way to ‘gut feeling’. It seems likely that notions of race are subject to similar non rational associations; what is familiar, close to me, similar to me, I am inclined to treat more respectfully. ‘Human’ always means ‘human like me’. If I could think of myself as an animal, and not morally distinguish ‘humanity’, I would, by my own definition, either be a vegetarian or a cannibal. There is an inevitable short-sightedness. If I am sand, I’m on the look out for other grains of sand, I know about sand and I am very good at discriminating. If I am gravel, I have a different point of view.

In matters of race the speaker has a (short-sighted) point of view, a race to be taken into account. When people say of other races, as they do, “they all look the same”, it’s human nature; for the qualities that are close to me are more meaningful than those that are far away. However you set your scales of difference and sameness, the chances are that you give yourself more importance. What is taken into account at the graduation of students is what is important to those who set the exams. And who is important, is who passes the exams, because who passes is who sets. And those same people, the leading thinkers, to a great extent also define the categories of thought, like race and human nature, which are the social constructs which construct society.

There is inevitably a question of power, here. Whose writ runs? The Judeo-Christian (white?) tradition has an origin mythology in which humanity is characterised by the fall from the state of nature into (self) knowledge and shame for the naked (animal) body. It is hardly surprising that the sight of Africans with different facial features, different hair, different skin, and above all shamelessly naked, would raise questions of human boundaries in the minds of the first Europeans to encounter them. Likewise, the Africans probably saw the white men as angels or ghosts. But whose writ runs? Who has the guns! The academic tradition has its roots in the monastic tradition, and follows the mythology to the extent at least of emphasising knowledge as being of primary significance in characterising human nature. The tradition long was that women were excluded from universities, and on the whole, they are still dominated by white males. And everyone ‘other’ has to prove their humanity first, before they even get to have a voice, leave alone a say, in what constitutes good, rational, human, thinking.

We like to think we have moved beyond all this now; we used to be racist and sexist individually and institutionally, but these days we are egalitarian and inclusive… but who is this ‘we’? The story is still being told by the white man, a black woman cannot subscribe to it. She would have to say that we used to be racially and sexually oppressed and excluded – and it looks like we still are.

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