Carving Whiteness into Asian Faces: A Step Back for Progressivism

One of the central beliefs of liberalism, as it is popularly formulated today, is that we should strive to tolerate people who are very different from us — even (intermingling with a much older formulation of this belief) that we should learn to appreciate and love people who are very different from us, just for who they are. This is indeed a noble aspiration, if forever elusive — and to that end, liberals stridently oppose various forms of discrimination. Transhumanists generally tend to position themselves as liberals or progressives, and accordingly, spend a lot of time wagging their fingers at racism and discrimination.Take Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger who last month posted an essay from The New Yorker on his blog, condemning racism against Asian Americans. (Blogger Miss Self-Important had a great post on this essay.) In the post, titled, “Asian Like Me: The Race That Isn’t There,” Mr. Munkittrick notes that “Superstars and top-performers [are] being ignored because they aren’t boastful or brash,” and quotes an excerpt from the article, which claims that Asian Americans suffer in our culture for their inability to conform to American modes of behavior.Yet just two weeks earlier, Mr. Munkittrick posted a New York Times article on the boom in plastic surgery among Chinese. The excerpt he posted concludes:

The youthful patients include job applicants hoping to enhance their prospects in the work force, teenagers who received cosmetic surgery as a high school graduation present and even middle school students, most of whom want eye jobs, surgeons say.

Mr. Munkittrick affirmatively responded to the trend that the article describes: “I love China and the Chinese. Their success improves the world.” Strangely enough, Mr. Munkittrick cut off the excerpt just before it describes the unregulated, nearly meatball-surgery status of the industry as it stands in that country.Setting aside for now Mr. Munkittrick’s apparent uninterest in the immediate public health dangers of this situation, there is something more deeply perverse about his celebration. It is hardly an obscure fact that East Asian cultures in general tend to subvert the autonomy of the individual to the needs of the society. That tendency is clearly at work in the case of these surgeries. For example, the Times article notes that in China, “The No. 1 [cosmetic] operation is designed to make eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid.” The reason for this practice is explored in this related post on the blog Analyfe, discussing a chapter from the reader Sex, Self, and Society:

the scars [from the double-eyelid procedure] take over a year to heal, and there are several risks involved….In nearly every case, the women claim to have pursued the surgery to overcome stereotypes based on their features (such as sleepy, nerdy, and no fun). They opt for cosmetic surgery in hopes of becoming more employable, more well-liked, and more successful.Doctors often agree to perform the procedure without question. Disturbingly, the doctors often describe the Asian features as abnormal and perpetuate the link between those characteristics and negative stereotypes when talking to their clients….The standards of Western beauty are strong and influential, often making minorities — in this example Asians — feel inferior and less attractive than the American ideal. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the “success” Mr. Munkittrick is celebrating is that of Chinese kids getting their faces carved up to look Western, so that they can be accepted in a world that values Western faces over Asian.—In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a widespread practice among black men called conking, in which they would undergo a painful, potentially dangerous process to chemically straighten their naturally kinky hair, so as to better fit in in a white world — especially so as to appear more humble, and, well, less black to potential white employers. Malcolm X noted in his Autobiography that when he got his hair conked, it was

my first really big step toward self-degradation…. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it — as I finally did.

It was a small but symbolic achievement of the civil rights era that the practice of conking came to be recognized and rejected as an instance of endemic racism playing out in the free choices of individuals in a minority group.One can only hope that, decades hence, we will look back with just as much sadness and regret on the practice of nonwhite people cutting up their faces and bodies to conform to Western standards. If the subjects of those surgeries do decide they’ve made a mistake, it will not be nearly as easy, cheap, or safe to reverse what they’ve done (if it is possible at all) as it was for Malcolm X to grow out his hair. And if we do reach that wiser age, it will have been in repudiation of the work of transhumanists, who, despite their self-proclaimed progressivism, represent a true step backwards from those admirable aims of modern liberalism.

