On Racial Politics, Systemic Injustice, and Human Nature

Someone recently asked me about my thoughts in regards to what is happening in America and around the world such as Hong Kong (I was born in Hong Kong). I think some of you who knows me very well may have anticipated this post. For I have spent a lot of time thinking about some of our current issues at hand because it is very complicated.

My last post on the finitude of being human was written with America and Hong Kong in mind. It was why I shared some of my knowledge and spoke about Derrida’s account on forgiveness—something that is nearly impossible to achieve today (Derrida compares forgiveness with something like a revolution). My thoughts and prayers with America and Hong Kong was also why I decided to share my seminar presentation on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. I tried to encourage people to share what they thought was true regardless of their race and political orientation. I even intentionally emphasized on Badiou’s notion on the distance between power and truth, where we can talk about the truth without any particularities. Yes, I still think that an “Idea” in itself has nothing to do with race and identity. What is more originary than both race and identity is the fact that we are all human beings (though I am certainly not saying that racism does not exist). Before I begin, I want to say that I am always on the side of justice no matter what I say. I am saying this now because people tend to misread me since I sometimes unintentionally piss people off.

I am a perceiver who prefers to understand everything from multiple perspectives before I start thinking about possible conclusions. While I might not always label myself, I always try to be fair and understand the underlying logic, structure, and causality of everything and everyone around me. Hence, people often misunderstand me for being unresponsive, slow to move, apolitical and even unsympathetic. But most of this is not true. I am sensitive to injustices. It’s just that most people never got to know me well enough to understand that I lost hope for humanity long time ago. I tend to not talk about political matters in public unless they are my close friends because they are more open to radical ideas. I sometimes feel like if I tell people that I am a centrist (though definitely still left leaning—but not in the contemporary liberal sense), I would be committing a mortal sin by some politically correct person who is obsessed with definitions. The 30 year old Bobby you see today is not the same 20 year old Bobby. In fact, Bobby is turning 30 today. And since it is my birthday, I want to take this opportunity to write about something that I think is important for us to think about. Forgive me for being incoherent, I wrote this under a few hours.

Philosophy had taught me how to be a better person. But there was one point in my life where it annihilated my world views and turned me into a bitter and depressed human being. To be honest, it is not a very good story. Maybe I will save it for another post where I may share such experiences (I am turning 30 after all). I regularly have political and intellectual debates with my father who I consider to be a formidable opponent. Although we have very different views on contemporary China, I still have infinite respect for him because he taught me that if I want others to respect my ideas, I should respect theirs as well. With this said, correcting someone’s speech without even trying to “understand” them is condescending. Do I immediately dismiss Fred Moten who challenges Derrida or Lacan’s ideas? No, I admire him because he showed that he put in effort to understand their works. The way he moves beyond their ideas in In the Break and Black and Blur is absolutely incredible. Moten is the perfect example of a radical thinker—I like that.

A few days ago, I was in a graduate meeting with many of my esteemed colleagues where we discussed institutional and structural racism. While I remained silent because I always need a lot of time to think about questions and ideas, there were several things that people said which caught my attention (it is funny because someone criticized those who chose to remain silent). I am going to list three points and spew them out randomly. I will be as discreet as possible because the discussion was supposed to be confidential. The points that I will make here are about the ideas, not the person.

First, philosophy is not theory. I have no idea why literature departments likes to call philosophy “theory”. It still amuses me till this day. If philosophy was theory, then there would not be the philosophy of science (i.e. the scientific method), the philosophy of mathematics, mind, language, etc. Without philosophy there would not be economics, psychology, linguistics, or any disciplines (though literature has an interesting place because philosophies can often be literary and vice versa). Without philosophy, there would not be Karl Marx or Adam Smith (Marx reversed Hegelian thought). In fact, nearly every discipline we have today in universities and beyond began with philosophy by conceiving of some form of new Idea. I am not surprised when Wikipedia pointed out how 97% of their pages eventually lead to philosophy. In general, philosophy is an attempt to understand the first principles of our subjective experiences with our objective world.

Second, I vaguely recall someone who questioned why universities had to teach Victorian literature and not works written by marginalized people. And that if a professor designed a course which taught why one should teach Victorian literature, they would take it. I understand that the person had good intentions to give voices to those who don’t have one. I got the sense that they thought they were being radical, even when I find this type of thinking to be dangerous(ly not radical). Why? Because this is what I refer as the logic of exclusion—it is the same type of logic that our current system uses to segregate marginal voices (also applicable to the way we interpret texts; i.e. logocentrism). Suppose that we grant this person their desire and all universities teaches marginalized texts and ignore the European or Western texts. Wouldn’t there be new marginalized works that should be taught (i.e. European and Western texts)? With this type of logic, history may very well repeat itself—like it always has. This is why I tend to disagree with the idea that one should cite only marginalized voices—even if I think it is of good intentions because our world privileges certain disciplines and people over others.

