Having posted to this blog so far only by way of writing book reviews at Goodreads.com, I’ll now jump in and try writing a post from scratch. In trying to come up with where to start, the expression landmark books floated to mind. What do I mean by it?
My tentative definition of landmark book is: “a book that has changed or helped to form my main beliefs”. (Here I’m speaking of nonfiction. I also have landmark works of fiction, for which I’d have to alter the definition a little.) These are books in which the authors have persuaded me of the validity of their ideas, and the topic has been important enough to me that the change has made a significant difference to my subsequent thinking and action.
Let me give an example. Five years ago I got a book called Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby. In it the author examines what creates our feelings of group identity, our feelings of belonging, or not belonging, in particular groups. One of the most important “groups” that any of us belongs to is our “race”. The relationships between races, the way they view and treat each other, is one of the most important aspects of any multiracial society, affecting its perceived peace, harmony, and justice. In this book David Berreby, overcoming great resistance within me, persuaded me that race is an empty concept. That is, while we lay great stress on race and have strong feelings connected with it, there is in fact no such thing as race in reality, in nature. It is a purely invented concept, like Democrat or manager. In objective reality, there is no “white” race, there is no “black” race; there is no race of any kind.
Do you find that hard to accept? I did. But there’s more. For if race is a purely invented concept, then what purpose does this invention serve? Why was it invented? Berreby concludes that the concept of human race exists for only one reason: to justify the systematic exploitation of one group of people by another. By putting you into a Them, I justify, in my own mind, treating you differently from the people I put in Us. And “differently” never means better; it means worse.
I don’t expect you to take my word for this. I don’t even expect you to think of it as being even possibly true. I didn’t. I have a memory of being in a conversation about this when I was about 12 years old with our old family friend, the late Harvey Burt. It was at one of the dinner parties my mother used to throw back in our old rented house on Upper Lonsdale. Harvey had taken the position that race is an empty concept.
“Look at some of the people we call black,” he said. “They have quite pale skin. While some of the people we call white, from the Eastern Mediterranean and so on, have darker skin than that.”
I was annoyed with him because I thought he was just being contrary. Everyone knows that there are races–anyone can see it. Denying it is just a verbal trick, a bleeding-heart socialist trick!
Berreby persuaded me that Harvey was right. Harvey was not the one engaging in a verbal trickI was, without knowing it. It was not an easy thing for Berreby to achieve in his book, because my mind was not very open. But it must have been just open enough, for he made his case. By the end of the book I’d seen the light; he’d changed my thinking.
At least with my conscious mind, I no longer believe in race as something real. I still have my emotional responses around race, which is a deeply programmed idea, and I realize that very few of my fellow citizens and human beings share my new viewpoint. And I understand that perfectly because I was in the same position. But my thinking and my actions are no longer based on the notion that race is real. And indeed I’ve had to amend my definition of the word racist as well. For me, now, the word racist can only mean “someone who believes that race is a real, natural category”. Which means that, according to me, almost everyone is a racist, including those seeking “equality” or “justice” between the races, for they are seeking equality or justice between nonexistent things, which is an impossibility.
But my aim here is not to persuade of this idea. It’s to explain what I mean by the term landmark book. I didn’t regard Us and Them as a perfect book by any means; in fact I had some difficulties with the way Berreby tried to make his case. It was not argued in as straightforward a way as I would have liked, for one thing. But the bottom line is that he changed my thinkingthat one thing, according to Albert Einstein, that we don’t change. And having done that, he made his book a landmark in my life.