Beyond Blood Identities by Jamaican-born American philosopher Jason D Hill hits the bookstores. Campion College alumnus and former Jamaica Gleaner staff reporter, Dr Jason Hill has put himself at the centre of controversy. In his new book, he argues that our obsessions with racial, ethnic and national identities are a form of psychosis and damages our moral fibre. I caught up with Dr Hill, who is on sabbatical with his partner in Berlin, on the eve of the publication of his new book.
Beyond Blood Identities by Dr Jason D Hill hits the bookstores this week. Its controversial thesis that tribalism is a form of psychosis which damages our moral fibre is already garnering fervent supporters and strident detractors around the world. Book cover shows photo of a woman receiving the light of knowledge.
Pondi Road: Congratulations on your second book: Beyond Blood Identities. What is your primary thesis or main themes in this book?
Jason D Hill: Thank you. My main thesis is that clinging to a very strong racial, ethnic, or national identity is akin to having an addiction. It is a psychological crutch that bolsters self-esteem while adding nothing to your moral character. It gives people some kind of biological prestige, if you will, and prevents them from truly relating to others outside their groups in a deeply profound manner.
Pondi Road: Are you saying that it is a bad thing for someone to be proud of being Jamaican or American or Jewish? Right now a lot of Jamaicans are celebrating the ongoing achievements of Usain Bolt as the fastest man in the world. On the other hand, there are also many of us who are ashamed every time there are headlines of hoodlum Jamaicans going on badly at home and abroad. Is there something wrong with identifying with other Jamaicans and being proud or ashamed of being Jamaican depending on what our fellow countrymen do?
Jason D Hill: Pride comes from individual achievement and accomplishment. I’d like someone to identify what is there to be uniquely proud of being Jamaican. Any trait associated with being Jamaican: resilience (which we have), hard-working, dignified, don’t-take-crap-from-nobody – all these are universal traits which every other ethnic group claims as theirs. Why are we trying to cling on to Bolt’s achievements? Because they give us national prestige. But in truth they have nothing to do with us as individuals. We should be proud of human achievements, period-wherever we find them in the human community. As a lover of humanity, that is the code I live by.
Jamaica-born American Philosopher Dr Jason D Hill decked out in Indian garb in the promotional photo for his new book Beyond Blood Identities. Dr Hill is a Campion College graduate and former Gleaner staff reporter who earned his phD in Philosophy from Purdue University and is currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago.
Pondi Road: Are you saying that you feel no difference between a Jamaican winning an Olympic medal and some other country winning that medal? Or that as a black man you felt no particular sense of anything when Obama was elected president of the USA?
Jason D Hill: As a huge Obama fan I felt pride in the capacity of the United States to continually renew itself, to finally abide by the fundamental principles of its constitution. It was first and foremost rational pride I felt in America and in that moment, yes, in being an American. America proved itself worthy of emulation. It had overcome immense prejudice and carried through on its constitutional principles. I would have felt the same pride if a woman or an openly gay candidate had won. But yes, as a person of colour Obama’s presidency carries special resonance for me. But let us be clear on one thing. It is America and the American people first and foremost that deserve praise for executing this extraordinary historical phenomenon.
Pondi Road: So it is OK for us to feel a “special resonance” when someone in our tribal group like race or country achieves something significant. How or when then does tribalism go awry and damage our moral fibre and interpersonal exchanges?
Jason D Hill: No, I don’t mean to say it is alright when someone in our tribal group achieves something to feel this special pride. Psychologically, it is understandable. The special resonance comes from knowing that in a race-conscious society such as the United States you are implicated in the achievements and the failures of a member from your category when you are a minority. Tribalism goes awry when we imbue morally neutral features of a person like race, ethnicity and nationality with moral significance. Being German tells us nothing about a German’s character at all. The problem is that we denigrate the characters of those who are not like us because we imagine that their race or ethnicity lacks the high-prestige value and moral salience of ours. We demonise them in order to feel special – not like them – about ourselves.
Pondi Road: OK. Understood. Early leaks to the press about your book revealed that you have problems with the notion of Jews as a “chosen people”. The history of Judaism is wrapped up in their special and unique relationship with God.
Jason out and about in Manhattan with mother Diane Hill (to his left) and her posse Dorothy Simmonds and Sheila Timoll.
