A version of this paper, titled "The Search for Truth and the Contexts of Racial Discourse," was prepared for presentation at the Fall 2000 Conference of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society, October 6-7, Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia.

Philosophy, Race and Language
Conflicting Value Priorities

By Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

Honi Soi Qui Mal Y Pense
Evil to Him Who Evil Thinks

edited 10/5/16

Is "Race" A Philosophically Worthy Subject Of Investigation?

Can race be discussed critically and openly? If not, there is little use in venturing any philosophical exposition on the concept. It is often difficult, particularly in a public forum, to separate a concept from the emotional tone which has been conditioned to it. I have severe misgivings about the term race, especially as it is, in education, commonly conflated with such terms as ethnicity and culture.

A parallel example illustrates what the basic problem is. Twenty-five years ago I was asked to lead workshops on Cultural Difference with the teachers of the junior high school where I worked in a bilingual program. After two sessions, I announced that at the next meeting that I would discuss insults, vulgarities and obscenities as they were used by Spanish-speaking students in the school. I cautioned the teachers that those who would be offended upon hearing such words discussed ought not to attend.

On the afternoon of the workshop, the room was packed. People I had never seen before showed up. Again I cautioned: "We're going to review words which in Spanish can be taken as insults, vulgarities or obscenities. I will give you their English equivalents. If it is possible you would feel at all uncomfortable with such a discussion I am asking you during the five minutes before we begin to leave the room"

Everyone stayed.

I began, "One of the most common epithets you'll hear some of our boys use is mama'o This is more or less the English equivalent of … "a person who performs fellatio."

(That is not what I said: I used the obvious word. However, having been in my last ten years socialized to the norms of Academia -- and also because I am among strangers -- I have reluctantly sacrificed Truth on the alter of Decorum.)

Let's get back to the tale: I uttered the critical three-syllable English word.

The room almost reverberated with silence. Then, a small, distressed voice could be heard at the rear, "Oh my God! He said it! He really said it!"

I hoped I wasn't showing my annoyance. I remarked, "Before we get into discussing chocha, puta, jodete and like, perhaps some of you would like to reconsider and leave."

Not a person moved.

I gave for the first time in my life a little lecture, one that I have given many, many times since; a lecture on distinguishing between the mention of a word and the use of that word. If I tell you that Scheisse is a vulgarity in German I am not employing vulgarity. If I say, "I do," I am not thereby taking someone's hand in marriage. Similarly, I have not spoken obscenely if I mention that over the last forty years common references to roosters and cats have moved them from nursery rhymes, into obscenity. Who dares, even in the elementary school, mention "Cock-a-doodle doo" or "I love little Pussy, her coat is so warm."

Unhappily this important distinction between mention and use is seldom taken in. In many discussions of diversity, the use-mention confusion abounds. So it is with some reservation that I address the issue of race. I do so with the caveat that should listeners find themselves offended by my language the offense is not in my intent, nor in the sounds I utter, nor in the words I refer to, nor in the use I put them to.

Rather, I would suggest, the offense felt in the mention of a word is generated within and by the offended person, possibly as a consequence of an unreflected upon emotional conditioning, a not infrequently encountered enthrallment to the language. This has important implications in education for discourse about diversity in general, and about race in particular.

(I no doubt importune many of my colleagues who would hasten to point out to me that I am addressing an audience at a philosophical conference, and I apologize to those I inadvertently patronize. But I have sat through too many purportedly "professional" meetings in which intellectually muddled, awkward and prissy circumlocutions have abounded; as if, we might imagine, a conference of medical professionals restricted themselves to talk in the idiom of "Boo-boos" , "Mommy-kiss-its", "attacks of the vapors," and "times of the month.")

'Race' is unscientific

Here is what I would call a "short shrift" argument for dismissing "race" as a philosophical topic: there is no scientific context in which racial metaphors are viable. This is, or should be, in the year 2000, common knowledge. (The supporting documentation one obtains with just a cursory search of, say, the Internet -- or any library --is overwhelming.) 1

Common knowledge is this: those constellations of human physical characteristics which support racial discrimination are not sufficient genetically stable from generation to generation to meet the criteria for what geneticists call racial difference. Less than one percent of the human genome controls those variations commonly understood as racially linked, e.g. skin color, hair type, etc. There is more genetic variation between any two Swedes than between any Swede and any, say, Nigerian. Social practice, rather than any science of heredity, supports the persistence of the idiom of race.

Given philosophy’s long tradition of truth-seeking2, i.e. giving, at least, lip-service to the priority to Truth over other values, it is no more surprising that philosophers ignore race than that they ignore mysticism, extra-sensory perception, UFO's or miracles. (Especially in the normally emotionally-charged contexts of their discussion.)

