Sorting Things Out

I have been somewhat remiss in my writing of late.  I will be attempting to redress this fact over the next little bit.

First, I would like to recommend people watch the three videos available at http://www.agjohnson.us/audiovideo/ by Dr. Johnson.  I am not going to take the time to summarize them here, beyond stating that they are remarkably uncomfortable things to watch, and that is precisely the reason people need to watch them.  They will shake up your world view a great deal, particularly if you are an angry old white guy like myself, by pointing out just how much we take for granted in our society, and how much we don’t want to be awakened to this fact.

The primary purpose of this particular post is to do a fast examination of the introduction to “Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences” by G. Bowker and S. Star.  This initial section, titled “Introduction: To Classify is Human” provides an examination of the rational behind why we tend to categorize individuals.  This is information that can be fundamental if one is to examine not just the act of categorization, but the motives and purposes.

To quickly summarize: The gist of this section is that as a species we place the individual into categories because of a need to know which rule set applies at what times.  We have created a complex compilation of rule sets to deal with a variety of situations from the grounds of common understanding.  When first we encounter an individual we rely on set categories to know how to respond to the individual.  Is the individual catagorized as a child?  We know not to defer to that person’s instructions, but to be the instructor.  Is the person a police official? We know to accept the person’s authority.

Without these categorizations we would be completely at sea in terms of knowing how to interact.  We would enter every situation with an extreme risk of causing offense or failing to successfully complete the purpose of the interaction.  We rely on these categorizations to provide smooth social relationships, and in fact to allow society to begin with.

The problem is that this need can quickly become pathological.  Categorization can quickly become a limiter, rather than a bolstering force.  When we use categories to push people into predefined roles and do not permit people to move past them then we subjugate them.  Examples are not hard to find.  When the category “woman” means “restricted to motherhood as work” we thus subjugate women, forcing them out of equal chance to enter the work force.  Far more subtly, when the category “woman” quietly includes the assumption “will sacrifice a career for motherhood” then we will allow them to enter the work force, but will assume they should not be invested in as deeply owing to a reduced return on the investment.  This, then, becomes a pathological categorization.

By examining the purposes of categorization, we can begin to understand the complexities of dealing with these sorts of issues.  Simply stating “categories should not exist” is to fail to appreciate the reason they do, the purpose they serve, and to recognize the inevitability of their creation.  Rather, by understanding these things we can begin to recognize the potential for them to become pathological and to address societal creation of the categories productively by altering the creation process to being more equitable.

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Ideas For Action – Cynthia Kaufman Ch. 5

And now we look at Chapter 5 of the book I have been working through, Cynthia Kaufman’s “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change.”

Summary:

This chapter deals with the rise and conditions of racism.  Dr. Kaufman begins with an explanation regarding the rise of racism.  Initially, racism was a negligible issue, if it existed at all.  However, with the colonization of the Americas, the arriving culture needed to provide for themselves a means to justify the domination or even eradication of other groups for their own benefit.  The idea of “race”, in particular “inferior race” provided this excuse without violating the idea of “equality” that was proposed during the Enlightenment.

With the idea of racial inferiority as a tool in their arsenal, the prevailing European culture (which even argued over which Europeans were white whenever questions of political control could be altered through exclusion or inclusion) were able eliminate (native cultures) or dominate (African and Asian cultures) others for their own benefit.

The efforts to resist this have been significantly downplayed in modern histories.  Individuals such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois made strong effort to bring about change by either working within the dominant system to appeal to reason and ethics or by attempting to break the system so as to replace it with something more equitable.  However, the dominant paradigm tends to praise less successful figures from within the dominant culture, such as Abraham Lincoln and European-ethnicity soldiers in the Civil War.

