Bigotry and Racism
I was once asked to write an essay for a European group on bigotry, which I did. But I was never very happy with the results. I realised in retrospect that I had treated bigotry as a sociological and historical problem and had neglected the psychological or spiritual aspect. Strictly speaking, it is racism that is the sociological problem, while bigotry is the psychological or attitudinal correlate to racism. But they shouldn’t be treated as synonymous.
Unfortunately, they are. This results in confusion and ineffective remedial approaches to the problems of bigotry and racism. And resolving these problems is one of the more urgent tasks of the new planetary era in the process of formation. Bigotry has always been with us historically. Racism, on the other hand, is something relatively new although related to bigotry. Bigotry is an attitude, but racism is a scientistic ideology purporting to be based upon disinterested principles of “universal reason”. Racism is something unique to modernity that is associated with the mental-rational structure of consciousness and deficient perspectivisation.
The historical origins of the word “bigot” are a little murky, but my research seems to suggest that the word derives from the name “Visigoth” — a large Germanic tribe that overran Rome and much of the Roman Empire in its declining stages. Apparently, the Visigoths did not think much of the tribes and peoples they conquered as they swept through and gobbled up the remnants of the Roman Empire. A number of Northern European tribes have left their names behind in common language as indelible reminders of their destructive historical passing — the Vandals and the Franks. Vandal is obvious. We’ve kept the word “frank” in phrases like “speaking frankly” or “frank talk” meaning brutal bluntness, ruthless, or unsparing, merciless or impolitic speech. As Nietzsche pointed out in his geneaology of morals, the northern barbarians thought of themselves as “noble” and those they conquered as ignoble. Christians thought of them more as nihilists, and so their tribal names became associated with violence, destruction, and nihilism.
If the word “bigot” is indeed descended from “Visigoth” (as seems very likely) it appears that early Christians associated bigotry with barbarian and pagan attitudes and as something deeply incompatible with Christian ideals about the brotherhood of man within the universality of God. It was the spread of Christianity and these ideals that dissolved tribal boundaries and the Age of the Tribes. This actually wasn’t completed until the 14th century, when the last outposts of European tribalism were penetrated by the Gospels. That’s an interesting date, since this triumph of “Christendom” and the Holy Roman Empire corresponds with the beginning disintegration of the Church “universal and triumphant” into schism and sectarianism. It’s as if the Church, having conquered tribalism, had actually ingested and taken this same tribalism and paganism internally into itself. This is not at all unusual as the fate of empires. There’s a kind of karmic law at work in that respect.
It’s a good lesson our so-called “neo-imperialists” and reactionary conservatives should take note of. Empires are self-destructive. They tend to ingest and metabolise the very things that tend to devour them from the inside out (oftentimes, not necessarily a bad thing).
There’s an old common saying (if I remember it correctly) that may be applicable here: you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The fault lines of many theological controversies — the “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” of its day — occurred along older tribal boundaries and are still influential, even if unconsciously so. Our present party politics is a secularisation of what were originally theological controversies. Liberalism, conservatism, socialism, anarchism were all originally Christian sects that erupted during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Many of the same fractious and schismatic issues afflict Islam today and seem to map to similar ancient tribal boundaries that Mohammad had attempted to subordinate to the commonwealth of the Ummah and the one God. Female circumcision, for example, as practised in some parts of Africa, is not Islamic. It’s tribal. It indicates an incomplete conversion to Islam. It would probably horrify Mohammad. But the same problems and dangers existed for the Ummah as they did for Christendom — that the Ummah would inadvertently take into itself the same fractious tribalism (notions of “honour”, titles, etc) that became the undoing of Christendom too.
A friend once tried to convince me that racism was “natural.” He was confused about this. It’s a common and a very dangerous confusion and delusion. Racism is not “natural’. It is a scientistic doctrine or ideology based upon articulated (but dubious) “scientistic” premisses that are completely post-Christian (in the Western context) but which seek to provide a self-justifying and rationalistic basis for bigotry. Racism is, in that sense, the self-consciousness of bigotry in the same way that formal logic is the self-consciousness of thinking. Xenophobia — or fear of the stranger, the strange or unknown — is the “natural” response. Almost every animal fears the stranger (although I’ve encountered in my bush journeys some very unusually curious and friendly animals in that respect, including a bear). But to call something “natural,” or to excuse all such behaviour as “natural,” is to say that we need not take ethical responsibility for that behaviour. “Natural” is not necessarily good, although this is often confused today. We are natural beings, of course. But we are also called upon to become more than natural, to become “supernatural” — that is, fully conscious beings. What is called “transcendence” means no more than that. As Castaneda’s teacher don Juan put it, we are human, and our lot is to learn and to become conscious.
What I have learned about bigotry and racism is that they are both aspects of ethno-centrism, and ethno-centrism is only another aspect of human narcissism. Narcissism is an impediment to learning, and thus an impediment to becoming fully conscious and fully human — or even transhuman. Bigotry is a problem because it is an impediment and obstacle to learning and to becoming more conscious and thus, more than human. In that respect, it does far more spiritual damage to the bigot than it does to the victim of bigotry, who is very often ennobled and spiritually strengthened by persecution. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietzsche famously put it. The bigot is prevented, by his or her own attitude, from fully participating in the universal celebration and solidarity of life. In fact, it is the very nature of bigotry or partisanship to deny such universality, and so the bigot is the truly exiled, peripheral and marginal figure, spiritually speaking. And it is precisely such universality that is under attack today by fractious controversialists and reactionaries of all kinds.
