Monday, April 15, 2013

Eugenics and Associationist Psychology

In their book, The Vanity of the Philosopher,” David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart bring up, as they call it, "that oddity ... the laissez-faire eugenicist." Levy and Peart discuss how eugenics changed the economy in terms of equality, using the examples of the economic plight of Irish and Black workers in the 1930’s. They argue that the free market’s would be equal playing field is interrupted by the hierarchy and eugenic implications. Andrew Farrant responds to the book in his article, “’The Vaniy of the Philosopher’: Ananlytical Egaltarianism, Associationist Psychology, and Eugenic Remaking?”which appeared in the The American Journal of Economics and Sociology in July of 2008 [which can be found in Pratt Social Science databases]. What Farrant brings into the equation is something he believes went unsaid by Levy and Pearst: the effect of associationist psychology on eugenics and economy. Farrant brings up ideas of thinkers from the Associationist School, John Locke and James Mill. Farrant brings up their ideas of associative thought process, a thought developing because of an association to the one before it, and applies these ideas to how eugenics effected the economy and equality.
Eugenics, for starters, is all about association. What certain people determine to be stronger traits is relative to what associations they make with better genetics. For example, the Nazi’s associated being blonde and blue-eyed as genetic superiority. Being blonde and blue-eyes myself, however, I have to say that both traits have caused problems. I have to wear sunglasses and sunscreen due to my fair complexion and eyes having such high sensitivity to the sun. Not to say being blonde and blue-eyes is a weakness, but my guess is that the Nazi’s favoring the two traits had more to do with the associations of blonde and blue-eyes people in society. I associate blonde hair with my Celtic ancestors being raped by Vikings and such. The Nazi’s, however, saw blondness and blue-eyes as traits of an Anglo-Saxon “white” person and associated the traits in a perspective of a white-dominated society.
But Farrant’s main comment on Associationism in “The Vanity of the Philosopher” was that associations were what allowed eugenic principles to effect economic patterns and social assumptions of the thinkers that the book discusses. For example, Leavy and Peart bring up Thomas Carlyle’s “Negro Question” in 1849 about using black slaves as indentured servants. This spring from Carlyle’s debate with John Stuart Mill (who is member of the Associationist School). Mill argues that habit over nature is the cause for differences, while Carlyle argues in his believe that man cannot be free. John Stuart Mill, Farrant points out, uses associative thinking to break down Carlyle’s idea of the innate Negro. Farrant says that while Levy and Peart make notice of implicit associations, they do not go far into bad versus good trains of association. If an individual was surrounded by bad trains of association, they are likely to have make bad associations themselves. Farrant points out Mill’s says education can counteract the bad trains of association with good ones.
I agree that education does spend time developing certain associations for students. For example, unlike back when Carlyle and John Stuart Mill were debating, I grew up in a school system that preached racial equality and associated racism as bad. The first time I learned about the Civil Rights Movement was in preschool. My older sister has a friend named Treina, who is black, and who remembers my reaction to it. Treina said that I told her she had to sit in a specific seat because she was black. That day at school, the teacher had read a book about Rosa Parks. In my four year old brain I was taught the association of race affecting where a person sits and applied it to my life. Whenever Treina tells me this story everyone laughs. But, also the fact that an association can be made like that by such a young age is kind of scary. My teachers of course had not intended to teach me that being black meant you had to sit where you were told, in fact, they meant to teach the opposite. I cannot imagine what it would be like growing up being intentionally taught to make bad associations.
I was thinking about how white supremacy is still alive and kicking in certain parts of the United States. The fact that there are groups out there preaching eugenic principles such as the sterilization of non-whites is terrifying. I always wondered how these people could possibly think this way. I think the answer might be in associationist psychology: these people’s brains might have been hardwired at a young age to follow negative trains of association. All children grow in a households where parents are a voice of authority, and therefore also passed down their racial associations. Not to say we all make the same associations our parents do, but at a young age children rely on our parent’s view of the world in order to understand and begin creating their own. Luckily, the brain develops beyond 18 when most children leave the nest. But, for example, what if I had grown up in Nazi Germany? What if my parents were all about white supremacy and sterilizing everyone who isn’t blonde and blue-eyed? If I was born into associations such as blonde and blue-eyed are genetic signs of superiority, I might have been a Nazi sympathizer. I might have been a Nazi Youth myself. Now that is a terrifying thought.
I was once called “Aryan Princess” by a black man who passed me on the street. I understood he was associating my blonde blue-eyedness with the Nazi’s ideas of Aryanism. The man then proceeded to compliment my behind and ask for my number. I was shocked not by the proposition, but by what precluded it, and therefore led into it. Did this man really think I would give him my phone number after he associated m appearance to the Nazis? Apparently so. Needless to say the man did not get my number. But it did make me think about what he thought “Aryan Princess” implied; he said it almost like it was a compliment, just a reference to the color of my hair and eyes. I associated “Aryan” in relation to how I look with white supremacy in Nazi Germany. Now I’m making an assumption that the man had no intention of associating m with the Nazis, but I think that the differences in our associations pointed out a difference in how we both were taught about what Aryan means. To me “Aryan” is no compliment, but perhaps to him it was just a reference to my look.

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