Saturday, February 23, 2013

Guilt about racism

Racism is bad. We all agree on that. I want to mention two leisure activities --- the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the movie District 9 --- which made me feel personally guilty about racism.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks describes Rebecca Skloot's journalistic and emotion-heavy research into the immortal cell line derived from Henrietta Lacks' unknowingly-donated-to-science cervical cancer cells. The book has two tones: the first, a factual historical narrative describing scientific research, blends via description of Henrietta Lacks' health and life into the second, a first-person account of Skloot's research efforts over many years, which extended to a very personal relationship with Lacks' descendents.

The science part was interesting. All the emotional parts --- and this includes parts with scientists being manipulative, deceitful, and exploitative --- made me feel guilty. As a child of privilege, as an educated person, as a scientist, as a human being, the story made me feel guilt. About my own luck, by chance of birth, to have avoided those circumstances. This contrition is reinforced by Skloot's own similar feelings, which she explores at length.

By the end of the book I was having flashbacks of District 9 every paragraph or so. That kernel of an interesting idea, that intriguing nugget of science (or science fiction) was the bait to lure me, yet again, into this abstract feeling of shame and iniquity. Yes, I see that thing you're showing me! It's bad! I want to change it! Yes, 30 seconds later I still feel bad about it!

What purpose does all this remorse-mongering serve? Highlighting awareness? We get it, we're aware of racism. I just wanted to read about cancer research, I just wanted to see alien technology; is there some need to crush me with guilt? Skloot seems to derive some catharsis from writing every twinge of contrition, every individual malfeasance; perhaps bringing unpleasant history to light can shape future history for the better.  District 9 is the bigger culprit here, because I guess the producers weren't sure the audience would pick up on the analogy that confining aliens to a ghetto was like apartheid confining people to a ghetto. So they drew the analogy in every. single. scene. Is this a movie about historical atrocities or about futuristic atrocities? I can only effect one of those. Sure, you're winning the battle for hearts and minds, but there's no opposition and you haven't told us what to do to win the battle for... you know, the actual battle.

In the end I'm forced to blame myself (touché) for enduring. I read the entire book, I sat through the entire movie, I caused myself to have the experience which gave rise to these feelings which I do not enjoy. I'd much rather live the life of the mind, where all recreational (and employment-driven) media consumption is stripped down to its essential ideas, without the dross of attendant emotions.

Of course this "dross" is a main purpose of recreational media. (Thank you, Prof. Lynn M. Festa's "Sex and Sensibility in the Enlightenment", for teaching me all about experiencing emotions as a cultural pastime.)

My recommendations: read some interviews with Skloot, you'll get the main points. And watch District 9 at home, with the fast-forward button handy.

This post's theme word is comminate, "to threaten with divine punishment" or "to curse." Those who have not watched District 9 are roundly comminated.

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