Reply to Prof Crowe’s Criticism of the Roots of Racism

Prof Tim Crowe was clearly deeply upset and morally offended by my interpretation of the origin and nature of ‘racism’. I am sorry to have so disturbed him, but the highly emotional nature of his response suggests that it was caused, not by an objective...

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Prof Tim Crowe was clearly deeply upset and morally offended by my interpretation of the origin and nature of ‘racism’. I am sorry to have so disturbed him, but the highly emotional nature of his response suggests that it was caused, not by an objective and calm assessment of the facts (or non-facts) provided in my essays, but by self-inflicted outrage.

The opinions expressed in the essays were based upon a long lifetime’s personal experience of how individual people on four continents appeared to respond personally to ‘racial’ differences in others. In this, the distinction between the moralistic way that people frequently claimed to feel about those of other races, and how they actually tended to respond to them in reality, was noted.

As a result of this experience, and other observations, I duly concluded that everybody was, to at least some degree or other, prejudiced against those who were culturally different to themselves. This does not mean that I believe every prejudice to necessarily be a violent or hateful one; rather, that we humans are simply not inclined to view those who are significantly different to ourselves in a favourable light.

I further concluded that if everybody was indeed prejudiced, there was likely to be a good biological reason for this. This prejudice, as I noted in the essay, was not simply against a person’s ‘race’, as popularly defined, but applied across a range of observable cultural differences. While suggesting that in the historical past ‘racism’ had served a protective and positive biological function, I certainly did not indicate that I thought it did so in today’s circumstances. On the contrary, I explained why it was now socially so divisive.

Prof Crowe has clearly and even eagerly jumped to the entirely false conclusion that I think racism is a good thing today. This is astonishing, particularly given the contents of the second essay, and I do not think that he is merely virtue signalling. His moral fervour, however, has possibly led him astray, and I will return to this.

The assertion that everybody is racist to some degree or other was one of the two arguments absolutely fundamental to my hypothesis. If it is not essentially true, then my hypothesis fails. Prof Crowe, however, did not deny its truth, as contentious an assertion and as central to my argument as it is.

If I am correct, then social science really has to explain in rational terms just why it is that every human being, or, pedantically, every normal human being, possesses this particular behavioural predisposition. If every human being is predisposed to be suspicious or averse to those of a different culture or race, clearly it cannot be a moral crime or aberration. A moral crime or aberration is, by definition, something done by particular individuals, that their society as a whole does not naturally do.

If, on the other hand, I am incorrect in my admittedly very wide and general assertion, then my argument fails, but for it to be incorrect it would have to be true that Prof Crowe (and others) did in fact regard people belonging to cultural groups and ‘races’ significantly different to their own, in exactly the same way and in all respects as they regard people of their own cultural group.

I am unable to disprove that Prof Crowe is personally totally free of any prejudicial feelings of any sort against those who are culturally different to himself in any significant way, as he so strongly implies is the case, but nor, frankly, does my life’s experience suggest that it is very likely.

Obviously, I cannot prove that ‘everybody’ possesses prejudicial feelings in respect of those of different culture and race, any more than Prof Crowe can prove that he is morally pure in this regard. As both of us have offered our arguments to the public, however, it is best left to you, the reader, to decide who is most likely to be correct.

You also do not really know what all others feel, but with regard to your own prejudices, or lack thereof, you have full knowledge. If, in all honesty and frankness, you examine your feelings with regard to people who are significantly different to you culturally and racially, do you find that you regard them in exactly the same favourable light that you tend to regard those culturally close to you, or do you not?

If you discover that you are totally without any prejudice, then you have very good reason to support Prof Crowe, Aristotle, Jesus, and Mother Theresa, as he indicates. If, however, you find that you do not feel about those who are significantly different culturally to you, in exactly the same way that you feel about your own people, then you must join the legion of the morally damned identified by Prof Crowe.

The second argument fundamental to my hypothesis was that throughout the whole of human history, right up to the 1950s, racism was the social norm in all societies on Earth, and everybody was expected to be racist in their attitude to outsiders. The very brief current period of anti-racism is a far greater historical anomaly than racism itself, and there probably was a good reason for this.

Once again, Prof Crowe did not dispute this observation; in fact, he agreed with it.

He explains it, however, as due to a lack of humanism in all our ancestors, who did not apparently enjoy the moral enlightenment that we benefit from today. I’m not sure that this spiritual explanation of a historical fact explains it better than my suggestion that racism was socially approved of for so long simply because it had served a biologically positive function over that period, even if it no longer does so under today’s different social circumstances, which have turned it into a decidedly negative social factor.