Racism has changed its face and nature over time.  Currently, four forms of racism are highlighted as existing.  In my own terms, these are Blatant, Covert, Systemic, and Patronizing.  Blatant racists attempt openly to discriminate against others on the basis of hard-to-define racial standards.  Covert racists will quietly practice discrimination to what extent they can without calling attention to themselves. Systemic racism is built into the system, such as loans only being granted to those who have already built up enough within the system to be advantaged.  Patronizing racism is the view of certain behaviors or cultural adaptations as being inherent, and attempting to require them of individuals who are not acting to expectation.

Currently some of the largest struggles in efforts to overcome racism tend to come within the efforts themselves.  Women who call attention to issues specifically faced by women within the movement can often be called “divisive.”  They are expected to sublimate the issues in the name of solidarity, rather than encouraged to show the differences within the movement that need to be addressed.  Similar issues are faced by other groups, such as LGBT persons.  Additionally, efforts to create solidarity within racial groups can often serve to create additional discrimination against other disadvantaged racial groups, fostering the racism within the system by playing these groups off of one another.

Proposed solutions include turning away from race as a consideration, and examining things from the perspective of class.  Poor ethnic Africans often have more in common with poor ethnic Europeans than with rich ethnic Africans. By recognizing the shared issues, dealing with these similarities based on economic status rather than race provides a far more positive way of creating greater equality in society.

My Thoughts:

Racial issues have long been problematic.  My own personal experiences have given me a somewhat negative view of many of the approaches that have been taken to resolving this historically.  I have felt that the efforts have had some successes, but by and large have resulted in the opposite effect desired.

As a youth, I had a friend with extremely dark skin and kinky hair.  That her ancestry was African, and that this somehow should have effected our relationship was not even a consideration.  We played together, traded lunches at school, and generally carried on as friends will.  The only consideration to our different appearances that came in was our amusement that freshly healed scars were the same color for both of us.

However, as we aged, we became subject to considerable pressure.  The pressure was not to split up and view one another as “the other”.  Instead, the pressure was for me to not be racist toward her.  At first this rolled off my back as inconsequential, but the continual implication of the pressure began to cause me to be careful not to be racist… which led to me treating her differently specifically because of her skin through excess caution.  I would posit this as a peculiar example of the system encouraging racism and controlling groupings.  By calling attention to her race, the system created the “us” and “them” state it was purportedly attempting to eliminate.

During my time in the military I saw further examples of racism being reinforced in our system.  Often, the ethnicities would self-segregate during off duty time, citing cultural and behavioral differences.  Official policies would sometimes exacerbate the situation, as individuals would sometimes threaten to use anti-discrimination investigations to attempt to pressure individuals into actions that were improper (this was referred to as “pulling the race card”).

Dr. Kaufman’s suggestion in which she calls for a recognition of the issues being faced by people based on economic status, rather than race, seems sensible to me.  If we eliminate policies that directly acknowledge race (while still making racial discrimination a crime) we remove the official enshrining of racial difference as legal and practical.  Instead we can start to address the real issues of poverty and human misery that are shared across racial lines.

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Ideas For Action – Cynthia Kaufman Ch. 4

Somewhat behind in my readings, I now turn to Chapter 4 of the book I have been working through, Cynthia Kaufman’s “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change.”

Summary:

In this chapter, Dr. Kaufman turns to the subject of colonialism.  It is entitled “Transnational Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism.”  In it an exploration of the development of Colonialism  by the Western Powers and the in which the Cold War played a role in this.

Colonialism is the principle of obtaining and controlling regions external to national borders.  While modern colonialism began with the conquest of the Americas in search of wealth (a pursuit of spices and silks was replaced with the pursuit of gold and cash crops) colonialism has been practiced throughout history in a variety of places.  Examples mentioned by Dr. Kaufman include the Aztec culture, which colonized neighboring Central American peoples, or the Japanese, whose modern Industries have invested heavily in the Tigers of Asia, and thus largely dominate their economies and politics.

