Jane Elliot might be right, but her argument is the wrong one to make
Given the absurdity that has transpired from a race perspective in the first week of the Trump administration with the Muslim ban and the border wall, I suppose it’s no shock that this video is starting to do the rounds again. I’ve seen it shared a couple of times on my feed by some well meaning progressive folk, and while I completely understand and agree with the sentiment she’s espousing, it still represents a bad place to start when attempting to advocate for equality.
I have written quite a few words about racism and equality in my time, some of those words are on here, specifically on the topic of inclusiveness, but unsurprisingly I have more to say about it and shutting up isn’t really one of my virtues.
So, let’s get the good out of the way first. From a scientific point of view, Jane Elliot is making an absolutely correct and cogent argument. Humans all share a whole bunch of genetic code, and bigotry is a completely learned behaviour that could be reversed through better educational practice.
The supposed logical extension of this argument is that if we all realised that we were the same, we would stop being bigoted towards each other based on these external differences and we would then go forward and, I dunno, build a utopia or something right?
Despite my pretty intentionally condescending last sentence, I do wholeheartedly agree with the argument she’s making from a factual perspective because it would be fucking idiotic not to. The science is sound, and despite the fact that her argument is idealistic to the point of being excessively saccharin, there are even parts of the logic that are sound. That being said, none of that is what I take issue with. I take issue with the fact that her argument is completely irrelevant at best, and actually kind of destructive at worst.
To quote… well, me actually, in my writing about inclusiveness and equality:
Being inclusive isn’t about ignoring the differences between people in order to find common ground, it is about understanding what it is that makes people different and then accepting or dealing with those differences appropriately. Treating everybody equally doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, it means to grant people equal opportunities to participate in society as much as possible.
The logical endpoint of everyone being “the same” is that you write one set of policies to deal with all people, after all, why would you account for anything else given that we’re all human beings anyway? Labelling everyone as human beings as opposed to the labels that we commonly use today means that you are less likely to factor in how a person’s particular characteristics will have affected their life and are probably more likely to attempt to apply a single, probably ill-fitting standard to them. It means that you’re less likely to account for how particular historical events have disproportionately affected certain groups and as such are far less likely to write policy that attempts to remedy that disproportionality and attempts to provide equality of opportunity, which results in less diversity overall and serves to further lock in the differences in wealth, power and social mobility between groups of people that already exist.
Does all of that sound incredibly reductive? Abso-fucking-lutely, but it is no less reductive that even positing this argument in the first place.
The fact is that the life experience of a person from a different race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation or any one of a whole heap of statistically significant characteristics is INHERENTLY different, despite all of the genetic code that is shared, and to posit any argument that attempts to diminish that is completely unhelpful. Is there a more nuanced version of that argument that could be made? Probably, but that’s not only not what Jane Elliot is saying here, it is specifically the lack of nuance that makes her argument persuasive in the first place. The idea that you could deal with centuries of inequality by simply facing up to a single, seemingly easily digestible scientific truth is incredibly comforting and sounds like a great answer.
As opposed to advocating to remove the labels from people, we should actually be advocating for simply dealing with the labels better. Stop denying the differences between people and actually accept them without fear or favour, then work our asses off to ensure that those differences do not yield less opportunities for anyone to be able to participate in society.
Stop arguing that the world is a perfect meritocracy and that Ayn Rand isn’t anything but a fucking charlatan and advocate for policies that help deal with the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
But Marc, that’s an argument about class, not race.
No, it’s an argument about class AND race as those things are inexorably connected. Know what else conveniently connects to class in a lot of cases? Gender, birth place, sexual orientation and basically every other human trait in existence. Every single one of these things affects a person’s ability to be able to participate in society, and every single one of those things should be accounted for when it comes to attempting to build an actually egalitarian society.
End of the day, I know that folks mean well with this stuff and I don’t really mean any disrespect by my disagreement. All of this, like anything I put finger to keyboard for, is a discussion point.