Friday, December 22, 2017

You Forgot a Bit

I came across a copy of Chris Hayes A Colony In a Nation and read it. It's a quick read, I was able to finish it during the gaps in my workday, and about a half-hour before going to bed. As the title implies, it's a take on the idea of colonialism, with the central premise being that poor Black and Latino (although the book mostly focuses on Black) communities are treated like colonies, and the analogy is made to the original 13 Colonies that made up the early United States. In this, is draws some interesting parallels between the way that modern America jurisdictions of various levels and the administration of King George III treated their colonial subjects.

It is, not surprisingly, a Left-leaning critique of things, although there are some practices that I was surprised that we don't hear more right-leaning commentators talking about. (It kind of reinforces the cynical "freedom for me, and none for thee" charge that is leveled against them.)

The one big miss that popped up for me is the very end of the book. In the conclusion, Mr. Hayes asks the reader to imagine a button that, when pushed, delivers a benefit to the person who pushed it, at the expense of someone else. He goes through a couple of ideas of what that benefit might be, and what it might cost the someone else, but the basic idea is the same. And, on page 216, he says of this:

And if the person sitting by the button is poor and desperate, I doubt we'd judge her if she pushed the button to feed her kids or get money toward much-needed medicine. But overall it's not okay, as a general principle, to impose random harm on someone else so that you can reap a reward. That's our moral commitment.
But as far as I'm concerned, it is okay. That's why people do it so often. Regardless of how unethical or immoral one might claim it to be, the fact remains that reaping rewards by imposing random (or quite specific) harms on someone else is a mainstay of cultures around the world and throughout history (and prehistory, for that matter).

So, is Mr. Hayes wrong about this?

Not entirely. I think, however, that he left out one tiny bit.
But overall it's not okay, as a general principle, to impose random harm on someone undeserving of it so that you can reap a reward.
There, as all the cool kids would say these days, I fixed it for you.

And I think that it's an important distinction; one that explains much of the way in which people actually behave. And the issue becomes that it's never particularly difficult to come up with a reason why someone else is deserving of the harm that is required to reap a reward. They're of the wrong social class, they're from a different place, they've broken this or that rule, they didn't defend us from some harm that someone else did to us, they don't follow the correct faith, their ancestors harmed our ancestors, they're simply inferior. Et cetera. The list is as long as the human imagination. And as varied as human deprivation.

Mr. Hayes notes that we'd refrain from blaming the poor or desperate. (I suspect that judgement would be very quick if the harm befell someone the judge cared about, however.) And that's the other side of the coin. People are quick to see themselves, as poor and desperate. Not as often as they're willing to see the person harmed as deserving of harm, perhaps, but more often than one might think is reasonable.

And this ties in to the overall theme of the book. After all, Mr. Hayes attributes King George's heavy-handed tariff enforcement in colonial America as a way of replenishing the depleted royal treasury after the Seven Year's War, rather than (as it often seems we're taught in grade school) any sort of personal malice. (Although it's likely that he saw the colonies, with their smuggling and other tariff-dodging, as wretched hives of scum and villainy.)

Mr. Hayes idea, that we consider victimizing one another as wrong across the board, is an ideal. And in that, lip service may be paid to it, but it's not often the reality. Understanding the pieces that bring it into line with the world as we experience it, makes it easier to understand how it's actually lived, and perhaps why it's lived that way.

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