The chapter largely explores the means by which the West, chiefly the United States, used a variety of rationalizations to colonize and disadvantage other populations.  While often justifying their acts as promoting democratic principles in nations that have been subjected to totalitarian governments, or attempting to improve the economic conditions of impoverished peoples, the net result of colonialism has been the transfer of wealth, resources, and power to the colonizing powers at the expense of further impoverishing and suffering in the colonies.

Dr. Kaufman spends some time examining the impact the rise the Soviet Union had on this relationship between the dominant economies of the West and the colonized or pseudo-colonized nations.  While the rise of the Soviet Union initially gave hope that unaligned or rebelling peoples would be able to gain Soviet support in their efforts to improve their condition, the hoped for results did not materialize.  Two major factors were sited in this.  The first was that Soviet support tended to result in automatic U.S. hostility that was far more severe than the original colonial impositions.  Civil repression would be replaced by blatant military assault.  The second factor was the Soviet Union’s own actions, which would often result in a less obvious colonization by the U.S.S.R., such as happened with Hungary or Cuba.  Rather than being freed by the support, it would simply result in a change of colonial masters.

Towards the end of the chapter, Dr. Kaufman discusses current thoughts and efforts to aid the peoples who have been harmed by colonialism.  In the face of what seems to be overwhelming and unassailable positioning on the part of the transnationals and their governmental and trade-organization backers, many reformers have abandoned any faith that change can currently come at the national level.  Rather, many of them currently are focused to bring grass roots change by aiding in the improvement of the living conditions of small portions of the disadvantaged.  By improving the drinking water of a village, for example, a small change is created that aides the disadvantaged, and gives them just that much more strength to eventually resist colonialism from a position of self-sufficiency.  With enough such grass roots changes, an accumulation of empowerment can be created that can potentially weaken the colonial paradigm.

My Thoughts:

While I continue to feel that Dr. Kaufman is so caught up in Marxism, I feel that the supposition is far more justified in this context.  By and large, colonialism has been driven by the desire to accumulate power and wealth inward at the expense of the colonized.  Here an examination of the means by which accumulators of wealth prevent threat to their control is fully reasonable, and the Marxist model is a good lens to focus on this particular issue.

The part of this chapter that particularly interested me, however, is less “How have we gotten here”, and “How are we staying here”, but more “What are we doing to change?”  In this section, it seems to me that Dr. Kaufman departs from the Marxist tradition.  Marx predicted that Capitalism would eventually alienate the workers so greatly that they would rise up en mass and overthrow capitalism.  Reflecting back on history, this not only has not happened, but seems to be growing even less likely by the year.  However, the grass roots movements she has discussed seem to be growing over time, gaining momentum and power.  More and more people do seem to be working to fuel change within the colonized world not by promoting the belief that industrializing the Third World will make everyone wealthy, but instead by addressing the basic needs industrialization is neglecting, such as health care, clean drinking water, and other such needs.

Bringing this to my own interests and research, the focal point of this change applied directly to what I myself seeing myself attempting.  Rather than attempting to assault the edifice of established legal and social code at the national level, rather I seek to create small moments of personal change on the part of individuals and small groups.  By altering their attitudes, it is hoped that my little effort will add to the small efforts of others throughout society, leading to a change from within, rather than one enforced from without.

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Ideas For Action – Cynthia Kaufman Ch. 3

For my next reading I continue with Cynthia Kaufman’s “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change.”  This time I cover chapter three.

Summary:

In this chapter, entitled “Capitalism and Class”, Dr. Kaufman explores the divisions within modern western society, particularly as evidenced in the United States.  She explores the way in which U.S. culture divides people along lines of income level, race, and sex.  She then further explores how both Capitalists and Unions have responded to these divisions.

In the original Marxist thought, there were two basic classes.  The Capitalist owned or controlling the means of production, was the dominant class.  Labor consisted of everyone else, people who exchanged their time and muscle to produce for the Capitalist in exchange for a wage.  To put it into oversimplified terms, this was a division of Haves and Have-Nots.

