A guest piece by Abdul-Walid of Acerbia:
James Watson’s recent comments were delivered in that nebulous zone between public and private speech. He was, after all, in his own office, speaking casually with a reporter. The conversation did not focus on his scientific research. Rather, he spoke on a variety of informal topics. But he also knew that his comments would be published. He was speaking to one journalist, but through that journalist he was addressing the world.
It has been important for Watson’s defenders on this matter to cast him as a lone hero, someone who has the courage to say what others haven’t been able to. Defending him in these terms, as hundreds have done on various websites this week, is revealing. What did Watson say? He said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” and “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—
whereas all the testing says not really.” Consider, in addition, Watson’s second statement: that he hoped everyone was equal but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.” What do these statements of his mean? I think it might be helpful to examine them structurally.
What Watson is doing in these statements is taking advantage of the gap between public and private speech. Hence the conspiratorial tone, and the offhand manner in which he implicates his interlocutor in his statements. He is using a stage whisper and a megaphone. It is coded language, less carefully coded, perhaps, than what a Republican candidate campaigning in the southern US might say, but coded all the same. Whatever else we might be going on here, it’s clear that Watson has an idea of “our” which is distinct from “Africa” or “black.” He gives this binary opposition a further twist when he implies that on one side you have “people” and on the other “black employees.”
Quite apart from the inaccurate assertions he makes about differences in intelligence, Watson commits a more fundamental error here. He seems to genuinely believe that there’s an in-group that is not and cannot be the same as African people. It certainly would not seem so to someone who has a lifetime habit of thinking of his in-group in terms of whiteness and maleness. It would not seem unethical at all. It would seem normal. That is the problem.
Watson is a geneticist. As such, he knows that the genetic diversity on the African continent far surpasses anything outside it. As difficult as it is to generalize about Europeans in genetic terms, it is even more difficult to generalize about Africa. Whereas Europeans represent a movement of selected populations from East Africa, via the Levant, into the European peninsula, the African population is largely what it has long been: a staggeringly complex web of human diversity. To compare the two in general terms would be like comparing a pair of Tiepolos with the entire artistic output of the Netherlands in the 17th century. It would make no sense.
Watson no doubt knows these things in theoretical terms. However, his urgent need to defend his privilege trumps this knowledge. He talks about Africa, but it means nothing, really. It is merely a word denoting the despised Other. It means only that his own whiteness is a valuable source of self-esteem to him. That Watson does not anywhere in the conversation say “ white” or Europe is, I think, also signal. For him, these categories constitute normality. To be white, to be of purely European descent, is to be “we.” He talks about “our social policy,” and so on. The “our” in question is a racialized in-group that includes the white journalist in conversation with him, the all-white readership he imagines for the Sunday Times, and also includes the world of work where the “people” who do the hiring are white.
What Watson’s “our” does not include is scientists of any other race, or readers of the paper who might be black or Asian, or indeed most of the population of the world. These nodes of exclusion will be familiar to any non-white person who has had to function in a majority-white environment.
Watson’s insinuations are intended, foremost, to provide comfort to just the sort of people who have appeared in large numbers all over the internet to support him. Insecure people, the sort who believe that, as the most widely used study suggests, Nigerians have an average IQ of 67. People who are happy with the insinuation that the average African is mentally retarded, and that to be normal and fully human is to be white.
Watson is wrong here, not only because he gets the facts wrong, and not only because he treats a ridiculously antiquated concept like IQ-testing with incurious respect. For a scientist, these are damaging gaffes, but they are forgivable. He is more egregiously wrong because he does linguistic violence to entire populations of people. In other words, he’s not wrong like Copernicus, he’s wrong like Goebbels.
His “our” denotes a world split into black and white. Blacks don’t belong. Whites are intelligent and they are the employers. They, the whites, are really the “people,” the “gens” from which both gentry and genetics are etymologically derived. But what about the thousands of Chinese-born researchers and professors in molecular biology today? Aren’t they people too? What about the thousands of Indian physicians in the US? What is served by pretending that the world, or the scientific world, is only black and white? Watson’s binary view is unconnected with reality.
My younger sister holds a doctorate in Microbiology and has presented several papers at Watson’s institution, Cold Spring Harbor. That he might cast aspersions on her intelligence is simply laughable. More troubling, however, is that he, from his position of power, continues to aggressively exclude people like my sister from the conversation. He is not alone. His is only the latest nasty and unwarranted attack on a group of people that is, and has been for so long, under constant attack.
Long after the Watson brouhaha has died away, the old question of who belongs will remain. The question of who owns what, who is the "our" in “our social policy,” will have to be tussled with. It would be a mistake to see the Watson case—or any of the other rash of racially aggressive incidents in the media this year—as a question of free speech or political correctness. The issue here is ethical. When Goebbels said, of the Jews, “it is true that the Jew is a human being, but so is a flea a living being—one that is none too pleasant. Our duty towards both ourselves and our conscience is to render it harmless. It is the same with the Jews,” the ethical response is not, “We need to do further tests to figure out whether there’s any scientific truth to that.” It was a social statement, and it was intended to degrade and to humiliate. When James Watson declares, likewise, that blacks are less intelligent than “us,” he is speaking pseudoscientifically, and with a view to humiliation. What is a “black”? What is “intelligence” and how does one test it? The statement is a social one. It is a social intervention, a masked way of saying “I like our kind. And I don’t like blacks.” Watson’s people, those who share such views, understood the code right away.
It goes without saying that Watson would be unable to speak intelligently about the points of comparison and contrast between Scottish folksong, Yoruba oriki and Carnatic music. He would have no access to the depths of intelligence and subtlety contained within each. Such specific knowledge is outside his ken. He doesn’t know it, but he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know it. Why would he wish to get bogged down in such specificities? He simply wished to air a prejudice.