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Monday, January 18, 2010

"The trouble with facts is that there are so many of them." - Samuel McChord Crothers


An exchange that was contemporaneous with On Reason and Freud, and to which I was referring when I said "reading your posts gives me a headache":

Me: 'Doing away with race may be politically correct, but it does not necessarily eradicate race-related problems'

Someone: But that is nonetheless no reason for persisting in categorising people into races. Who, as implied here, is naive enough to think that "doing away" with race is a panacea for all race-related problems?

Me: You categorise people into races because you can use this data to examine and investigate social issues and problems. That's a great reason to do so.

People who think "doing away with race" will help solve race-related problems:

The French also thought that not collecting racial data would solve racial problems. Obviously that has not happened.

Someone: Does one need racial or ethnic categories in order for problems to become visible, and only when they are rendered visible then they become important enough to take action? If they are a way of rendering social issues and problems visible one can use them as if it's the only/"proper" lens through which one addresses "issues" and "problems", as if these are the only "issues" and "problems" worth attention. This may be loosely called legitimisation: one is legitimised to take action on this basis, but also legitimised to claim that one has no need to take action on any other basis, that there is nothing else to do except through such discourse.

Foucault's point was precisely that discourse and its categories PRODUCE a particular individual/person/subject for consideration. Political/affirmative/corrective action is legitimised by knowledge. The "knowledge" of "social problems and issues" can render certain actions possible, but it can also render other kinds of action unimportant or even unnecessary.

As it were, we have officially problems peculiar to Indians, Chinese, Malays, "Others/Eurasians"? We comfort ourselves that there are no others. Wthout the racial category "Malay" Chiam See Tong could not have raised the issue in Parliament of Malays being appointed to key positions in SAF in 1987, but it also enabled the PAP to say only Malays can solve Malay problems. Legitimisation is not only enabling, it can also disable.

There are always differences between people (sexual orientation, gender, race etc.), that is the way of the world, there is no denying it whatsoever. Taking this as given, and keenly aware of its potential for unjust discrimination, we should work towards rendering these differences INSIGNIFICANT regardless of situations. Make these differences as far as possible unimportant to how a person appears as intelligble *as a person*. No one needs reminding that every individual is different, in sexual orientation, gender, race etc., it is already apparent. Discrimination is a fact of life, but perhaps we can have justice regardless--in spite--of our powers of discrimination?

Me: If there is a problem peculiar to a race, of course you need racial categories in order to solve it. And of course problems need to be visible in order to take action.

If you can't see a problem and you are trying to solve it, then you are just shooting in the dark and hoping you hit something. Hell, you don't even know if there's anything there, so you're wasting ammunition (and you may hit passers-by)

If you are afraid of the misuse of a tool, the right thing to do is not to deprive yourself of the tool but to find ways of using it properly.

If you think a certain discourse is not the best way to deal with a problem, you don't censor that discourse - you come up with alternative (and presumably better) ones.

As I said, without official racial categories in France, we still have racial problems. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

Someone: You're confusing cause and effect, or the chicken-and-egg question. Does a problem exist before we form a concept to describe the problem, to bring it to consciousness? Or is a problem produced by the concept we formulate?

It's also similar to the saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a problem of whacking nail-like objects or metal sheets or some like. What we call "problems" could very well be an effect of the "tool" we are forced to use. You posit a "problem" based on the tool available to you.

Certainly, actively banning or censoring such terms does not solve the "problems" you mention, but again--chicken-and-egg--that's because social conditions as such are always-already formed by discourse which have pre-existed for a very long time in language, culture etc. The "problem" will always be there because it is extremely difficult to abandon it completely and take up another "tool". In order to be able to speak coherently in discourse one is forced to use the very terms that has been laid down and formed before one was born. The collective past, our cultural memories and archives, are saturated with racial discourse which we always find tempting to reactivate and difficult to abandon--again because we pick up what is available and already-there.

And it is not simply a matter of wielding total control over how my own speech can be eradicated of racism: it is simply impossible. Just to raise an example: one can always be quoted out of context. We cannot control how our own controlled utterances can be re-appropriated into "undesirable"/racist utterances.