According to Marx, Capitalists have a vested interest in attempting to keep Labor in a position of having no choice but to accept wages that meet the minimum needed to survive while working as long and hard as possible.  As such, Capitalists cooperate together to keep a system in place that forces this condition to exist.  Labor, however, does everything in its (quite limited) power to try to push their wages higher and to mitigate the difficulties of work conditions.  This class struggle then creates a solidarity between the members of the two classes in opposition to one another.

Dr. Kaufman demonstrates the way in which the desired solidarity amongst Labor has been undermined by issues of race and gender.  As an example, during the first part of the 20th century, many labor movements excluded Americans of African descent from participation in efforts to improve the lot of workers.  Capitalists were then able to exploit this, using these excluded individuals as strike-breakers or employing them at lower wages than the organized European descent workers were holding out for.  Similarly, women were payed lower wages than men, thus reducing the average wage in a way that drastically impacted the wages paid out to the traditional market force.  These divisions in Labor reduced the effectiveness of Labor movements while simultaneously increasing the tools available to Capitalists to protect the system.

Labor Unions were formed to help create solidarity that could force change in the system.  Unfortunately, many of these labor unions fell prey to the divisions being exploited by the Capitalist class.  Unions often excluded groups of workers along lines of race, gender, or perceived legality.    Through this exclusionary practice many of them hampered their effectiveness as counters to the Capitalist machinations.  Over time, Unions did learn to overcome this to some degree, but even now they tend to be blinded to the legitimate differences between these groups.  As a result they tend to dismiss the different concerns of diverse members of the Labor body, which leads to difficulties pulling Labor together.

My Thoughts:

While Dr. Kaufman continues to base the discussion of issues within Marxism, she is beginning to move past the chief complaint I have with Marxist philosophy with this chapter.  Marxism tends to be rooted so firmly in the idea that Capital is *the* problem that it tends to ignore the far more complex issues that create social issues.   While Marxist thought insists that the misery of most of humanity can be laid directly at the feet of Capitalists manipulating Labor, here she begins to lay out the case for a far more complex engine causing the issues.

Gender and Race divisions (as well as many other divisions) are not the result of direct action by Capitalists seeking to prevent the unity of labor.  Rather, these are conditions that have existed far longer than the Capitalism, and those who are currently empowered are simply using these divisions to their advantage.  Further, those who are disenfranchised by this are not innocent victims.  Dr. Kaufman demonstrates that Labor often has reinforced these cracks through their own actions.  The exclusion of ethnicity or gender from participation in labor actions historically was not done because of Capitalist pressures, but because of flaws perpetuated by the disenfranchised themselves.  In demonstrating where the cracks are, Dr. Kaufman begins to help move past Marxism into a more thorough exam of the societal structure that is the true issue here.

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Ideas For Action – Cynthia Kaufman Ch. 2

The first reading I tackle is Cynthia Kaufman‘s “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change.”  I begin with Chapter 2, “Capitalism, Freedom, and the Good Life.”

Summary:

Modern Western Society links Capitalism and Freedom together.  Capitalism is  based around the idea that the ability to produce is the reason for society, and leads to the betterment of all.  This came about through the Enlightenment writings of individuals such as Locke.  Freedom is tied to this by Capitalist proponents through the concept that Freedom is measured through the rights of producers and property owners to utilize their property and capital as they please.  The idea that anyone can do as they please with their property is the symbol of democracy and freedom.  Economic growth is the bar by which success is measured, and anything that hinders raw growth is clearly dangerous to freedom as well.

The criticism of the Capitalism – Freedom connection made by the proponents of Capitalism is that this link is only true for a very limited population.  In order to have the freedom to utilize property and capacity for production (capital) without restriction, one must have the capital to begin with.  The more capital one has, the greater the opportunity there is to exercise that freedom.  This ratio, however, reduces when going down rather than up.  The less capital one has, the less opportunity one has to exercise that freedom.  Ultimately, the individual that has no capital has no opportunity to exercise in freedom.

