The below diagram is taken from one of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contemplations on the nature of language and is called a duck-rabbit (it is covered in more detail at www.sandpebblespodcast.com):
If you have any life experience with ducks and the word ‘duck’, when I tell you the word “duck” while you view the above diagram, you should see a duck. If you have any life experience with rabbits and the word ‘rabbit’, when I tell you the word “rabbit” while you look at the diagram, you should see a rabbit. What someone who has had no experience with ducks or rabbits would see in the above diagram is up for grabs. This diagram and similar diagrams and contemplations cannot be ignored as dealing with “optical illusions” otherwise all of reality should be ignored as optical illusions since you have no way of telling when you are in the position of someone whose limited sense experience sees neither a duck nor a rabbit or only one but not the other. How do you know there is not another animal in the above diagram that you do not see because you have no word for it?
The point of this diagram and the associated philosophy is to establish that once the human mind is sophisticated enough to create and think with rational symbols such as words, the thinking is a two-way street between sense experience and words. Reasoning consists of a “fabric of language” as the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine beautifully described it. At the exterior is the sense experience that acts as the starting threads of our language but almost instantaneously the threads are intertwined with words describing that sense experience; some or all other experiences and words; and the relationships between some or all other experiences and words so that almost instantaneously it becomes difficult and perhaps impossible to separate the words from the sense experience. As empiricists in a scientific age, we must assume that all of us have the same sense experience for the above diagram and its reality does not change as different individuals view it, but such is not true of the words used to describe it. Eventually, words become their own reality and create sense experience that seems to be there and to be as true as the initial sense experience that started the threading. The essential job of modern Western philosophy is to point out when we are confusing or making the reality of words into something more real than the reality of reality. As Quine beautifully and concisely stated in his essay The Two Dogmas of Empiricism:
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.
It is because of the above problem that science uses the scientific method to become pragmatic and differentiate itself from non-science or pseudo-science. If you want to get into these issues in more detail, I suggest any book by the philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson or starting with the philosophy of language and science podcasts at www.sandpebblespodcast.com.
Even through just a casual inspection of the language of racism, we can see the above two-way street at work. Somewhere in human history, there may be a thread of the fabric of racist language in which white skinned people for the first time met black skinned people and for the first time used the word ‘race’ as a differentiation between white-skinned and black-skinned bodies. Whenever that first thread stitching occurred, it is now lost among millions of other threads in modern language and perhaps was removed and replaced with another thread and is gone. This is evident even in the simplest uses of the words ‘race’ and ‘racism’.
For example, the Plaintiff Plessy in the post Civil War 19th Century Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson that established the separate but equal doctrine of Jim Crow laws was an octoroon, he was only 1/8 black by birth and could have easily passed and did pass as white — he could have and did ride in the front of the train in the segregated Old South any time he wanted. That is why he was chosen as the Plaintiff for that case. The Plaintiff Counsel were trying to show how irrational the concept of race was and that therefore how irrational and thus unconstitutional legally enforced segregation must be. For reasons discussed in my book The Law Illusion, the brilliant Injustices of the Supremes disagreed. Even before the 19th Century, the word ‘race’ for racists had uses way beyond just for reference to someone having ‘black’ skin. If Plessy was ‘black’ because one of his eight parents/grandparents was black, what about if he was 1/16 black? How far back does or should a racist go to define race? It is evident that for racists, words such as ‘race’, ‘racist’, and ‘black’ mean much more than skin color. They are used to create a word reality of social and cultural relations much of which has little if any relation to the actual reality of human social and cultural relations.
How this word reality becomes more powerful than reality and in fact contorts reality to fit the words is evident in the obsession by Nazi jurisprudence and legal culture to differentiate their Aryan Herrenvolk or master race of the Volksgemeinschaft or “people’s community” from their slave Non-Aryan races such as Jews, Romani, Slavs, Poles, Serbs, Blacks, and so forth. So, for example, some in the Nazi legal culture argued one was Jewish if one was only 1/16 Jewish blood. Eventually, the criterion for being Jewish was set at having at least three Jewish grandparents; two or one rendered a person a Mischling leaving open the possibility of your extermination to the discretion, mercy, and wisdom of the judiciary — you can read in history the results of this reliance. These arbitrary standards became law in the same way anything becomes law: through the arbitrary and random ethics or will for power decisions of a bunch of bureaucrats.
How about our modern supposedly non-racist politically correct opponents of racism, those that condemned Dolezal for using ‘white’ to mean only a “biological identity thrust upon her” that she can change as she wants thus resulting in the loss of her livelihood? How do they use words such as ‘race’, ‘racism’, and ‘black’? Are they a two-way street for them? It appears they are schizophrenic on this issue as I will contemplate next.