Third, someone spoke about how taking action on racism is not about “deferring meaning to the future” who was probably referring to Jacques Derrida. To be honest, this was a pretty naive take on Derrida, but maybe I misread their words (I pointed out this interpretation in this post). For example, when Derrida famously said things like “justice to come”, what he means is that the encounter of future contingencies will allow us to discover new injustices that occurred in the past (something that we did not anticipate). As a result, this allows us to give justice by challenging our current structure of laws. Following this logic, meaning and action are not just naively “deferred to the future”, the way we interpret past meanings and actions are influenced by the future becoming of space and time. It is like sharing our experiences of racism from the past in the future (i.e. the contemporary). This person in the meeting went on to talk about all the white philosophers they read and that those who does something similar should read other works. It almost felt like they were directing the message at me which was kinda funny. Obviously, this person knew nothing about me, but I think they have a great point because Eastern and African philosophies are equally great. In fact, I had spent a good year or two reading Eastern philosophies (Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, etc.).

You see, if I said what I really think, I will piss people off and “risk my future career in academia”, which I am pretty sure was nonexistent to begin with (I’m just being realistic, given the academic job market; but maybe I am wrong). For example, if I said the things in my second point to the “radical” person who was already overly aggressive and tried to correct other people’s ideas, I think we would get into an argument. I am not concerned about getting people to “join my cause” and forcing my thoughts onto them because most people don’t like my tendencies to point out inconvenient truths (and besides, I value difference). In general, I gave up convincing others because nobody listens.

* * *

Let us think about America and Hong Kong. First, I must say that their situations are really different, but similar in the sense that there is a form of hegemonic power that refuses to listen and is imposed upon the protesters. To simplify my thoughts, I would like to talk about two things: systematic injustice and human nature. When something goes bad, we tend to always like to blame the system because the system and environment that we are situated in cultivates our actions (Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek are quite famous for this). Just look at films like Parasite where the lower class ends up exploiting the upper class. What made them do such thing? In many ways, I agree with this perspective. The system breeds violence into human beings (both police and protesters). But I certainly wouldn’t go as far as some right wing commentators like Ben Shapiro who referred police brutality in the States as a case of “indecent human beings” and that all the protesters are “scumbags” (certainly, we cannot ignore the looters who don’t care about protesting and just wanted to steal a Nintendo Switch from Target). There is a very long history of violence and oppression of the people of color in not just America, but all around the world. This should not be surprising since practically every single form of civilization that existed on Earth were built upon slavery. But at the same time, Shapiro does have a point in regards to human indecency which I think, is related to a much bigger idea that I will talk about momentarily.

When we want social change, we must think big and really critically. Why? Because we need to consider whether or not our actions will actually produce real change even if it is just a small ripple (or are we going to be “radical” without actually being radical?). Does changing the structure change the way humans behave? I think to an extent, yes. But I think the problem isn’t only around systems and institutions. It is also about the question of human nature. Are humans inherently violent or peaceful? Are humans fundamentally selfish? There is in fact, a long debate which yes, comes from “white people”: Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If anything, they are the most famous figures who were well known for founding contemporary political philosophy. Both Hobbes and Rousseau had different views on the “State of Nature”, which is another word for pre-society. For Hobbes, the state of nature is egoist and self-serving which requires the law (i.e. government) to regulate people and their instincts. Pure state of nature is pure state of war because people will just run around or join together to oppose other groups of people and steal, murder, rape, etc. On the other hand, Rousseau thought that people are naturally peaceful and distant individuals who joined together to form “social contracts” so to fight against Nature. Basically, Hobbes thought the state of nature sucks and requires government to regulate the human instincts. Rousseau thought that government sucks, but we are stuck with it and must find a form of government that would give us the most freedom (I also didn’t explain John Locke who invented liberalism and is quite important in political phil.).

Even Sigmund Freud saw something very similar in Civilization and its Discontents where he famously said “homo homini lupus” to describe how communism will never work because “a man is a wolf to another man”. The problem I wish to show is the double bind on whether human behavior is the product of nature or nurture (a classic debate). On one hand, humans wants to satisfy their unending desires. Yet on the other hand, humans produces laws to limit their desires to create “equality” so that one person won’t take everything for themselves (this obviously didn’t work out so well). One can implement a law, but they cannot force people to follow them. Hence, violence and riots will rupture through people’s discontents with the law because they seek to satisfy their own desires. It is almost like watching the movie, The Platform when the protagonist and his cellmate rides down the levels to reinforce the law and make people ration food for the lower levels who are starving. When helping one of the inmates from the lower levels, the inmate tells them that he will cut his cellmate’s stomach open and eat the food that the protagonist had fed them with. Why does he think like that? Is this phenomenon related to nature or nurture? Do animals do this? Do they fight for food to survive in the same way that humans do? What about all the inmates who excessively eat beyond their needs and not leaving enough for others? Is that an animal instinct or human behavior?

