Calculating Racism

wpid-1177012_977770“If I’m proud of who I am, does that make me a racist?” Vetfaan folds the newspaper to show the others the front page.  The headlines contain the usual mix of politics, murders and price increases. “I mean, it’s as if the country just can’t let go of the past – it’s all about black and white. Still, I am who I am. My family is my family.But whenever the politicians rant about Apartheid and how the whites stole the land from the blacks, I can’t help feeling angry.”

“It’s a difficult one, Vetfaan.” Gertruida pushes the newspaper away with a dismissive gesture. “Unless you start reading up on mathematics. That’s the only way. As long as we insist on dividing the nation – or the world – up according to the amount of pigment in your skin, we’re lost. Of course, history is important; it shows us what not to do. But we never learn, do we?”

Gertruida is fond of making statements like this. She’ll mix theory, history and current affairs in a few sentences, and then sit back and watch the others trying to digest what she has just said.

“Huh?” Servaas shakes his head. “You’ve lost me again, Gertruida.”

Gertruida smiles triumphantly and starts explaining. “Look, a certain German mathematician had the same problems with the issues of the day, way back in the seventeenth century. His name was Leibnitz, and he wanted to create an encyclopedia in which everything was awarded a set of numbers. Everything – from fruit to religion – would be represented by a number and that would define the exact nature of the subject under scrutiny. Bertrand Russell wrote about it in 1807, and I’ll try to quote from memory: ‘If controversies arise, there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than two accountants. For it would be suffice to take their pens in their hands, to sit down to their desks and say to each other : Let us calculate.'”

“But that’s impossible, Gertruida! You can’t assign a figure to everything? Who decides a goat is number 265 and a car is 1098? Can you imagine if an American gets only number 105, while a Russian gets – say – 1098765? There’ll be endless arguments about getting into the top 100.”

“No Servaas, not like that. The number isn’t of any numerical value – it’s a tag. That tag will take into account what the object is, what it does and how it lives. So hypothetically,  no matter whether you’re German of Japanese, if you write down 158730, everyone will know it’s an adult female elephant with a six-month-old calf, grazing on the grass in central Zambia. The number, according to Leibnitz, will define exactly what is being spoken about.”

Servaas scowls, thinking that this will mean an endless dictionary of numbers. “I still say it’s too far-fetched to be practical. If everybody spoke this mathematical language, nobody will understand what is being said…”

_84018027_binary_code_thinkstock“Unless you’re a machine, Servaas.” Gertruida interrupts the old man gently. “A machine, programmed to think in numbers – and only two of them. Zero and one; the binary language of computers.

“You see, Leibnitz didn’t know it, but he was one of the mathematicians who started the quest for artificial intelligence. His idea might have taken a few hundred years to mature and become practical, but his basic argument was right.”

“Now, how does this solve racism? Surely the problem is more complex than a set of ones and zeroes? And moreover, you can’t expect a computer to solve personal issues like these? Machines have no emotion!”

“Bingo, Servaas! I’m glad you finally understand the basic fault of being human. We attach emotion to everything – not a number. So we seek out people, places and events that make us feel happy and secure – while we avoid those that make us uncomfortable. In fact, we simply hate discomfort. We react with our emotions while we seek fulfillment. Humans, my friend, are wired to avoid situations that rattle the bars around our comfort zones. We get angry when it happens. We rage against the misfortunes of life. And we end up hating those that threaten our existence.”


“So politicians rely on fear and hate to keep them in power. As long as they can generate enough unease about the present and the future, voters will go for the easiest road back to their isolated cocoons of comfort. But…to do that, the government needs the past – desperately. They’ll keep on pointing fingers while diligently avoiding some thorny questions. For instance: this country didn’t belong to any specific black nation in the past. The blacks came down from the north, and stole territory from the San and Khoi people. The original hunter-gatherers were hunted down and destroyed.  And tell me: have you ever heard about restitution for these people? No – the government blames the whites and that’s the end of the argument.”

“But that’s the story of the Aborigines and the American Indians, not forgetting the Incas and a whole history book full of other examples – like England and a number of European countries.”

“That’s true, Servaas. But mostly – not in all cases, though – those countries have moved on – or are moving on. For them, the past is the past. They have accepted that no war in the past has been without casualties, but that constantly creating fear and guilt won’t help building a better future. In an advanced society, history serves as a guide – not as a whip.”

“So, am I a racist for clinging to my identity?” Vetfaan still hasn’t heard the answer to his question.

“No, you’re normal.” Gertruida reaches over to tap him on the shoulder. “Without knowing who you are, which culture you belong to and what you believe in, you might as well be a frog. The proviso is, of course, that you cannot deny anybody else the right to his or her identities. Once you get to that point, racism disappears and hope starts blooming.”

“It’ll take a long time…” Servaas muses.

“Indeed, Servaas. Remember Apartheid? They used laws to force down an inhuman policy, based on race. History is simply repeating itself in the country. You can’t use laws to change people’s opinions. That’s a heart-thing – it happens in here.” She taps her ample chest. “That happens when we leave emotion out of the equation, look at the issues objectively, and start calculating. Leibnitz was right.”

“Are you saying I should be allowed to be a proud Afrikaner – despite the government’s rhetoric?”

“Yip, you should. But only if you grant the same for those around you.”

“And that’ll make us the Rainbow Nation?”

“Rainbows only appear after the storm has passed, Verfaan. As long as the clouds are building up and the wind is howling, you won’t see a rainbow. Not in nature, and not in society. One day, we’ll start calculating – and hopefully get to the right answer at last.”

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