Incommensurable Math

A childhood classmate of mine reached out to express concern relative to my post yesterday: Was I dismissing the idea that racism is a public health crisis? Short answer: Absolutely not. In my view, racism is very obviously a massive public health crisis. What I was attempting to target yesterday was the insufficiency of sloganeering as a mode of engaging with complex issues that do, sometimes, involve conflicting values and priorities. Similarly, I agree with the spirit of all of the statements listed on the church poster (also referenced in yesterday’s piece), but recognize that, in politics, claims tend to be contested, nuanced, particular, and historical in ways that defy easy reduction to catchphrases and street chants. This is one of the key lessons of intersectional analysis – essentially, that emergent (social and political) properties arise owing to the attribution, to a single body, of multiple identities, properties which are non-linear in their ramifications and exceed the simple sum of their constituent definitions. (Relative to my post yesterday, belief in science hasn’t been constructed as an identity in the same sense that race or gender has been, but the point stands that one can assert both a belief in science and a conviction that racism is a public health crisis, and still encounter circumstances, like our present one, when these two values may come into conflict.)

To take this a step further, I thought Devyn Springer’s assessment – in this Red Nation Podcast episode to which I linked yesterday – was apt, in suggesting that the convergence of multiculturalism and neoliberalism has spawned a form of fully commodified identity that has led to a market-based discourse around “representation” that has vanishingly little to do with power and being meaningfully represented politically. (Springer’s point opens up into heated discourses around culture appropriation, among other topics, discourses which I’m going to sidestep here.) Rather than rewrite though, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the exchange that Brittany and I had, as I felt it was constructive:

T: I absolutely agree that [racism is a public health crisis], and have believed that for a long time. Just witness every major indicator of health and well-being being strongly correlated with race in racist societies. [But] I think there’s a lot of dishonesty and denial around this on the Left at the moment – like the only way we can justify mass protests after months of saying even small gatherings were risky and potentially deadly is if we now claim that racism is an even “bigger” health risk than COVID-19, as if 1) that was meaningfully quantifiable (eg, given unknowns, including about actual outcome/effectiveness of protests) and 2) it’s possible to somehow compare these two radically disparate phenomena on the basis of such a quantification. [I]t’s very hand-wavy, and reflects a desperation to reconcile something that has no easy resolution – the pandemic remains a dire threat, but we’re doing this mass uprising anyway, not bc we made some rational assessment, did the math, and conclud[ed] that it was worth it, but bc immense historical and political forces have been unleashed that are beyond any of our control, and we simply have to decide: In or out? I decided I was in, but actually believe that the denial around the stakes and potential ramifications hurts the movement. We shouldn’t be lying to ourselves, especially after all the (justifiable) criticism leveled at the “liberation” protests and the immense sacrifices people were expected to make in the name of pandemic control.

(To elaborate, we can question the motives of Republicans in the US who argued against COVID-19 shutdowns based on the economic impacts, and sometimes claimed they were concerned about the lasting health impacts of economic recession or depression, but in other contexts – for example, in India – I believe there was a very strong case against shutdown/lockdown for the simple reason that the vast majority of the Indian population is not able to practice social distancing and does not enjoy economic (or even food) security sufficient to make an extended lockdown viable in the absence of massive state aid, which was not forthcoming. Hence, as we’re now witnessing, India is suffering the worst of both worlds: The people of Indian suffered through a devastating and draconian nationwide lockdown, only to see cases of COVID-19 continue to steadily climb. The massive spike in daily deaths reported yesterday is no doubt a classic instance of Modi-ist manipulation of the media, intended to direct attention away from the escalating border dispute in the Himalya with China (which resulted yesterday in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops), but the fact remains that after the world’s harshest lockdown, India know also has one of the world’s worst COVID-19 epidemics. We now have reasonably strong evidence that the lockdowns, alone, are responsible for relatively little economic damage (that is, the pandemic will cause immense economic harm whether or not a country chooses to institute a shutdown of some sort), but one is forced to wonder: If we dismissed out of hand the utilitarian claims about long-term health impacts of economic consequences of shutdowns, how can we now so confidently assert the preeminence of racism as a public health threat? In both instances, the benefits and harms are so massively complex and contingent as to defy any meaningful possibility of calculation (even based on a simple metric, like mortality, owing, in no small part, to the utter unknowability of future outcomes of political and economic actions taken today). Say, for instance, the protests totally fail – which I hope they do not – to lead to any lasting move towards racial justice in the US, but in the meantime, they do contribute to worsening the COVID-19 impact in this country, would the argument still have been sound that the public health threat of racism justifies violating some of the best practices for avoiding epidemic spread of a disease in the midst of a pandemic?)

B: [Y]eah, I think that is where the idea that people are laying their lives on the line for this movement comes from — that these are times where risk is high, especially for the people who are at the center of this movement as we know that it disproportionately impacts Black Indigenous communities of color. I think a lot about how this pandemic created this kairotic moment that highlights (for a lot of people, for the first time) how unjust our current system is and in a sense, makes this protest and uprising more effective if anything is part of setting the stage for what is being referred to as “the great awakening” — but you’re right, these aren’t necessarily measurable things (maybe for freakanomics?) but there’s no denying we are in a position of having to choose in or out.

T: I had to look up kairotic (was like, is that a typo or just a word I don’t know?) but, yes! Couldn’t agree more about the kairocity of now. I understand the reasoning for saying people are putting their lives on the line, but it totally negates and reverses everything we were told (about protecting each other and community) for three months about what it meant to respond to the pandemic. Especially given that it is very largely young people making these claims (though obviously not exclusively, as many elders and others who are properly high risk are involved in the uprising). Part of the issue here is that just these sorts of utilitarian claims, made – if often disingenuously by conservatives, at least in the US – on a class basis were rejected out of hand when critics of lockdowns asserted that the social and health costs of tanking the global economy would far outweigh the benefits of the epidemiological intervention. I think it’s very hard to resolve how, now, somehow, because the people/demographics who were supportive (as I obviously was) of shutdowns are supportive of a mass movement, it’s justified to totally ignore all the guidance.

B: Yes. [For people who suffer from] chronic illnesses […] protesting is a privilege and that is absolutely highlighted during this time. It’s also held as one of the only effective things we are doing which is really ableist in itself.

T: Ableist and extremely short-sighted, in my view, given that the protests, like the pandemic, will almost certainly be time-limited, but the effort required to actually achieve and sustain dramatic transformation will have to carry over a much longer social and political time horizon. [Note: Brittany then pointed out that, ironically, “short-sighted” can be read as ableist.]

B: [T]hanks for elaborating on that point. I totally agree with you … but like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m not about to tell anyone to stop protesting. But we can stop with the rhetoric that it’s the only thing that can do anything. Like in the long run it’s really about us looking at ourselves and changing our behaviors and seeing how we uphold white supremacy — not protesting or posting about it in social media. Truly it’s not enough.

I’d take Brittany’s assertion one step further and say it’s about doing the sustained (social, political, and economic) work, that includes but is not limited to street protest, to radically transform our society in the direction of justice, sanity, and a livable human future on Earth, or to put it more simply, towards a life-affirming politics.


One thought on “Incommensurable Math

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s