I am not sure why commentators are quite so shocked and appalled to discover that racism and racist behaviour exist in Ukraine. After all, these things exist everywhere else. They exist wherever there are human beings. Racism is part of human nature. We are the products of evolution. Which is to say that we are the outcome of a series of ‘accidents’ stretching back into the mists of prehistory. Evolution doesn’t do perfection. Not by any objective criteria. Not by the standards of any designer working to an ideal pattern as we would understand this. Certainly not to the normative standards of some present-day moralist. With all the customary caveats about the metaphorical nature of the terminology used when discussing such things, evolution is ‘interested’ only in what works. What survives is what matters. Not what sits comfortably with modern sensibilities.
There was a time when the mental attitudes and behaviours we now label racism was adaptive. For by far the greater part of our evolution, survival was served by being extremely wary of strangers. All manner of nastiness was associated with encounters with people not like us. So the sparse human population of early humans (or pre-humans) wandered the vast plains of Africa in small kin-groups having little need for and so generally avoiding contact with other such kin-groups. It is easy to see how more readily apparent features would come to be used to identify the us and the other. Basically, anything that differs from us is other. And other is dangerous. Anything that differs markedly from us is very other and therefore very dangerous. Simplistic, of course. But imagine a prehistoric parent with a ton of hunting and gathering to do trying to ensure the children stayed away from strangers.
Another insufficiently recognised aspect of human nature is laziness. We tend to look for the easiest, least effortful way of doing things. Something we have in common with evolution. If telling your dark-skinned children that light-skinned people would kill and eat them was the easiest way to ensure the bairns ran away when they saw a light-skinned other, then that is what would be done. Because it worked. Because it allowed those children a better chance of survival. Longer survival means more opportunities to breed. More opportunities to breed means more children born of and raised by proto-racist parents and therefore proto-racist themselves by both nature and nurture.
Evolution is lazy. If something about one of its projects is redundant but benign, evolution will just ignore it. Even if by any criteria modern humans might apply this thing is ugly or awkward or unpleasant or whatever, evolution will just ignore it. because evolution doesn’t operate to those criteria. Evolution doesn’t give a shit what we think of its results. Evolution is ‘interested’ only in what gets the job done. Not even done well. Just done. Good enough is good enough, as far as nature is concerned. Only if something has an adverse effect on the project’s survival and procreation will evolution seek to alter or eradicate it.
Having that latent racism lurking in our lizard brains has not to daste had a sufficiently adverse impact on our survival and procreation for evolution to take an interest. It seems likely that it will take an interest eventually. In fact, it very likely is taking an interest right now. But evolution tends to wok very, very slowly. So we aren’t going to notice much change in any lifetime. Over a number of lifetimes, and supposing nothing in the environment changes such as to make racist attitudes and behaviour adaptive once more – a post-apocalyptic scenario? – then those attitudes and behaviours will tend to be bred out of us. Because there is little question that racism is maladaptive in modern civilised society. It was fine – even beneficial – to fear and hate the other when contact with the other might adversely affect our survival and procreation chances. It is the very opposite of adaptive – maladaptive – when our survival and potential for procreation might depend on the other.
Eventually, there’s a good chance that we humans will become less prone to racism. For the time being, however, it’s in us. We all have that latent racism in us. We all have the potential for racist behaviour driven by the primitive attitudes that are part of our evolutionary inheritance. What differentiates a racist from a non-racist in our world is no more than the extent to which they allow those primitive attitudes to shape their behaviour. We are human beings. We have the capacity to choose. We can choose not to be dictated to by our lizard brains. We cannot rid ourselves of those deep-seated racist attitudes. But we can choose to suppress them. We can chose not to express them. We can choose not to behave as a racist. We can choose to act as if we were a non-racist. That is the closest any of us will get to being innately non-racist.
But people are lazy. Keeping those racist attitudes locked away is effortful. Some people just don’t make the effort. They are intellectually indolent and so never manage to work out that acting according to their primitive racist nature in the context of modern society is just plain stupid. Tell them it’s stupid and they get defensive and the racist behaviour becomes an expression of their personal identity and all sorts of human psychological shit goes on and it’s a mess.