So, goes the short-shrift argument, forget about race; let's move on to other things. But that would be to move on too fast. In fact, the short-shrift argument rests on several prejudices that tend to forestall reasonable philosophical reflection.

Meta-analysis Is Still Philosophy

Should philosophers abandon inquiry into the concept of race merely because there may be incoherent or false beliefs about it? I think not. Philosophy is, after all, not substantially an empirical science and its methods of investigation suit it equally well for the analysis of The Imaginary, and The Illusory as well as the True. Genetically speaking, race is an illusion. But is a sufficiently stable illusion to be employable for a variety of purposes.

Consider the stellar constellations. They are illusions. There is, in fact, no group of stars arranged in the configuration of the Big Dipper. Only our position within our solar system makes it appear that way. But to the navigator on the surface of the Earth, the stellar constellations can be relied upon to guide one's journey.

Race may be genetic illusion, since its variability manifests itself only across generations. Nonetheless, the misery and abuse racial distinctions have been used to rationalize to the present day attests to the fact that attention to racial distinctions can be consistently made within the time span of any one generation.3

Ought philosophers engage in discussion on race? I am, at this point, still somewhat unconvinced by my own arguments. Racial discourse, whether intended as a tool for subjugation or liberation, flourishes in those institutional contexts in which priorities of values and operating assumption undermine the free exercise of philosophical inquiry. Investigation threatens -- as we have seen above -- to lead us into socially taboo areas; and, the social dynamics of taboo tend to severely constrain philosophical inquiry. Let us look into this.

Setting Priorities

When asked a question, why don’t we always tell the truth, at least as we see it at that moment? How do I look, dear? Isn’t she the cutest baby? What do you think of our faculty, now that you’ve gotten to know us? What did you think of my term paper?

When presented with such questions we lie with clear conscience. Why? Because the truths we may have to tell are not as important to us or to our interlocutors in these situations as the social relations we are concerned to maintain. In many, many contexts we subordinate Truth to Caring and call it Tact, or Sensitivity. We suppress truths the expression of which would produce no foreseeable personal advantage and call it Collegiality. As teachers, we may withhold the accurate evaluation of a student performance and call it Encouragement

What prioritizations support discourse on race? Are they compatible with those that support philosophical inquiry? How might we go about establishing contrasts and comparisons? The answer is clear: by examining the evidence our traditions of linguistic usage give us. The very existence of certain concepts indicates prioritizations of value and premise. (For the sake of brevity and poetry, I employ the word premise4 from the literature of organizational theory, which means, approximately, "operating assumptions of an organization or institution."). What is the evidence?

Priorities of Value

What is it to be tactful? Among other things, it is to be positively characterized, commended, for one's prioritization of caring over truth. Imagine for example, a teacher's likely response to a student's question, "You think I'm stupid, don't you?"

How might that priority be negatively characterized, or disparaged? As, possibly, patronizing, or overprotective, as when a doctor chooses to "protect" his patient from finding out the high fatality rate of a proposed operation.

We can generate a very rough, but useful schema that compares the prioritization of values, ( on the left) with possible commending and disparaging characterizations on the right of the person or institution in which or whom the prioritization exists.

It is of the form A/B <=> +/- ,

or using our examples, Caring / Truth <=> tactful / patronizing
(or changing the parts of speech Caring / Truth <=> tactfulness / patronization, although, I don't think one need really worry about parallel construction here.)

This we can read as,

"Giving caring priority over truth may be commended as tactful
and disparaged as patronizing."

Notice that if we put Truth over Caring, we don't merely switch the position of the characterizations since patronizing is not commendatory, nor tactful, disparaging. We have to look for other words, e.g.

Truth / Caring <=> forthright / insensitive,

(or Truth / Caring <=> forthrightness / insensitivity)

Read this:

"Giving truth priority over caring may be commended as forthright
and disparaged as insensitive."

(Note: For persuasive reasons it is unlikely that anyone will publicly own up to lowering the priority of truth; indeed, leaders of all kinds profess adherence to and promulgation of the truth.)

Despite the many alternatives and ambiguities, this approach does not yield purely random results. Consider Elegance / Comfort. No English speaker would likely pair it with pious / enamoured, Indeed, pious / enamoured, is not likely to be understood as a commendatory-disparaging couplet.

A useful variation on this analysis is this: one begins on the right with a positive characterization of an act, jumps to the prioritization, then back to find a negative characterization: Forthrightness is used to commend the prioritization of truth over caring; a negative prioritization of this prioritization is insensitivity.

