Many of you have probably read the now-famous text by historian James Loewen Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I find that many of my students, especially those who come from liberal or progressive backgrounds, read it in high school or in some other context before they reached college. (Then, subsequently, quickly forgot it.) It's a great text for the marginalized and suppressed historical details it brings to light, but also because of its "meta"-argument (that historical narratives are social constructions, that there are identifiable biases to the historical narratives we are taught, that we should be critical readers of both the seemingly unquestionable "facts" of history and the orthodox interpretations of them). I am particularly sympathetic to Loewen's project because I see it as congruous with at least one part of what I try to do in my classes. Specifically in my courses on philosophy and race or gender, I try to trace the genealogy of things like (theoretical or doctrinal) racism and patriarchy within the mainstream history of (Western) philosophy. The point of these genealogies is not to simply track down and identify the "racists" or "sexists" in the philosophical canon, of course, but rather to try and understand how these ideologies were constructed... and how they might be deconstructed.
Recently, I've noticed a widely held position among many of my students (and some of my colleagues) that arguably could qualify as a philosophical "lie my tacher taught me" of the same sort as the historical ones that Loewen targets in his text. It goes something like this: "The fundamental basis of racism is found in a person's pre-reflective, non- or irrational 'intuition' which figures 'others' (because of their otherness) as essentially different and, consequently, subhuman. Theoretical or doctrinal racism, then, develops simply as an ex post facto attempt to construct a facade of respectability over what is, in truth, a kind of non-theoretical and non-justifiable fear."
Here are my problems with this position. First, it appeals to what seems, in my mind, a highly suspect theory of "first contact." That is, the position assumes that human beings--in the state of nature, if you will--will automatically react with fear and violence to other human beings who appear different because of an innate inability to comrehend or synthesize that difference. My problem is not only that this theory of first contact is disproven by history--it certainly has not been the case, historically, that every first contact between physically and culturally different human beings resulted in the human/subhuman distinction--but also that it requires us to believe that human beings have some natural internal mechanism that distinguishes significant physical differences in other human beings (like skin color, presumably) from insignificant physical differences (like eye or hair color) pre-reflectively and absolutely. To those who appeal to this kind of explanation I ask: why, then, do we not react with the same sort of fear and violence to all people who are different than us in any way?
Second, it seems to me especially suspect to assume that what we call "pre-reflective" judgments are not shaped, to a significant degree, by certain reflections (even if they are not our own reflections). That is to say, it may be the case that "racist" beliefs are irrational, nonrational or pre-reflective, but they are only made possible as such in an environment that has shaped and prepared certain subjects for making those judgments pre-reflectively. I think of it this way: if it is the case that I (as a racist) "pre-reflectively" or "instinctually" determine that non-whites are subhuman and, consequently, not deserving of the same considerations and rights as those who look like me, then that means that I already live in a world in which such distinctions have been theoretically (i.e., reflectively) constructed as relevant and important ones. It means that I live in a world which, through the reflections of others (my family, my church, my politicians, my philosophers), my given is taken to be already-inflected with some (proto- or fully developed) notion of not only the "human" but also something like volk or race.
My point here is to say that I strongly object to the tendency to figure racism as "irrational" or "pre-reflective" simpliciter. That does not mean that I think that racism is always rational (which it never is) or reflective (which is sometimes is), but simply that considering it as the opposite of that commits one to a set of very dubious assumptions (perhaps, "lies") about what shapes human thinking, reflective or otherwise. This, I argue, entangles us in a web of positions from which I am not sure that we can extract ourselves... like, among other things, the position that racism is "natural."
This is, of course, a fast and loose rendering of what I meant to say, but such is the nature of the blog.