My Thoughts:

The connection that is criticized here gives me pause.  Dr. Kaufman does an excellent job of making clear that there are multiple interpretations of freedom that can be made.  She clearly distinguishes between economic freedom and political freedom.  More importantly to my mind, she demonstrates the way the two are often contradictory.  For example, she states, “If by democracy we mean a society in which people rule, then it isn’t clear that allowing the owners of the means of production to operate without constraint means that people are ruling their society.”  I consider this to be a crucial statement in the chapter.

Let us take as an example a chemical factory in a small community.  By the capitalist perspective of freedom (the freedom to utilize property unrestrained) the only way freedom is truthfully present is if the factory is free to produce to its utmost.  The disposal of waste products would be done in the most efficient method possible (which is to say by dumping it in the river alongside the factory.) However, by the standard of political freedom (the rule of the population) then freedom can only be truthfully present if they are able to prevent the destruction of the communal water source by requiring the waste be disposed of through more expensive (and thus capital-limiting) means.  Thus we see two dueling concepts regarding freedom.

This argument is drawn out of the writings of Karl Marx (who is referred to in the text repeatedly.)  One of the chief criticisms I have of Marx is the absolutism that is displayed in what writings of his I have read.  In his writings, the capitalist will always do the absolutely most efficient thing possible regarding the use of capital, and damn the consequences.  The laborer will always be the powerless victim, trapped in the system with no recourse but to submit or starve (and likely will starve anyway if there is an excess of labor.)  Marx was a product of his time, in which this was by and large the true state of things.  The development of the past 150+ years, however, has resulted in an understanding that things are far more complex.  For example, in order for his discussions to be true, the capitalist cannot take ethics into consideration, and labor must have no recourse short of violent revolution.  These are absolutes that don’t exist universally, though there are extreme examples that can be pointed to as isolated examples.

Fortunately, even though Dr. Kaufman does point to some of these extreme examples in the current day, the style in which she writes and the discussion she leads does indicate a recognition that the situation currently existing is far more complex than a purely Marxist stand can explain.  Pure economic freedom does not exist, as it is tempered by some degree of political freedom in many of the capitalist states.  While she does not paint this as being even close to an ideal state, she does point to its presence.  I anticipate that in further chapters she will explore this more deeply, and look forward to it.

The one significant point I would quibble with in the writing is her statement that those nations with the highest GDPs also have very low standards of living for the poor, and points to the United States as a prime example.  While I would certainly agree that the distance between the standard of living for the very poor of the US and the very rich of the US is extreme, I would point out that the “very low” standard of living for the poorest of Americans is still well above the average for the Afghan citizen, or Sudanese citizen.  Having been to Afghanistan and witnessed their standards of living personally, I would rather live in the most deprived part of Detroit than in Afghanistan.  The worst of the US poor still have better access to clean drinking water, food, and medical care than even well off Afghan citizens.

This criticism, however, does not invalidate the point made by Dr. Kaufman.  The case that political freedom in its purest form, and economic freedom in its purest form conflict is made.  I look forward to further chapters with the hope that she will be able to present some good seeds for thought in regards to how best to resolve this conflict.

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A Fast Introduction

The purpose of this blog is to document my thoughts and considerations in response to readings assigned to me by professors, or engaged in by my own interest.  In it I intend to organize my understanding and attempt to pull together my thoughts regarding my particular interests.  These interests include Critical Theory, Internet Society, Communication, Identity, and Social Consciousness.

I am allowing this blog to be publicly viewable.  This is because I firmly believe that it is through dialog that understanding is reached.  By allowing others to share in my journey I can gain insights into what I am studying through listening to other view points.  As such, there rules are that anyone can state their views and understandings so long as they are polite and respectful.  If you disagree, state why, what your view is, and support it calmly.

Let us reason together.

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