There is a certain irony, in fact, that as the planet becomes more integrated, there is a corresponding retreat from the Enlightenment ideal of universality in the West, originally a Christian ideal of the brotherhood of man within the universality of God later become secularised as “Universal Reason”. Universality is under attack everywhere, and this simply corresponds to Nietzsche’s earlier announcement of “the death of God”. This outcome is not Nietzsche’s fault. He simply interpreted the signs of the times and gave them a name and a cause. That he still believed in the brotherhood of man despite the breakdown of “universality” he affirmed in his imperative “be true to the Earth!” And that has actually become the first principle of the environmental movement and of “the global soul” — the founding principle of the new planetary era, which will also be the Life Era.
Quite remarkable when you think about it. It wasn’t until one generation later, after the First World War, that the word “ecology” was invented to describe the interconnectedness and solidarity of all life on Earth. And, as mentioned earlier, it is probably no accident that the first man to re-name “the Great War” as “World War,” Ernst Haeckel, was also the man who invented the word “ecology”.
We can say that bigotry and racism are obstacles to achieving this consciousness of the solidarity of all life, and the solidarity of all life today is no longer represented presently by the principle of “universality” but by ecology. Biology emerged to save the day for universality. The earlier value of universality has decayed latterly into a mere insipid notion of homogeneity and uniformity, supplying even a rationale for neo-imperialism. This is still reflected in the confusion of the terms assimilation (making same) with integration (making whole). They are treated as synonymous, but they are not. The word “integration” comes from the Latin for “mend” or “heal” or “make whole.” Assimilation means “make same”. Ecology is, in that sense, the new and more mature understanding of universality as integral functioning. It does not confuse assimilation (or making the same) with ecology as making whole or sound. Today, many are coming to understand that universality and wholism are not identical.
This is very important to understand: ecology is the new universality, which elevates “universality” to a higher level of understanding. The breakdown or “deconstruction” of universality and its monologic is also its reconstitution as ecology and the solidarity of life through its very diversity. Ecology still expresses the universality of life — all life — but by other means. This distinction, but also correspondence, is one of the more stunning verifications of historian Jean Gebser’s views that we are presently in transition from one defective consciousness structure to another, healthier one — the integral consciousness.
This is another aspect of what I call Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and differences between the values of universality and ecology express this relationship. This distinction bears on the controversy, presently, between the assimilatory or integality, or between the absolutist and the relativistic. The former was the express identity of the Modern Era, the latter the incipient value of the planetary or global era in which many different historical traditions and peoples must co-exist. The “malaise of Modernity” is the breakdown of modernity’s now perverse and deficient understanding of its primary values in terms of the absolute and the universal now only understood in terms of global homogeneity and uniformity. (This was Fukuyama’s confused conception in his book The End of History and the Last Man). The only way it can preserve and extend its values today is by violence and imperialism. On the other hand, the emergent ecological consciousness today eschews assimilation (and thus imperialism) in favour of integration, and rejects the monological, or value and power absolutism. It is this same difference that also comes into play today in the contest between the “clash of civilisations” versus “multiculturalism”.
This historical bifurcation between old and new consciousness is simply the indication of the shift in consciousness structures that Gebser forecast over a half-century ago, from the “mental-rational structure” (now become “deficient rationality” in his terms) to the budding integral structure of consciousness. Although ecological or integral consciousness is still somewhat inarticulate (as all new birth is) it still represents the core values of the future. If the principle of ecology in biology is “many species, one biosphere,” the equivalent understanding of the new consciousness is “many traditions, one human history”. And where all human traditions become aspects of a universal human history, all human history then becomes the autobiography of “the global soul.”
The disgust with racist ideologies, in academic circles or elsewhere, is owing to the fact that it undermines the very principle of universality itself. What the new discipline of “cultural ecology” attempts is a way beyond culture war or “clash of civilisations” completely and beyond the latent deficiencies of “universality” or “universal reason” now coming to a head. What cultural ecology presently lacks, however, is a cogent model of thinking about the planetary era and the full relationship of cultures to the planet and to each other. This ecological model of the “new” universality, in terms of integrality or ecology, is what Jean Gebser and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy attempted to articulate in their work.
Ecology is the new form that the old “universality” takes in the post-modern West. Many people don’t like that, or simply don’t understand it. But “the global soul” of the future will be a complete holistic ecology in its own right, and that means a new integrity. This integralism is the new form universality takes — nonpartisan (aperspectival), cognisant of the Earth as being a unitary entity, comfortable with the paradoxical and seemingly contradictory, but respectful of the diversity life as a whole. Most especially, it will be concerned with health in its broadest sense. This may even become (as Rosenstock-Huessy anticipated) a new core revolutionary principle in itself. And “health” is the very meaning of the word “integral” or “whole”.
I suspect Rosenstock-Huessy was right, and that we are embarking upon a new phase of world revolution which will place the value of health at its core. In that sense, Karl Marx was also right… but maybe for the wrong reasons. I think we are entering a period of World Revolution in which “the global soul” will become manifest and realised. There are some interesting aspects to the so-called “Arab Spring” that suggest that the revolutions in the Middle East do transcend geography or just local Arab or Muslim history. There are some aspects of these revolutions that give them universal and global significance.
That’s for another post.