Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Turning the tables: How revolutions do choke on themselves

What do the anti-smoke lobby, women’s lib, socialism and black emancipation have in common? That enlightenment largely is the new darkness.
They are all movements to righten glaring injustice by continuing the problem they want to solve. Turning the tables is just turning the tables. George Orwell ends Animal Farm with: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

What is the case for female emancipation? Thousands of years of oppression. What better case is there? What stronger case is there? Still, emancipation is largely more of the same, just turned inside out.
Oppression of women is based on the idea that women are a different kind, that to know that someone is a woman is telling a thing or two. Even when there are true statistical difference, you can’t judge individuals on that. ‘Women are more emotional than men.’  Let’s assume that we know what we mean by that and that the difference is statistically significant, still there will be millions and millions of women being more businesslike than millions and millions of men. If being or not being emotional would be a meaningful difference, let’s say for a particular job, the fact that a particular candidate is male or female is highly irrelevant. Or should be. Unless we pick blindly - what only people do who are grossly incompetent and grossly indifferent.

The essence of discrimination is lack of discrimination, is to think in abstract generalities instead of concrete individuals. Likewise, many women really think that men are a different kind of people.
Does having different physical equipment mean different qualities and different preferences? Again: statistically yes - at least in many respects and not at all in many more. But individually not at all.
If being a muslim gives ten times more probability to be a suicide bomber (I am making this up), still 99,999% percent of Muslims aren’t. The evil is in generalizing in judging individuals.
The way many women talk about men is just turning the tables, historically understandable, to say the very least, but simply continuing thinking in stereotypes. Also, many black people think about white people as if they were a different kind.
There may be real differences in skin color, in gender, in money, in religion, in culture, in sexual preference, in age. But seeing individual people in such categories is not very helpful.
Black people who see white people as racist are racist. Women who see men as bigoted are bigoted. Non-smokers who see smokers as dumb and evil are dumb and evil. Poor people who see rich people as bastards, are bastards.
When revolutionaries win, they usually treat others like they have been treated. When tyranny is toppled, injustice trades places. Whoever runs Russia becomes a czar, whoever ends on top in Egypt becomes a pharaoh.

And now we have modern, enlightened people who embrace diversity and celebrate gays, bisexuals and transgenders, celebrate everyone who used to be considered outlandish, exotic, handicapped or weird. They are inclusive of outsiders and they celebrate their own broad-mindedness and open-mindedness.
The only people they reject and even despise are the narrow-minded, the petty-minded, the bigoted, the nationalists, the populists, the racists, the backward. The people that voted for Trump. The despicables.
 White is the new black. The tables have been turned. And sometimes the compliment is returned again: the backlash.
Progressives despise conservatives; conservatives despise progressives.

Any social or political movement that downgrades the unwanted, the despicables, that has contempt in its diet, is a social ill. Contempt is the great poison, humiliation is the great evil.
So, if we would eradicate these tendencies in ourselves, we would solve the problem. Without these unwanted, primitive judgments we would be clear-headed, objective, neutral. Yes, but probably also tasteless, robot-like, autistic.
So, if there is a solution, there is only a partial one.

In individual cases, we should be aware of our tendency to generalize and look through our own filters. When I was 19, I boarded a bus in Amsterdam-West with six or seven black man in it and felt somewhat threatened. I was shocked by my own discrimination. Why was this? Was I a bigot myself?
Coming back to it several times in the next month, I suddenly found the explanation: I couldn’t read their faces, they looked all the same to me. But once you are in Surinam, where black people are in the majority, this apparent sameness dissolves in a few days and you see and sense the individual differences like at home.
When I first landed in Tokyo, I saw a mass of Japanese that all looked the same - though I noticed the difference between young and old and between male and female. After a week or so, I saw them like I see Dutch people: in their individual differences. Some businesslike, some artistic; some expressive, some reserved.
My guess is that when you would be among a tribe or among a rather isolated rural area anywhere in the world, it may take you a few days or a few weeks extra to sense the individual differences.

Prejudice is natural. When we hear that some stranger at a party has been just released from years in prison or in a mental institution, that strongly influences the way we see that person. That is unavoidable. Bur we should see our first impressions as a starting point, not an end point.
We look differently to obviously very poor people and to obviously very rich people. Especially when our own financial position is not too bad, but vulnerable.
We look differently to very famous people. And fame rubs off—a little. “Yesterday I bumped into Brad Pitt! And he smiled at me!”
We walk with prejudice and we meet prejudice. Some of us meet a lot of it.
There is painfully little we can do about that. But we can do something about our own prejudice: consider our first impressions simply as our first impressions.

If we would like to improve society, naturally we dislike those who are opposed to these improvements. We want to overcome their objections, their resistance. We see our opponents as backwards—or as arrogant. We want change, if necessary: revolution. But revolutions most of the time end in chaos—or in more of the same: upturned tables that are indistinguishable from the old ones. Sometimes marginally better, sometimes clearly worse.
What remains is to study and understand how really successful improvements have come about, how some new countries really have taken off, how some revolutions really have been beneficial. There is reason for optimism, but at least as much reason for pessimism.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Beware of pigheaded do-gooders. Don’t be one yourself.

(Disclaimer: This writer declares that he has nothing against doing good—and nothing against pigs. He even doesn’t eat them.)

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