Yet it is also this uncontrollability that has potential to be re-appropriated into alternative discourses that you request. Is this not the realm of culture and the arts and social discourse to construct alternative ways of speaking-being? If we want the alternative discourses to proliferate, shouldn't we also stop promoting the singularising racial discourses that prevent one from being other than one's race? If I don't have a racial category to submit myself to, won't I be seeking some other multiplicity of identities or ways of speaking-being? If other don't have this racial category to trap me in, they might find some other way of capturing my identity/being that might not be a rehash of racism, but it's an open question as to where it might lead to. Maybe we can work for destabilising any essentialism so that one cannot be captured by, or capture, others.

Someone else: walao so much big words, so much hot air. its like both of you trying to bore each other to death. don't worry, gabriel always wins on this.

Me: Har?

It is an extremely bizarre claim that problems are brought into existence by the formulation of concepts.

I am not limiting myself to any one tool - you are the one who proposes to reduce the number of tools available, while I am in favour of having as many as possible. You say that we should "stop promoting" "singularising racial discourses". Yet, to talk about race is not the same as promoting it as a singularising racial discourse, any more than repealing 377A is "promoting" homosexuality. Again, I am against the degree of racial management that we see in Singapore - but I am for the idea of keeping statistics on it. If you want to promote alternative discourses, you should promote them - instead of trying to suppress others, which is intrinsically illiberal. Infant industries usually come to no good; protectionism just screws everyone.

While what we call "problems" could very well be an effect of the "tool" we are forced to use, I could very well be the King of England. It's no good speculating on what-ifs and what-might-have-beens - you have to give reasons for me to believe your assertions.

Since, as you point out, it is impossible to eradicate discourse, we seem to have a problem here. As with the proposition that the world was created a second ago and that we were created with all our memories intact, there is no way of proving it right (or wrong). Again, you need to *show* how discourse leads to the problems you claim it does.

Perhaps it suffices to say that the grand social experiments of Communism have shown us that trying to sweep away what we think are the debris of the past leads to disaster - either because it's impossible to sweep away such debris or such debris is an intrinsic part of being human (or of a life worth living; in other words sweeping away the debris causes more problems than it solves). As Popper observed, "the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell".

Someone: [Throughout this discussion I assume we're in the context of racial classification in Singapore, esp. wrt. the CMIO categories on the NRIC and Birth Certificate. I am against this racial marking. I assert we don't need it.]

It is also a bizarre claim that one can formulate problems without the concepts/terms one picks up at hand. I believe I tried to make my point sufficiently clear with respect to Michel Foucault: at the level of discourse, to explicitly counter racism in the first place one may need to use those very racial terms and enact the instances of racist speech. That is granted.

That's for *actively* countering and weakening racial discourse. Yet at the same time we also should limit and change the social conditions which incite racist speech. We can start by making these less visible and less prominent in our daily lives. We should in fact make them completely irrelevant, like height, weight, or hair length. We can try not to employ those terms more than is necessary for actively countering (as above) the discursive conditions that incite racist speech. Since we already know racist slurs are bad, let's try not to encourage the idea of race to be used, as far as possible. Why continue to bring up race more than is necessary? If we affirm that race is not important to our free and equal status as citizens, what purpose is served by continuing with this very racial marking?

There is no chicken without the egg, and vice versa. Maybe after all we have to say: chicken or egg, the cycle has to be broken somewhere. Is it a choice between destroying the egg OR the chicken? Ideally both. If not we intervene at both points.

What you seem to claim, however, is to have more chickens and eggs so that we can study the problem more effectively, let them multiply so that we can manage them. It's almost as if we need all those chickens and eggs to keep ourselves busy with problems. Or we need as many hammers as possible so that we can continue hammering and immerse ourselves in problems involving imaginary nails and metal sheets.

Yes, it's very difficult to eradicate racial discourse because it's deeply embedded in our cultures, much of it inherited from the colonial era. It seems like an impasse. But given sufficient time shooting the chickens and crushing eggs, keeping a very few in storage, we might very well change the cultural conditions such that it is very unlikely, and make racism as obsolete as the medieval ideas of the flat earth and witches. [I know it's a terribly lame analogy, but it works in a limited way. You said my previous replies gave you a headache.]

The homophobic sectors of society intentionally construe the repeal of 377a as promoting homosexuality. In order to counter homophobia, I have to talk about homosexuality and reluctantly enact its derogatory instances. Yet outside of this I don't see the need to constantly remind myself and consider a person's homosexuality when relating to him. When we politely and civilly refrain from asking if a person is gay, lesbian or queer, aren't we also trying to render homosexuality redundant in appraising his or her worth as a person?
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