Racism, Humanism, and Speciesism: The Irony of the Censored “Huck Finn”

For reasons unrelated to the recent controversy surrounding the book, I’ve recently been rereading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the Norton Critical Edition, uncensored). Nonetheless, the controversy has been sharp in my mind as I’ve been reading, and it’s striking how deeply the change undermines some key passages from the book. Take this one, from the end of Chapter XIV:
“Why, Huck, doan de French people talk de same way we does?”
No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”
I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. Spose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head — dat is, if he warn’t white. I wouldn’t ’low no nigger to call me dat.”
“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything. It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French.”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame’ ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
“Looky here, Jim, does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”
“ ’Course.”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? — you answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em. Is a Frenchman a man?”
Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? — you answer me dat!”
I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.
Huck is right, of course, that Jim fails to grasp a basic piece of knowledge: the existence of multiple human languages. But the genius of this passage lies in how Jim, in refuting that it is “natural and right” to think that a Frenchman is different from an American in the same way a cow is, actually expresses a much deeper truth that Huck fails to grasp. Moreover, the passage conveys this truth not just in spite of Huck being our narrator, but through the way Huck reveals his ignorance and Jim does not. Huck dismisses Jim’s argument using an epithet that asserts that a black man is less than a man, when of course Jim, a black man, has just shown a truth deeper than differences of language or understanding: a man is a man. Jim’s point is both argument and — in showing Jim’s intellect — demonstration of what is wrong with the epithet. (This is true despite the fact that Jim himself continues to use the epithet, and appears on some level to believe it.)
The motivation behind replacing the “n-word” with the word “slave” is understandable: I feel uncomfortable even repeating it in the excerpt here. But the power of this passage, and other similar ones in the novel, would be completely lost if the word were changed to “slave.” Huck would seem to be dismissing Jim’s argument based on his terrible lot in life — which deprived him, perhaps, of Huck’s educational opportunities — rather than based on the idea that Jim’s race makes him subhuman.
This change has the advantage of appealing to our modern understanding of why Jim seems ignorant in many respects. But the central purposes of passages like this one are then lost: the meaning of Jim’s point itself, its significance in relationship to Huck’s dismissal of it, and the fact that Jim’s ability to even have such an insight is evidence itself of how wrong and cruel are Huck’s use of that term. Writing thirty years ago in the New York Times about efforts to ban the book, Russell Baker noted:

The people [whom Huck and Jim] encounter are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is black Jim, the runaway slave. “Nigger Jim,” as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.

As Twain wrote the book, Jim is a living refutation, through his evident sensitivity, intelligence, and honor, of that terrible term Huck uses to dismiss him. But in the reformulation, many of those qualities become less evident, so that ironically, “Slave Jim” seems much more like a minstrel-show caricature than does “Nigger Jim.” Worse still, the irony of Jim’s name is lost too, so that where Twain’s book shows how wrong it is to think of Jim as subhuman — and suggests why the source of our equality was still of pressing importance to the book’s readers in 1885 — the new version instead brings us to see Jim as merely an object of pity.
Transhumanists coopt civil rightsrhetoric, warping it in the process.Photo via flickr/ThinkVegan.

I hope the meaning of this passage, and others like it from Huck Finn — particularly the astonishing chapter after the one cited above, in which Huck plays a cruel trick on Jim — will survive. And I believe that transhumanist theorists and activists could learn a thing or two about rights, equality, persons, and (if they are interested) human beings by revisiting Twain’s great book. One transhumanist group, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, recently announced a program to promote the idea of the “Non-Human Person.” I strongly support efforts to better our treatment of animals and the environment, and to reevaluate our historical attitude towards both as mere matter for manipulation, devoid of any moral status. But the IEET’s new program, in stating that “the general thrust of human history is toward the progressive inclusion of previously marginalized individuals and groups,” continues the transhumanist trope of claiming that the movement is carrying on the work that freed the slaves and brought civil rights to minorities — and so it would do well to acknowledge the historical facts about how civil rights advanced, and about where our equality has been understood to come from.

Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968. Photo copyright Richard L. Copley.
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Rudolph, the Racism Reindeer

My apologies if this puts some coal in your stocking on Christmas Eve, but among the many wonderful tunes sung and played at Christmastime (the beautiful, transportive instrumental album Dulcimer Christmas comes highly recommended by yours truly), there is one that has never sat well with me: the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There have been various versions of it over the years — most notably the original 1939 booklet produced by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward, and the 1964 stop-motion animation film (Snopes has a great overview of the history) — but if you recall, the most famous version of all is of course the 1949 Johnny Marks song, sung since by millions and millions of children.
The song leaves a lot of important questions unanswered, but what is there paints a pretty unsettling picture. Rudolph is a physically deformed young buck who is mocked and ostracized by his reindeer peers for looking different. They never let him join in any of their reindeer games; alack, poor Rudolph.
Eventually, it turns out that Rudolph’s deformity, a shiny red nose — so shiny, in fact, that one could even describe it as luminous — comes in handy (nosey?) during a particularly low-visibility Christmas Eve. Santa calls upon our snubbed protagonist, who, owing to his unique feature, is able to save the day. It is then (only then!) that all the reindeer love him.
I ask you, gentle reader: what kind of message is this sending to our children?
Rudolph’s predicament of feeling different, excluded, and unable to fit in is something many kids must be able to relate to — and I think many parents assume the story has a positive message to tell them. But what are we to take away from the way Rudolph’s predicament is resolved?
The conclusion to the story is ostensibly redemptive; but is it because the young reindeer come to empathize with the suffering they have inflicted on Rudolph, accepting him into society when they realize the inherent wrongness of their bigotry? No. At least in the song — I understand that the 1964 movie version tells the story quite differently — things only turn around for Rudolph when the thing that makes him abnormal happens to be also very valuable, and moreover, valuable in a way that is recognized as valuable by others.
Rudolph, in other words, becomes accepted because he is lucky. There is an optimistic way we can read the story: Rudolph’s shiny nose stands for the inner light that shines in each of us, through each of our unique and special attributes, waiting for the proper opportunity to finally become visible to others. Rudolph gains acceptance when his fellows realize not only that he is excellent in spite of being different, but excellent because of his difference. So, too, can each of us find ways to make the things that make us different become recognizable to others as displaying our unique worth. Perhaps there is even an excellence — a process of, in the parlance of our times, actualization or of finding the self — in learning how to make our unique worth recognizable to others.
This question about the wisdom of the message of “Rudolph” points to a larger tension in our culture — one that was probably at its most apparent at the height of the P.C. era of the 1980s and 1990s, but that has been with us as long as we have been struggling to achieve civil rights and secure liberal democracy: are we supposed to rally around the motto that “everybody’s equal,” or is it that “everybody’s different”? Égalité or diversity? The former is very easily warped into the ludicrous and harmful “everybody’s the same” (a suggestion that has been brilliantly spoofed by Stephen Colbert’s repeated insistence that he literally “can’t see race”). And the latter is a notoriously tricky, somewhat fuzzy, and often challenged concept.
One problem with the notion that “everybody’s the same” is that it papers over the great diversity of ways that people can be excellent and valuable. There is a potential wisdom in the message of “Rudolph” worth underlining: it teaches us that excellence often must be demonstrated in deeds. It celebrates that there are many ways we can be remarkable, and teaches us the virtue in striving to find them and show them. In other words, it tells kids that if they are different and don’t fit in, then they just need to find ways to prove everyone wrong by showing just how great they can be in their difference.
But the problem with this message is that many of the things that make us different from each other are not easily recognizable as great, particularly by the people we want to accept us. When the next mutant reindeer comes along, perhaps with a lump of coal for a nose instead of a light bulb, will the other reindeer have learned their lesson about acceptance and immediately let him join their reindeer games? I suspect that the coal-nosed reindeer too will have to struggle to show the specialness of his difference, and may well never find a way to fit in as well as Rudolph has.

For better or worse, the “Rudolph” song paints an honest picture of how equality and acceptance tends to be won in our own society. Black civil rights probably gained as much from the achievements of jazz, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson as from philosophical appeals to inherent human equality — as much, even, from the personages and deeds of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were making those philosophical appeals, as from their words.
Of course, the notions of diversity and equality are bound up with one another. Our acceptance of people’s differences is tied to our expansion of equality — the realization that a person who is different from us is still equally a human being, and equally deserving of the rights and respect accorded to human beings. We still, that is, believe that equality comes not from what a person can do but from what he or she is.

