Thursday, October 12, 2006

When it's not allowed to matter

One of the world's leading political scientists has conducted research showing that ethnic diversity is destructive of community.

The Financial Times reported on the findings by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University as follows:

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone - from their next-door neighbour to the mayor ...

The core message of the research was that, "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down", he said. "We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined ..."

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust.

These results aren't surprising. They support the findings of similar research in Australia, in which ethnic diversity was associated with lower levels of personal wellbeing, and the UK, where multicultural communities were found to be both less happy and less trusting.

It's interesting to note that Professor Putnam was disconcerted by the results of his own research. He admitted that he had delayed publishing his findings "until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity".

Liberals like Professor Putnam usually believe that individuals should be "self-determining" in the sense of choosing for themselves, as individuals, who they are. We don't, however, choose our ethnicity, as this is an inherited, communal identity. Therefore, liberals generally hope that it can be made not to matter.

There are two popular intellectual strategies used by liberals to try to make such things not matter. The first is the socialisation thesis. This is the idea that forms of identity like ethnicity or gender have no real basis in human nature, but are merely socialised (through cultural influences). This means that there is no reason why people cannot, and should not, be re-socialised to remove the influence of gender and ethnicity.

This is the strategy Professor Putnam chooses to counteract his own research. He claims that the trends he uncovered "have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed".

But there are problems with the socialisation thesis. First, the social reconstruction doesn't usually work as it's supposed to. In the 1980s and 90s, feminist parents who tried to resocialise their children to act against traditional gender patterns most often gave up in frustration (I remember one case in which a feminist mother realised she was getting nowhere when her sons crafted toy guns out of their toast). In one famous case (that of David Reimer), a psychologist actually tried to turn a young boy into a girl, in the belief that gender could be changed during infancy. The infant boy had reconstructive surgery and was brought up as a girl, but nonetheless never lost his masculine identity. The experiment failed dramatically.

It's a similar story when it comes to ethnicity. We have had decades of diversity propaganda telling us how enriching multiculturalism is and how boring (or immoral) the older monoculture was. It's drummed into us incessantly from early childhood onwards. We should, therefore, all have been resocialised by now to react positively to diversity. The research, though, shows the opposite: that we still prefer to live within our own ethnic communities.

There is a second major problem for the socialisation thesis. Science is increasingly able to show how traditional forms of identity are hardwired into us, rather than being a product of culture alone. It's now accepted that men and women are different because of differences in the structure of the brain and our exposure to sex hormones. Science, therefore, is making it difficult to hold onto the idea that we have been merely "socialised" to be the way we are.

The second intellectual strategy favoured by liberals to make traditional identities not matter is the power thesis. In liberal theory what really counts is that we are able to enact our own will (as our human status depends on this). Therefore, having the power (the money and social position) to enact our will is critical.

There's a strand of thought within liberalism, therefore, which reduces most things to power relationships. Society is considered in terms of a will to power, with some individuals organising to establish a privilege, a getting of power, at the expense of other oppressed individuals.

What is then sometimes claimed is that the privileged groups are fictitious entities, established simply to consolidate the power of some individuals over others. So men share a male identity as a means of participating in a power structure in which they're privileged and not because there is a natural basis to masculinity. Similarly, it's asserted that there is a white identity only because some individuals get access to a privileged position of power over others by identifying this way and not because there is any natural basis to race or ethnicity.

This is an influential theory, especially on the left. It explains the recent growth of "whiteness studies" on campuses, the central tenet of which is described as:

a reading of history ... in which the very concept of race is said to have been constructed by a white power structure in order to justify discrimination against nonwhites ...

... theorists of Critical White Studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. The field inherits from Critical Race Theory a focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power.

The power thesis is a product of liberal theory; it is ideological in origin. It requires us to believe, against mounting scientific evidence, that gender and race have no real, biological basis but are fictional categories formed to consolidate an illegitimate power structure.

The power thesis overlooks the many respects in which men or whites are not privileged; or have succeeded through hard work and responsibility. It overlooks a most obvious point, too, that whites will naturally dominate positions of power in Western societies as they have traditionally made up an overwhelming majority of the population.

Most of all, the power thesis assumes that we are so denatured, that we don't have a positive sense of our nature as men, or a love of our own ethnic tradition. If we did recognise such positive factors, then we would not stigmatise masculinity or whiteness as being motivated by an oppressive power over others.

Finally, and this is a point I hope to develop in a future post, the logic of the power thesis is dismal: it requires whites who accept it to see themselves as somehow irredeemably stained by their own identity; to focus on an impossible, never-ending quest to identify and confess their own experience of privilege; to act self-effacingly, in a permanent state of kow-tow, especially toward the non-white other; and to foster a spirit of surrender in themselves - to welcome the decline of their own position and that of their own culture and tradition.

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