I can’t stop reading about Myanmar and having this strange, simple thought:
I really don’t get genocide.
Like, A + B = I’m going to systematically slaughter your entire people and also retroactively define what ‘your people’ is as different to my own people so that I can continue systematically slaughtering them?
I mean… what?
I get racism. I don’t like it, I seek to combat it in myself and the world, but I understand where it comes from.
Racism: A History
In extremely overly simplistic terms:
Economically/militarily dominant group wishes to enslave/exploit/colonize other group, retroactively defines and differentiates that group by skin color or geographic origin to justify said enslavement/exploitation/colonization, invents cultural meanings for the definition of that group to justify imposed hierarchies, writes and rewrites cultural narratives around those cultural meanings, and based on consistent perpetuation, a tiny bit of internalized racism on the part of the non-dominant race and confirmation bias on the part of the dominant race, those cultural narratives take hold in society and go on to shape behavior of all involved groups.
Or, even more simply:
Group with ships and gold and guns wants slaves and plantations and more gold, enslaves people, decides skin color is a thing now and that it’s morally sound to enslave people with different skin color, that process creates stories around what skin color means, influences economic opportunity and treatment by society, becomes ingrained in society, goes on to shape behavior and views of all involved.
Like yeah there’s more to it than that and it’s all nuanced and of course there’s more than just white and black to the societal racial landscape, but I think that’s a maybe-decent basic summary.
And I get where modern day racism comes from too.
Like if you’re brought up thinking all 18-35 year old black men are scary and criminals* and then you see some report of a black man being violent or committing a crime* somewhere (where there’s probably racially-segregated poverty increasing the probability of crimes of necessity and lack of access to social welfare and economic opportunity because, y’know, racism), then you’re like Oh shit, Grandma Beth was right! Black people are scary and bad. Often on an unconscious level, but it goes on to shape your perceptions and behavior.
So like, that happening, but repeated several thousand times across several million people across an entire country. And then privileged ‘leaders’ making it really easy to blame Muslims/immigrants/blacks/Latin@s/the gays/the poor for your problems that those privileged leaders are probably actually the ones responsible for. Again, overly simple, but you get me. And then the dominant narrative against racism being all, “Everyone is equal! Flowers and happiness for all! Obama was president, it’s over guys! Nelson Mandela! Beyonce!”
*Side note: Can we talk about how we culturally define criminality? Actually, let’s not just now. Pin that for a future post.
Newsflash: You’re Not Fucking Colorblind
Even if you do the work to break down what race is and where racism comes from and work your best at it, whatever race you are, you’ve still been conditioned in some way to identify skin color with some cultural or personality trait(s) that skin color has nothing to fucking do with. And the only reason skin color might affect cultural/personality traits is because we already have the cultural frameworks and narratives in place for skin color dictating those things, and society influences (and often determines) our behavior.
And as long as race exists as a cultural idea, you can’t escape racism. Race does still matter. Colorblind is not a thing. Stop pretending it is. The idea of ‘colorblindness’ devalues the serious race-based oppressions that exist in society. Is colorblindness the goal? In a sense, yeah. For race to not equate to anything other than what shade of less-saturated orange your skin looks is sort of the goal. But the way to get there is not to pretend that race doesn’t exist when it’s still pervasive in society. No matter how liberal or anti-racist you are, guess what, you’re still probably racist in some ways about some things.
It’s like how no matter how many Black Lives Matter protests I’ve been to and how much I blab about The New Jim Crow and police brutality and racialized economic disparity and race being a social construction, I’m still pretty much only sexually attracted to white guys. Because, probably, internalized white supremacy, and white-supremacy being everywhere in media going on to influence sexual desire, et cetera.
So racism, like, I understand where that comes from as a cultural phenomenon.
And violence. I understand that too. Violence in self-defense, violence in community-defense, violence for ideology, even violence for perverse personal pleasure. I don’t know how much violence I condone or under what circumstances I condone it, but I can understand why it’s a thing. I can understand the desire to fight, especially to fight back. I can understand the desire to destroy. I can understand the desire to purge society of whatever societal group you deem responsible for it not being perfect. (Like, I love you, you love me, massacre the bourgeoisie.)
Back to Genocide
But then I see what’s happening in Myanmar right now, and like, it just does not compute. Just, what? I don’t get it. Who the fuck thinks that’s a good idea? Who the fuck engages in any part of an act of genocide and doesn’t realize, first, that they are engaging in genocide, and second, that maybe that’s not a good thing to do?
And I wonder, under what circumstances is one conditioned to be genocidal? To have the righteousness of violence and the righteousness of racism that ingrained that murder and rape and slaughter seem not only morally acceptable, but like something I personally am going to do on a Saturday afternoon?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Raoul Martinez and his ideas about determinism and lack of free will. And how much of my ‘self’ is beyond my ability to control. And how pretty much all of it is conditioned or predetermined through biology, upbringing, society, family, experiences outside of my control. And what even is control? And what is freedom?
What is the Self, man?
Where do we draw the line? Where do our decisions stop being our decisions? Are they ever ours?
Because you can follow this down the rabbit hole as far as you want, and maybe there’s something interesting down there that could bring you closer to enlightenment and radically alter the world for the better. Maybe you have to stick your foot out at some point and decide that whatever mess of unchosen circumstances you and your brain and your cultural presence are, this is the most self you can ever be and that too means something. But what, if anything, does it mean?
I may have no free will whatsoever, but if freedom is a complete impossibility, than this is still the freest I’m ever going to get.
I don’t know how helpful, if at all, this line of thinking is in either direction. Free will or no free will? Nature or nurture or choice or determinism?
What it makes me think is that maybe, in a different place, at a different time, under different circumstances, I’d be murdering and raping and slaughtering an entire people too.
I think the idea Raoul Martinez wants to get at (I haven’t read his book yet, I’m just speculating) is that if everything is conditioned, we should stop focusing on punishing or sanctioning actions and focus on changing the conditioning mechanisms. This ties into things I strongly agree with, like investing in education and mental health and drug treatment, and eradicating poverty, and providing free healthcare, and decarceration and prison abolition and yeah. With you, Raoul. But it also has the unsettling idea that the people massacring the Rohingya in Myanmar are themselves not responsible for their actions either.
So like, what is the self? What is responsibility? What is control? What is choice?
I don’t know. Trying to figure that one out, and I’m pretty sure, like with most things in my brain these days, the right answer is There isn’t a right answer.
But also like why, why, is getting people, everyone in every corner of the world, to think “Maybe genocide isn’t something I should engage in” at all a difficult concept?
But then I think, racialized violence exists everywhere. It’s constant, from the words we speak, to the views we hold, to the films we watch, to the way we treat others, to the food we buy and jobs we have and people we vote for, and genocide is one extreme of a completely ubiquitous phenomenon.
So like, how do we do the other thing?
That peace and love and freedom and understanding our oneness and difference and validating different unique experiences thing? And how do we unlearn the conditioning that divides us along racial lines?
Dunno. Let’s talk about it?