And this is where the transhumanists come in. Transhumanists call for the proliferation of new posthuman forms; they celebrate diversity and tolerance; and they seek to smash such “-isms” as “speciesism,” acting, as we have noted, as if they are in fact the modern successors to the civil rights movement. But in avowedly rejecting the human, the transhumanists also reject, at least implicitly, our underlying human equality. And once we refuse to recognize our underlying equality, as poor Rudolph discovered, the best way we have left to get at what we are is through what we do.
Yet there are many people who already cannot do as much as most — the very young, the very old, the sick, and the disabled — who thus cannot easily demonstrate their worth in deeds. Consequently, philosophers like Peter Singer already declare that many of these groups should not be treated or defended as people at all. (It is not an accident or a quirky footnote of utilitarian belief that Singer defends killing infants and Alzheimer’s patients — including perhaps even his own mother.) And transhumanists, for all of their self-congratulatory tolerance, are either indifferent to or repulsed by these groups. (Or perhaps, charitably, they are repulsed for them, on their behalf.)
If these obviously human groups are already having trouble being recognized as people, how will they — and the rest of us — fare in the posthuman age? For while Rudolph was lucky to have his difference make him excellent in a way that was recognizable to others, the posthuman age will be defined by the dissolution of any shared notions of who we are and what is valuable about us. One of the new sorts of beings may be great in some way that is totally unrecognizable to the many other new sorts of beings. It may no longer be just the weakest human beings who will have trouble making the case for their worth in a way that others will understand.
“Rights,” “equality,” and “tolerance” may well lose their meaning in such a world. If that happens, you’d better make sure your bright-red nose can shoot lasers beams too.
[Images: The 1964 stop-motion film; diversity according to Fairfax County; Frederick Douglass; “speciesism” according to Flickr user thinkvegan; the 1998 animated film.]

Kitty minus kitty

In my last post, I noted the problems with Michael Anissimov’s attempt to defend “morphological freedom” as following from the civil rights movement. I described the way racism has been historically combated by appealing to what we have in common. This is an inherent problem with comparing “species-ism” to racism, because racism is combated precisely by appealing to our common humanity — that is, to our common species.
But it’s worth noting that a similar point holds when we look at an existing, non-hypothetical debate about interspecies rights and difference: the animal-rights debate. If we apply Mr. Anissimov’s “morphological freedom” argument to that debate, we again find it pretty lacking: Advocates of animal rights don’t argue that we should treat, say, a pig with respect or kindness because it “has a right to be a pig,” but rather because we should empathize with the way that, like us, a pig is intelligent (after a fashion) and has emotions and the capacity for suffering.
In fact, Mr. Anissimov, like many transhumanists, considers himself to be continuing the movement for animal rights in addition to civil rights. It’s all part of the ostensible transhumanist benevolence outreach, the grand quest to end suffering. But their formulation of this is to “reprogram” animals so as to end predation. Cats could go on being cat-like in some way, but we have an obligation to remake them so that they no longer hunt and kill. But have a look at this:
Where is the line here between the feline instincts to hunt and play? Is the hunting aspect of a cat something wholly separable from its nature, something that can be cleanly excised? Isn’t a cat minus its hunting instinct a cat minus a cat?
The suggestion of a project to end predation illustrates the transhumanist inclination to see living beings as simply a collection of components that have no logical dependencies on each other — as independent parts rather than wholes. But, more to the point, it makes the question of morphological freedom a pressing one for transhumanists themselves, who before undertaking such a project would quite seriously have to confront the question, “does a cat have a right to be a cat?”

Are humanists the new racists?

Our last post, simply a picture of a joyous Audrey Hepburn leaping in the air with the title “Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?,” provoked a long comment thread. Michael Anissimov posted a comment (and then reposted it on his own blog with a short response to it):

Our evaluations of “goodness” are not objective truths, just subjective facts about the structure of our own minds. The opportunity to modify and enhance those minds will vastly increase the space of things we can understand and appreciate. This will allow us to create new forms of attractiveness and wonder that we lack the facilities to appreciate now.