The emotional and dogmatic nature of Prof Crowe’s attack indicates that he is upset not so much by the factual validity or otherwise of what I wrote, but by the immoral nature of what he thinks I meant. In the first of the two essays, I refer to the unfortunate and pious moralising of ‘racism’ that prevents a proper understanding of what ‘racism’ is, and therefore of a solution to the problem. Prof Crowe’s criticism is an example of exactly this. Instead of trying to understand what I was saying rationally, he no sooner read the essays than he was out on the dusty road throwing stones at what he regarded as a passing sinner.

If ‘racism’ is regarded simply as a moral crime or aberration, then it is self-evidently held to be caused by a moral deficiency in all those identified as ‘racist’. This deficiency must be punished and the ‘racists’ made to publicly recant. Obsessed with punishment, this Old Testament attitude and procedure gives no serious thought to understanding and so resolving the socially destructive predisposition. So, naturally, it continues.

If, on the other hand, ‘racism’ is rationally considered to be an inherent (or maybe acquired) social predisposition that in the past served a positive biological function, but has now, because of changed historical circumstances, become a strongly negative factor, the problem can at least start to be analysed, addressed, and resolved in rational rather than apoplectic, moralistic ways.

Get your copy of David Matthews’ book on ideology and morality, Our Captured Minds on Amazon.

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  1. Paining Reply

    Very difficult to defend Political Correctness when trying to dispute facts is how i see Crowe vs Matthews. Matthews hands down so far from my perspective.

  2. Gillian Benade Reply

    You both are correct, I dont understand why you are arguing.

  3. Steven van Staden Reply

    I think the reason for there being a dearth of comments on the Crowe and Matthews articles on racism is that the subject is so highly charged and complex that a brief comment cannot do justice to even a single point one might wish to make. Perhaps, for that reason, I am opening myself to criticism by saying here is that it is obvious that we learn racism by observation of the behaviour we see characterizing different races. Naturally we react positively or negatively in our responses to the general behaviour patterns we notice and categorize, differentiating classes, cultures, manners, intellects and so on. If observation indicates that there is a predominance of, for example, rapes and murders and acts of general violence such as rioting, arson, assault, looting, housebreaking and reckless and aggressive driving on the roads characterising a particular race group, there will be a natural reaction to that information by a different race group, which will of course have both positive and negative results (among the positive, a need to be on guard). This is why race groups need to look at their own bad behavioural traits that are characterising their race groups and fueling racism. There really is a need, without fear, to recognise, acknowledge, criticise and try to overcome wrongs from within a group. In time – a long time – this would help blur the colour divide by which we generalize and categorize in our racism which I think we all wish an end to.

  4. Chris Reply

    Racism means nothing if it is not entrenched by the law. Who gives a stuff if superior German engineering is claimed by a manufacturer for hair products.What I think of other people has nothing to do with them and what they think of me is none of my business. When the law prescribes race privelidge or subjugation then evil is empowered. Any prejudice against oneself can be overcome by good values. Their is also no “group think” Just individuals thinking or not thinking.Look for negative effects of prejudice and the law/government will be behind it every time.

  5. Dirk Scheepers Reply

    Would dig to have you on the podcast David. Just a chat via Skype/Whatsapp/Facetime on the topics discussed in your piece.

    Here is the episode I did with Martin van Staden.

  6. FB Reply

    David, I don’t see any mention of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in your writing; so… I am unsure whether you are familiar with it. To me, it appears that your ideas are mostly in agreement with the “in-group” versus “out-group” prejudice interpretation of the IAT. Here are a few pointers:




    1. Harald Sitta Reply

      I made the test and it says that i have a strong automatic preference for White over black people.But why then I immigrated to ZA 2007 ? The test is bullshit ..:-)

      1. FB Reply

        Observing the smiley, I speculate that you are quite aware that your statement is a red herring; I suggest that’s best enjoyed with a small beer 🙂

        1. Harald Sitta Reply

          1. My statement is a fact .2. Herring goes with red Wine.3 The smiley refers to the word ‘bull***t” 4.Thank you for reading.

  7. Harald Sitta Reply

    Racism is then just careful reservation against the unknown, the alien, the stranger. It is a provisional -judgement (in German; Vor-Urteil) .To be careful against the unknown is just a survival technique. Who would collect and eat mushrooms without checking if fungi or not? As long as one is ready to check and reverse a provisional judgment nothing is wrong. That should be common sense but in p c times common sense is surely only a social construct …

  8. bengine Reply

    “that we humans are simply not inclined to view those who are significantly different to ourselves in a favourable light.”
    I think it has more to do with closed mindedness and comfort zones. Free thinkers are quite rare – the norm tends to be to associate with the like minded and be distrustful of anything that looks or sounds different – probably a throwback to earlier days when strange meant a threat.

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