Some people just don’t realise that they have a choice. If they’ve never been taught that they have a choice, they may get through their lives thinking they can’t help being the racist that they are. Once people realise that they have a choice and that racist behaviour is just plain stupid they tend to stop behaving in racist ways. Again, there’s a whole tangle of human psychology making things more complicated. But this is a blog not a thesis so let’s not get into all that.
What I’m saying is that it is not in the least surprising to discover that racism exists in Ukraine. Certainly not surprising enough to justify the moral panic and frenzy of virtual signalling which has erupted in certain sections of the media. These are people under extreme stress. People under such stress are seldom at their best. One of the things that makes war so abhorrent is that it tends to bring out the worst in people, even if it also at times brings out the best. Violence is the expression of our basest impulses. War loosens our grip on the reins holding our lizard brains in check. Horror ensues.
None of which is to say that racist behaviour is acceptable or excusable. Only that it is explainable. War can no more justify racist behaviour than it can justify murder. All war does is create a very particular context in which human behaviour must be understood. We may hope that people will behave decently in a context where less than decent behaviour is the norm. But human beings tend to disappoint.
I have up to this point been referring – some might say rather pedantically – to racist behaviour. To people acting out the racism that which under stress rises from its lair in the amygdalas of people who would not normally behave in such ways. They then become as one with those whose racist behaviour is a malign choice or weak-willed acceptance of primitive urges as ‘normal’. The behaviour is anathema to a civilised society and antithetical to a functioning society. Large, complex, connected societies cannot tolerate high levels of negative discrimination on the basis of inherited characteristics. They will break. They will suffer increasing dysfunction and then they will shatter. Racism and sexism are socially maladaptive. You have been warned!
I have specified racist behaviour – as in preventing black and brown people from boarding refugee trains as has been reported – because I am persuaded that there is good cause to treat differently the outwardly racist language used by some individuals.
My first reaction on hearing that Putin’s forces had actually invaded Ukraine was, despite this having been anticipated and by some analysis inevitable, one of shock and a kind of incomprehension. What I said aloud was something along the lines of the following.
Invasion!? War!? In Europe!? In the 21st century!? How is this even imaginable never mind possible never mind actually happening!?
When I’d got over the initial shock I realised that it is the familiarity of the environmental context in which this was happening which made it all the more dreadful to behold. I didn’t think in terms of “blue-eyed and blond-haired”. I’m happy (relieved?) to report that this kind of thinking doesn’t seem to come ‘naturally’ to me. The reins of rationality firmly control my lizard brain. But what I did think was not massively dissimilar to such overtly racist expressions. This was war involving people who look just like the people I see around me every day. This was war that could therefore be much more easily be imagined being inflicted on people I know. And on me!
This was war happening in a place that looked just like the place I live and places I visit. Places that are familiar. Again, this made it very much easier to identify with. The familiarity of people and place made it almost personal. Almost as if I was directly affected. I didn’t think in terms of Europe as opposed to the “Third World”. Largely because I have long been accustomed to regarding Third World as a condition rather than a location. But what I was thinking wasn’t a million miles from the exclamation reported by Mehdi Hasan. It was not racist because it was founded on thinking of the Third World or its inhabitants as less, only as less familiar. Or, more precisely, thinking of the inhabitants of Ukraine as more familiar. There was no normative judgement involved. Only this frightening familiarity. More familiar. Therefore more frightening.
I couldn’t help wondering to what extent the same is true of those who, under stress, came out with these racist-sounding comments. I wonder how many of them were simply trying to express this frightening familiarity and, in some instances, being exceedingly clumsy. Of course, some of it is racist-sounding because it is racist. I merely suggest that some – perhaps much? – of it may be less fundamentally racist than is being assumed by moral panickers and frenzied virtue-signallers.
We might also want to question the motives of at least some of those trying to incite outrage at the racist behaviour and language of some Ukrainians. I’ll say no more on that for the moment. But I am ever-mindful that we swim in a sea of propaganda.
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