Commenter Brendan Foht notes that Mr. Anissimov’s line of argument “is at the crux of the most radical aspects of transhumanism,” and neatly explains its contradiction:

When ‘goodness’ is made completely contingent on the structure of our historically/biologically conditioned minds, we make room for the possibility of new kinds of goodness, if we alter the historical or biological conditions that structure our minds…. [But] if our concepts of goodness are structured by our current situation, what reasons could we… have for choosing new kinds of goodness?

The paradox Foht points out is a fundamental one for transhumanists. They face the necessary task of destroying existing value systems, but they always seem to attempt this task by neutralizing values as such, declaring them arbitrary, contingent, publicly unsettleable, a matter of personal choice, etc. The problem is that the value systems they are attempting to set forth as higher alternatives are then necessarily also undercut. As I’ve noted before (here and here), if transhumanists succeed in removing the reasons we shouldn’t embrace some modification, they then leave us without any reasons why we should. In short, the inherent problem with arguing for relativism is that you can’t convince anyone it’s better.
Oh, yeah, he went there
Transhumanists are not truly relativists, however; they just have a warped value system, the deep incoherence of which often leads them to fall back on relativistic arguments in place of direct arguments for why their goods ought to replace normal human ones. If they were truly relativists, their writing would not betray the high-minded moral posturing that it does. Take this part of the same comment from Mr. Anissimov (as continued in his re-posting of it):
[E]ven though I’m favor of morphological freedom (rather than the morphological fascism that I have to look and think a certain specific way, the way it’s been for over 200K years) [that] doesn’t mean that I discourage people from rejecting transhumanism entirely and living only among other humans…. Today, for instance, there are some people that only choose to live among their own race, for fear that race-mixing leads to irrevocable societal chaos. It is only natural to fear that species-mixing in a society could lead to problems, but I’ll bet that some combinations of species could lead to a harmonious equilibrium.
Yes, I went there…. Conservatives seem to often believe in the hypothesis that [the] more we’re alike, the better we can get along. Liberals argue that we can get along despite our diversity.
I guess that makes us “morphological fascists.” Which one of the Futurisms bloggers do you suppose is morphological Mussolini? Or is it that we’re the morphological equivalent of racists, and Mr. Anissimov is the morphological Martin Luther King?
It’s hard to know where to begin with this sort of uninformed and unserious argument, teeming with straw men. You might start by wondering who are the people that Mr. Anissimov claims fear living among other species — even though we have always lived among other species. (The problem, of course, is that transhumanists want to create new species of such higher intelligence than ours that they might relate to us in ways akin to how we relate to dogs, cows, or mosquitoes.) You might also wonder what his comment has to do with Charles Rubin’s original question of whether “we can do better” than that image of Audrey Hepburn, a picture that Rubin says shows us “not the peak of human history or existence, but…does show us a peak of human experience.”
What Mr. Anissimov seems to be getting at is that to affirm the unsurpassable beauty of the Hepburn photo is to commit a sort of discrimination, or species-racism. He wants to turn Rubin’s question on its head: To say that we couldn’t do better is to say that a member of any other species would be less beautiful, which is the same as saying that a member of any other race would be less beautiful.
But the actual history of the fight against racism reveals a picture very different from the one he implies, in which people somehow came to appreciate that race is contingent and so we should not begrudge each race for appreciating its own as best. On the contrary, Martin Luther King and others fought for equality by illustrating our commonality rather than our differences — by demonstrating that all races are equally human, possessing of equal human dignity, and so ought to be treated with equal respect. We can “get along despite our diversity” because we are human, in a way that, say, we should not expect humans and insects to get along despite their diversity.
Finally, I can’t resist noting Mr. Anissimov’s goofily self-congratulatory depiction of transhumanism as the sort of thing that kids will experiment with, perhaps when they go off to college: “I do, however, think that children should be able to do what they want with themselves after a certain age, and I doubt that Christian conservative parents will be able to stop their curious and neophilic children from embracing transhumanist technologies.” This brings to mind the following comic, which he would seem to have to think should be taken seriously (click to enlarge):