When I was in Hong Kong in 2014, I got a chance to physically experience what was at the time, a more peaceful protest—long before it transformed into riots later down the road. My family in Hong Kong is really big. Some of them supported the protests while others didn’t. One of my uncle was a detective who was extra sensitive and opinionated with the issue. This was because he had to join the riot police force to help out on the streets. It was interesting because I still remembered him telling me about it. He was very concerned about these young protesters in regards to their safety. As a police, he expressed similar concerns to the protesters in regards to democracy and freedom of speech, but condemned the protester’s way of handling the issue through violence (I agree with him in many ways; but another question is at stake here: Will China listen if people did not riot? And even when people are rioting, China is not really listening). Of course this is just my story of his account, and there are many more out there where police brutality actually happens. What I am trying to get at is that there is always two sides of the story. In fact, there is always more than two sides of the story. Always.

I recently spoke about the BLM protests with a good friend of mine who I think is incredibly smart (much smarter than me). He made a good point in regards to the question for social change. Does the apparently “bad” image of rioting outweigh the positive social change that might happen? Is rioting the only way to make social change happen? It is obvious that, when the Other does not listen, people will get violent. What I mean by the “Other” is two fold: on one hand, I am speaking in psychoanalytic language of the super-ego that imposes the law on the subject (what does the Other want? In this case, people’s violent responses to the government who is not listening are quite literally the symptom of repression). On the other hand, I am also speaking about Levinian ethics in regards to how one should treat another person face to face. Nevertheless, I am not sure if I have an immediate answer to my friend’s questions. Only the future can tell us whether or not the protester’s actions were radical enough to change anything.

Let me simply say that if humans were perfect in every sense of the word, communism would had worked on the first try. Even capitalism would work. But the truth is that none of us are perfect because we are so caught up in our own desires and egos. We are caught up in our desire for a truth that we seek to impose onto everyone else. As human beings, we are far from perfect and this is something that I think Marx had forgot about. It is as Badiou would had said: the idea of communism had always been perfect, but always failed in practice (remember that Marx reversed Hegelian Idealism). Why does Badiou, who is probably one of the most famous communist today, call for the resurrection of the idea of communism?

To give some form of verdict on BLM and Hong Kong. We need a different form of logic that is not the logic of exclusion. What we need most today is not just a revolution in the Marxist sense—of protesters attempting to change the structure. We also need the revolution of forgiveness and the revolution of love and infinite respect for the Other. All of this must be done without any particularities. Hence, I am not just talking about the protesters who should forgive the police, I am also talking about the police and the people in “power” and everyone to forgive everyone else. Only by doing this can we produce change. For me, this is what I consider as radical because such revolution is not only beyond the law, it is also impossible to achieve-–it is a madness of the impossible. Can you ask the family member of a victim to forgive the criminal who murdered their son? None of this will ever happen once you consider things like trauma (generational, etc.), human nature, and desire.

I still recall in Beast & the Sovereign, Derrida famously shared his vision of utopia where the world should never be an “eye for an eye”, but where everyone confessed. People often like to talk about Derrida through the lens of Husserl, Lacan, or Heidegger, even when he was incredibly influenced by two of Rousseau’s autobiographies called Confessions and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker—long before he wrote his masters thesis on Husserl’s phenomenology. Why can’t confessions and autobiographies be philosophy? Especially when the events that occurred in our lives influence the things that we do or not do in it?

I am an idea person. Some people might think that by talking about ideas, I am avoiding the question of race or identity or that I am trying to not “risk my future career in academia” (which I already said I couldn’t care less about; all institutions are problematic). What I am trying to get at is more originary than race and identity. I am trying to understand the fundamental roots of what allows a human being to say, “this is who I am”. What allows us to proclaim an identity is that we are first and foremost, human beings who exists in the world. To put this in another way (a Lockean way), we are all born into this world as a blank slate. I am trying to get at the root of how human beings conceive of the fabric of reality and produce truths, identity, cultural and racial differences. I think this is one of the things that most people don’t understand about me. This is not just a theory. It is the philosophy of philosophy.

At the end of the day, I want people to get along. And I want to spend my birthday to think about these issues and spread some love to everyone. In one of my undergraduate ethics class, my teacher taught me a lot about the structures that we inhabit which forces us to participate in structural violence (something as simple as buying groceries). What I learnt was that nobody is innocent. Nobody. Not even the people who are protesting on the streets, the people who are fighting for justice, or the people in power. Not me, not you. We also have no choice but to be thrown into this world. We don’t get to choose when or where we are born. We don’t get to choose the color of our skin. In our world today, it almost feels like we have forgotten what it means to be human; to confront our own finitude of being human and understand its singularity as we encounter other human beings who are just like us. It is as Jean-Paul Sartre had once said: everything has been figured out, except for how to live.