Slightly different construct, same function

Slightly different construct, same function September 18, 2014

Highlighting incidents of “white-on-white” violence is a way of flipping the script to help us see the very different narratives and interpretations that get applied to those from majority/powerful/hegemonic groups as opposed to those from minority groups.

When crimes are committed by white men in America, those crimes are never attributed to the criminals’ whiteness or maleness. The individuals who commit them are judged and interpreted individually — either as uniquely depraved or as tragically insane, but either way, their actions are never expanded into sweeping claims about white people or white culture more generally.

But when crimes are committed by black men in America, their blackness is treated as the key to understanding and explaining the criminals’ actions — and it becomes offered, implicitly or explicitly, as evidence of some supposed general black criminality. If a black criminal’s victims are white, this is interpreted to reinforce the larger theory that black people as a whole pose a threat to white people as a whole — that black people are somehow essentially and violently anti-white. If a black criminal’s victims are also black, then this gets interpreted as evidence to reinforce the larger theory that black people are essentially violent and criminal (and, thus, essentially inferior).

Again, this never happens with white criminals. For weeks after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, America agonized over the question of why. But that question was always directed at trying to understand the mind of a single disturbed individual. Why, oh why, we asked, did that individual man Adam Lanza kill all those children? We did not ask why, oh why, do white men go around killing children?

That’s how this works here in America when it comes to white and black. And that seems to be how this works throughout the West when it comes to Islam.

Adbelkader in 1985. He doesn’t count. He’s an exception. (Click photo for story.)

Sectarian violence in Iraq tends to get viewed through the same interpretive lens that gives us the imaginary construct of “black-on-black violence.” It gets expanded into evidence of some essential Islamic criminality. We didn’t much care about ISIS when it was mostly just a bunch of Sunnis killing Shiites or a bunch of Sunnis killing people they regarded as the wrong kind of Sunnis. To the extent that got our attention at all, it was mainly as a convenient confirmation of our desire to interpret “Muslim-on-Muslim violence” as supposed evidence of some supposedly inherent Muslim criminality and inferiority.

But when that violence spilled over to be directed against people closer to our tribe — Iraqi Christians and Western journalists — we reflexively returned to that fearful script that interprets all Muslims as somehow essentially and violently anti-Western.

Both of those scripts — the “Muslim-on-Muslim violence” narrative that mirrors our American “black-on-black violence” narrative, and the fearful “Clash of civilizations” narrative that projects inherent menace a la Birth of a Nation — require us to view Muslims as Other, and as essentially inferior.

That sounds a lot like racism. But but but … it can’t be like racism, because Islam is not a “race.” Yeah, well, black and white aren’t “races” either. And Hutu and Tutsi were fictional constructs of colonialism. It doesn’t matter how we construct the construct, it serves the same purpose.

Adam Kotsko addressed this in a post titled “On the old saw, ‘Islam isn’t a race.'” That was written back at the beginning of August, before Charismanews published its endorsement of genocide and before Sam Harris rushed to assure us all that he really does believe Muslims are inferior.

Here’s Kotsko:

Many people have suggested that this anti-Islam sentiment is racist, and the response is always that Islam isn’t a race and hence being opposed to Islam can’t be racism.

Let’s unpack that. For these thinkers, Islam is obviously a bad and destructive system of thought. Yet billions of people spend their whole lives trying to live according to these stupid teachings, generation after generation. What’s worse, in the modern world, they have ready access to knowledge about the superior system of secular modernity, but they persist in embracing a crappy religion. At a certain point, you have to wonder if there is simply something wrong with such people, right? Perhaps their reasoning capacities are hampered in some way. Indeed, one begins to wonder, could it perhaps be something … inborn?

Obviously atheists won’t embrace the extrapolation I’ve just made, but it’s ultimately the only conclusion — if Islam is a terrible thing, and if people continue to embrace it despite knowing about a superior alternative, there must be something wrong with those people’s reasoning capacity that doesn’t allow it to reach the high level of white people’s.

A really robust belief in the powers of human reason, of course, would take us in the opposite direction: if all human beings have basically equal reasoning capacity, and if billions upon billions of people have found Islam to be plausible and appealing, then there must be something good about Islam.

Sam Harris, Charisma, et. al., would strongly disagree, suggesting that Kotsko is an apologist for terror and violence, beheadings and totalitarianism. But that objection just confirms the presumption of inherent inferiority at work in their interpretation. For them, Islam is identified with and identified by the worst and most violent examples they can find. And only by those examples.

Again, that works a lot like racism. It is certainly, by definition, prejudice. Every bad example is deemed typical and archetypical. Every counterexample to that pre-judged identity is either ignored or dismissed as a meaningless exception to the prevailing theory. Tens of thousands of the very worst people to be found are held up as the definitive exemplars whose thuggery somehow proves that hundreds of millions of good people must be just like them. The terrorists of ISIS are presumed to represent all of Islam in precisely the way that the terrorists of the Klan are never allowed to represent all of whiteness.

With this lens in place, none of the world’s billion Muslims can ever be treated, judged or interpreted as an individual the way that white male Americans like me and Adam Lanza and Arthur Bremer get to be. We enjoy the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty, they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise. When individuals like us are proven guilty, we are dismissed as exceptions to the presumed norm. When individuals like them are proven unthreatening, they are dismissed as exceptions to the presumed norm.

Maybe that’s not technically “racism,” but it sure works the same.

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