Sunday, October 02, 2016

Think carefully before you call someone a racist

Against my better judgement, I'm going to tackle the issue of racism again, a propos of an email I received regarding my website on atheism.
The writer complained that Voltaire, a French atheist of the 18th Century, was a racist because he was anti-Irish. Now, I didn't say this was a good or well-argued email, did I? And I'm still not entirely sure what my correspondent's point actually was (all atheists are racist? all Catholics are not racist? none of the above?)
I didn't actually grace the message with a reply, I must admit (from experience, I can now tell which messages might yield an interesting intellectual discussion, and which are liable to rapidly deteriorate into name-calling and invective). But I silently took issue with the idea of a Frenchman being racist to an Irishman.
These days, "racist" is one of the most derogatory and pejorative accusations that can be levelled at a person. But it is often used lazily or sloppily, or as what some people see as an argument-against-which-there-can-be-no-counter-argument.
A Frenchman is of the same race as an Irishman, and so racism is not even relevant. Voltaire may have been a nationalist, a bigot and a chauvinist, as were so many people of his time. He may also have been a xenophobe (suggesting dislike of all foreigners, not just one nationality), and for all I know he may also have been racist (again, like so many others of the period), But not against Irishmen.
At no point in my website do I suggest that I like Voltaire as a person (in fact, he sounds absolutely unbearable, from what I have read). Nor do I proffer any opinion on his other views, about which I have only the haziest of notions. I merely report that he made some pithy and brave criticisms of the organized religion of his day. Whether Voltaire was in fact a racist, we may never actually know...

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