On Watson’s Comments

News item: “On 17 October 2007 one of the world’s most eminent scientists was embroiled in an extraordinary row last night after he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that ‘equal powers of reason’ were shared across racial groups was a delusion.” 

We live in an extraordinarily confused and insecure age. A long-range effect of colonialism, cultural hegemony, free-trade, globalization, color-blind immigration, and multiculturalism is that deep in the hearts of countless people in every race, religion, region, and nation, of every language, culture, and group, there lurks a fear to the effect that what they have considered to be theirs for many generations is now under threat of dilution or destruction, or will soon be taken over by others of alien vintage. Added to this is the great discomfort at the thought of the weakening and eventual dissolution of the most dearly held religious beliefs that have given comfort, security, and stability during countless generations. The fear and discomfort find expression in a hundred ways.

One mode of reaction to this predicament is to decry, degrade, or demean others (real or imaginary enemies and institutions) in explicit or implicit ways. Often this is done in the language of   religion, nation, or science so as to clothe the irrational (though in some instances understandable) fear in a framework of authority, collective self-interest, or empirical evidence.

The recent statements of James Watson sound shocking and are certainly unbecoming of a responsible scientist. But this is only one example of the manifestations of fears and cultural discomfort. It is important to realize that it has received considerable recognition mainly because it was in English (a widely read language), and by an individual of considerable scientific reputation. Echoes of such views are expressed in direct or convoluted ways by thinkers and leaders in many other groups as well, and spilled out routinely in listserves which, with all their benefits, have also become powerful global networks for the dissemination of hate, misinformation, and pseudoscience. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, when it is coated with hateful passions and diffused, it becomes toxic.

Awakened thinkers in enlightened societies recognize the untenability, anachronism, and potential danger in racist, xenophobic, sexist, and other distorted convictions that were public and widespread in ages past, and they challenge and condemn the propagandists of pernicious and prejudiced views, even while giving them to right to speak out their minds. It is too early say how far or for how long they will be successful in shielding the world from the resurgence of culturally stifling and harmful thoughts all over the world.  

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