I offer for consideration the following:

caringA / caringB <=> preference / prejudice

power / caring <=> control / insensitivity

caring / power <=> accepting / vulnerable

unity / truth <=> inclusive / lying

truth / unity <=> honest / schismatic

free inquiry / unity <=> inquisitive / divisive

unity / free inquiry <=> fraternal / restrictive

acceptance / truth <=> forgiving / promiscuous

truth / acceptance <=> honest / rejecting

harmony / truth <=> diplomatic / not discriminating

truth / harmony <=> forthright / contentious

truth A / truth B <=> ?5

criticism / unity <=> receptive / impertinent

unity / criticism <=> steadfast / totalitarian

The point of this is that the contexts of philosophical discourse and the context of racial discourse tend toward different value prioritizations. The pressure in philosophy is traditionally toward ranking as high priorities, free inquiry, criticism and truth. The contexts in which racial discourse are typically encountered press toward unity, harmony, and power. It would appear, consequently that, unless the philosopher accepts the role of partisan idealogue, he or she may face condemnation as divisive, rejecting, contentious, and impertinent.

Premise prioritization

We take no pleasure in the sophistical, the disputative, the dialectical.-- Frazier in Walden Two.6

It is made abundantly clear in B. F. Skinner's totalitarian Utopia, Walden Two, that philosophy is not welcome. Free inquiry and criticism, though given lip service, are not congenial to the discourses of would-be social controllers

What operating assumptions are premised in different contexts of discourse? Here is a list possible assumptions. These were chosen because they can be used to differentially profile different common institutions such as university, family, church and state.

Assumptions that may be prioritized differently in different institutions:
A. Authority may be challenged.

B. Individuals matter more than groups

C. Personal feelings matter.

D. The leadership should be protected.

E. One's reasons for acting are important.

F. The costs of action don’t matter

G. General utility is important.

H. Experience enhances authority.

I. Reputation enhances authority

J. Reputation of peers is important.

K. The group must maintain its identity.

Clearly, when one considers the contexts in which racial discourse is promulgated, as opposed to those contexts in which philosophical inquiry is undertaken, the premises are quite differently prioritized. Philosophers would tend to place A high and K and D low. I would expect that this would be reversed where racial discourse is common.

Diversity and Obscenity

Promoting racial discourse is sometimes seen as a way of promoting appreciation of diversity. But the awkwardness I had to negotiate early in this presentation point to a limit on the kinds of diversity that might be pursued.

One of my students, a vice principal, told me recently of a fourteen year old African-American boy who was suspended for saying to his friend, also African-American, "Hey, Nigger! Look at this!" School policy designates the word, "nigger", always referred to as "the N-word," to be " a "racial slur." The boy was suspended for racially slurring his friend. This is along the lines of suspending third graders for violating antidrug policy because they carry cough drops. Clearly, what has become institutionalized in that school is the use-mention fallacy I described above. Is this liberation?

Whose obscenities ought we institutionalize? The institution of obscenity is widespread, inconsistent, and traditional. It is basically irrational, verbal "magic." It is a simple device for controlling those who might be insufficiently respectful of a community's particular values: one either avoids uttering certain sounds, or one suffers punishment. But the whole process, in cross-cultural perspective strikes one as absurd!

Why should children be taught to react emotionally aversively to arbitrary combinations of sound? If schools take the cowardly approach as the one described above does and forbid any utterance that might in some context, for some persons, in some culture, constitute a taboo word, then what of the educational goals of rationality and liberation?

What Should Philosophers Do?

Unless one intends to pursue a career as a partisan idealogue or some other kind of intellectual ancillary, the practicing philosopher is left to the archetypal role of gadfly: divisive, rejecting, contentious, and impertinent. (At least, being so characterized, one knows one is having some effect -- one of philosophy's meager consolations.)

Actually, there are two important cases here. In the first, let us suppose that the purpose of racial discourse is subjugation. The moral imperative here is clear, I would think. In the second case, the purpose of racial discourse is liberation. One's concern here, then, ought be that political expedience not completely eclipse concern for establishing a shared "regime of truth."



1. A typical example: Article 1 :1. All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity. Adopted and proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at its twentieth session, on 27 November 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.1, annex V (1982). http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/d2drp.htm

2. Professors of philosophy are, after all, institutional functionaries and tend to give collegiality higher priority than truth.

3. Perhaps a point against a theory that what works is real. Illusions "work".

4. Cf. Charles F. Perrow Complex Organizations . Oakland, NJ: Scott-Foresman, 1979. p. 152.

5. Note that truth, unlike caring, seems to admit of no priorities. I tested these prioritizations in several classes and my students reached much the same results.

6. B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (New York. MacMillan. 1976) ISBN 0-02-411510-X. p.103
See, also, Rozycki, EG A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy