Debating Race: Why So Serious?

As of late, I’ve thought a lot about the overall point of debate. More importantly, I’ve begun wondering if perhaps certain intellectuals who take on the debate as a mode of public discussion aren’t actually interested in fair combat or encouraging an open environment for intellectual thought. I’m starting to believe that some public intellectuals are merely manipulating the format of a debate itself in order to posture themselves as a tough and unflinching intellectual who is able to withstand the rigour of scrutiny. Moreover, I believe there’s an even stronger case for my statement when it involves a debate on race, particularly between a white person and a person of colour.
1297321492623_ORIGINALWhile re-watching David Suzuki debate J.P. Rushton in 1989, and considering comments from my fellow grad students, I was struck by Rushton’s demeanour. In particular, the couple times he expressed a modicum of emotion interest me, as opposed to the majority of the debate when he sits there looking like Dennis Nilsen.
I suggest Rushton’s brief shows of emotion are smug reactions to his intended purpose, which – like the studies he uses as basis for his claims – are not so much evidenced based, but are rooted in a racially biased attitude. His entire intellectual shtick revolves around trying to prove scientifically that race determines intelligence and sexual habits, as well as a potential for crime and violence. Considering Rushton was debating Suzuki – a third-generation Japanese Canadian – he had to have known there would be a degree of emotion involved, as many of his so-called scientific theories are built on the foundation that other races are more predisposed to certain behaviours, many of which are often negative. If Rushton ever claimed not to have understood this, then he is as dishonest as his work suggests.
So, humour me, and play along about my theory of Rushton. Then, add in a consideration of Suzuki’s reluctance to even engage certain claims by Rushton. Why would Suzuki, or anyone for that matter, want to debate a Rushton, someone clearly not fully considering the human implications of his own work? Suzuki was backed into a corner, as if he were the last piece on the chessboard awaiting checkmate: forced to debate issues so clearly tainted by racial prejudice, and at the same time any emotion shown is almost reinforcing some of the very things Rushton posits.
Skip ahead 30 years. YouTube comments all but ignore anything Suzuki said, choosing to focus on his emotional state. Many pile on with the aforementioned checkmate by accusing Suzuki of only serving to prove Rushton’s points, while also singling out the people of colour who were vocal during the debate (simultaneously ignoring the quite vocal white man in the crowd). Therefore, it isn’t only Rushton who seems to revel in the debate taking on an antagonistic shape – it is also his public.
And herein lies the problem.
SuzukiIf Rushton’s public, or any public interested in studies claiming to have found a link between race and crime(etc), are not willing to accept people of races implicated in said studies might find it objectionable, and outright insulting, then I suggest it isn’t an intellectual deficiency at play, but an emotional one. If Suzuki were the one claiming white people are predisposed to particular behaviour(s), it isn’t hard to believe there’d be angry white voices refuting him, and calling out “reverse racism.” I find it hard to even entertain the idea that someone with integrity, such as Suzuki, would ever publish a study based on “a nonscientific semi-pornographic book and [referring] to an article by Philip Nobile in the Penthouse Forum,” as is the case with Rushton discussed in a highly critical article by Zack Z. Cernovsky.
Someone like Rushton, whose work on race involves data lifted from questionable scientific literature and porno magazines, is intellectually dishonest, and so it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to question whether his intent in debating Suzuki wasn’t so much rooted in even winning as it was in landing a cheap shot to ‘prove’ some of his ideas via Suzuki’s emotional responses.
JokerI mentioned that as I re-watched moments during the debate where Rushton casually displays an emotion or two, it reminded me of serial killer Dennis Nilsen. However, he’s more akin to a movie villain: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
Rushton’s s questionable science and his public waiting for any show of emotion from Suzuki were like the Joker holding a blade to his victim’s throat, and every time Suzuki showed that emotion came the line: “Why so serious?” Following through on my cinematic parallel, the Joker knew why his victims were “so serious” because he was hoping to instil fear. Likewise, I believe the Joker in Rushton knew exactly why Suzuki was “so serious” and why the emotion came forward, and I would happily argue that, all along, he was hoping for such seriousness to emerge.
At the heart of Rushton’s theories, as well as his purpose in debating Suzuki, there lies a dishonesty, and also an undeniable racism when you consider the critical evisceration Rushton has received over the past 30 years. This is just another reason why I continually lose faith in debate as a legitimately productive mode of public discourse: if only one side is honest, both in their argument and also their intent, what’s the point?


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