Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again.

In reality, if such a trend is actually happening — which is itself usually questionable — then it is the effect that needs to be accounted for, not the cause. Something about our society is exerting an anti-optimistic force upon people. Claiming that the decline in optimism is the cause of our woes is a form of victim-blaming.

This form of analysis becomes more toxic when applied to disadvantaged communities. When a conservative ponders the systemic difference in life chances between whites and blacks in America, for instance, an explanation that leaps to mind is that the black community displays some kind of dysfunctionality. Yet if we examine the claim further, we see that this apparently social explanation is really just a generalization about the moral turpitude of a critical mass of black people (usually black men, who for some inexplicable reason don’t wind up fulfilling the duties of fatherhood). Similarly, if we ask about the root causes of violent movements that claim to be advancing Islam, it turns out that there is a society-wide despair, rejection of modernity, clinging to outdated tradition, etc. — yet again, a generalization about a critical mass of individuals being weirdly stubborn or something.

In both cases, the victim-blaming dynamic is much clearer. And though the “cultural” explanation was specifically formulated to avoid explicit racism, it only takes a couple steps to get there. These people live in an inferior culture that hurts their life chances, and that culture is the result of a critical mass of people choosing poorly. Why do they put up with it? Could it be that there’s something wrong with all of them? For instance, something inborn — since the group is, after all, defined by ethnic descent.

And this brings me to the thought that prompted this post in the first place: all attempts to explain systemic causes as the result of a critical mass of individual choices tend toward racism. It’s clearest when we’re dealing with groups already scapegoated through racialization — such as blacks in America or post-colonial populations in the Middle East — but we can also see it happening with dysfunctional “white trash” populations in the US, who are effectively treated as an inferior subset of the white race (who, unfortunately, are having way more kids than the smart whites, ha ha! — a joke that is disturbingly pervasive, even among ostensibly liberal-progressive white people).

This fits with the origins of racial thinking in early modernity. Why are Africans enslaved? Well, it turns out that there’s something inherent about them that makes them enslavable. Why are colonial populations being conquered and exploited? Again, there’s something inherent about them that requires our benevolent guidance.

In other words, racial thinking originates as a victim-blaming discourse, and I would suggest that this is why it arises specifically within Christianity. By 1492, Christians had had over a millennium of practice at thinking of something inborn as morally culpable, namely original sin, and more than that, of creating sub-populations defined by a “second layer” of original sin (most notably the Jews). It is undeniable that other cultures, perhaps most cultures, created regimes of superiority and inferiority based on ethnic descent, but the Christian innovation comes in specifically moralizing it. That is what gives modern racism its specific flavor, because it creates a regime in which race-based treatment warrants either eternal punishment (black slaves) or purgatorial striving (the civilizing mission of colonization).

Hence I hypothesize that if the Muslims or the Chinese had gotten to the Western hemisphere first, the shape of the modern world would have been very different — still characterized by exploitation and domination, of course, but at least spared the global propagation of moralized racial thinking.

5 thoughts on “Social theory, race, and theology

  1. Very much agreed with this. There’s a specific Christian invention according to which “one can / should become better” — a sort of universal call to redemption (which i think about in terms of conversion).

    Of course, such becoming better — which is issued to all beings, from the time of good news to the time of new media — is an utter hallucination. It is not real. And so investment in its achievement can be maintained only insofar as one is able to imaginatively identify a group of those who have not achieved it.

    In other words: the impossibility of my achieving conversion (i.e., a better life) is warded off by the possibility of my imagining myself as more fully converted than others / more convertible than others (i.e., on the path to a better life).

  2. Also, what I just said about the Christian invention of “one can / should become better” is likewise the invention of “society can / should become better.” And so the question then becomes: how to oppose the logic of people like Brooks without grounding such opposition in the idea society should become better?

  3. I’m reminded of the classic Steve Taylor song, “Since I Gave Up Hope, I Feel A Lot Better.” Also certain versions of the psychoanalytic cure, when you are cured of the very idea that you can or should get “better.”

  4. Thanks for this blog. Very insightful and clearly expressed.
    I have been thinking about the Brexit vote and Trump election, victories have resulted in the legitimisation of racism and white supremacy.
    Institutionalised policing practises such as widespread racial profiling and stigmatisation of Muslims have been introduced under policies such as Prevent.
    Profiling is symptomatic of what you refer to as “the conservative faux scientific trend that likes to think it has tracked down structural or systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans”.
    This moralising as pseudo science is prevalent in western European thinking on radicalisatiin. Olivier Roy, one of France’s top experts on Islamic terrorism, tells Haaretz how assailants like Salman Abedi in Manchester turn into ‘new radicals’ who crave death. An estimated 60 percent of those who espouse violent jihadism in Europe are second-generation Muslims who have lost their connection with their country of origin and have failed to integrate into Western societies,” Roy says.
    They are subject to a “process of deculturation” that leaves them ignorant of and detached from both the European society and the one of their origins. The result, Roy argues, is a dangerous “identity vacuum” in which “violent extremism thrives.”
    Roy states that third generation Muslims do not have problem as they are by then fully integrated into our way of living.
    This culturisation is looked on as a naturalisation that tames the chaotic potential of savagery. It’s very interesting to relate this to historical colonial Christian conversion.

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