Jason D Hill: Yes. And that relationship is over. Jewish history has come to an end. The Promised Land was delivered in 1948. Jews can no longer continue this infantile relationship to a God that forced them to repeatedly prove themselves in a most sado-masochistic manner. It’s time to end the drama and claim equal status among all of God’s children. Jews actually are dehumanised by being exceptionalised: a special humanity is conjured up for them and this, I believe, may partially explain some of the hostility directed towards them throughout history: sibling rivalry is at play here. All monotheistic religious groups have been envious of this special relationship between Jews and God. Let us not forget they were related by blood to the most famous Jew: Jesus; and that it was a Jew, Paul, who created Christianity.
Pondi Road: But why would they give up that special status? If God has chosen them but their Promised Land remains under threat, how can you argue that Jewish history has come to an end? God did not exactly deliver them to a problem-free land.
Jason D Hill: They give up the special status because the historical circumstances that led to them being chosen have expired. They are no more. The Jews are ordinary and just like everyone else. Nothing special about them anymore. It is their responsibility to protect the Promised Land. God cannot guarantee eternal protection from external threats. Exactly who has that luxury? Every nation is potentially under threat from any rogue state that chooses to exercise illicit power. The idea of being chosen is offensive. I’m sorry. They will need to correct a mistake that God apparently made in having favourites among his children.
Is it time for Jews to end their special and unique relationship with God since the Promised Land was delivered? Dr Hill says that the idea of being a ‘chosen people’ is offensive and this notion has to end. Here is Domenico Fetti’s painting of Moses confronting the burning bush when the special relationship between the Jews and God was first forged. ‘Remove your shoes for this is hallowed ground.’ (Photos: Pondi Road)
Pondi Road: As we move into the twenty-first century, do you see an increase or decrease in the significance of tribal identities?
Jason D Hill: I feel that as globalisation spreads we are seeing the resurgence of nationalism across the globe. Globalisation is perceived as having a levelling effect, and I fear that in order to hold on to their particularity people are going to bolster their tribal identities. As someone who lives in Europe six months each year I see the political right galvanising the European working classes into an Us – versus – Them mentality – the them, of course, being the Muslims, the immigrants, the Arabs. Nationalism concerns me the most because it speaks to the nostalgia in people’s hearts. People imagine some magical past when they were invulnerable and it’s always a despised Other that is now present which prevents them from retrieving this past. Serbian nationalism was based on this premise, as was National Socialism (NAZISM).
Pondi Road: How do you understand tribalism in Jamaica? Are we affected by it in any serious way?
Jason D Hill: Not in any original way. Jamaicans tend to be clannish but so are several other groups.
Pondi Road: How about pigmentism with shades of black and brown as societal markers? PNP vs JLP politicism? Classism? Would these not count as our tribal pathologies?
Jason D Hill: Sure, but those are standard tribal pathologies. Nothing particularly unique or interesting about those. But deep down a ‘brownas’ in Jamaica still sees a black-skinned person as a true Jamaican and not some animal! And that is a difference. In the United Sates and NAZI Germany, blacks and Jews, respectively, were seen as sub-human. It is to the credit of the Jamaican people that despite the ruling pigmentocracy – there is no such word as pigmentism – of the country, brown Jamaicans will still defend a black Jamaican as a Jamaican. I would exclude political parties from the domain of tribalism. However irrational people are in coming to hold their political allegiances, they are value-based and are open to all. Anyone can choose to become a JLP or PNP. In that sense it would be an open tribe, which is a contradiction in terms.
Pondi Road: The choice for the cover of the book is interesting. What is the image? What are you trying to convey?
Jason D Hill: The image is of a woman looking into the light and receiving almost superhuman knowledge. She gets it. I mean, the meaning of life. I am trying to convey a heroic image of humanity, to say that we can go beyond the conventions, the binding norms, and the oppressive mores of our cultures and be completely transformed.
Pondi Road: As part of your global tour of lectures and signings to promote the book, will you be coming to Jamaica or taking part in our literary festival Calabash, next year?
Jason D Hill: No, I will not, unfortunately. I am in principled self-exile from Jamaica. I have not been to Jamaica in 15 years and will not return until homosexuality is de-criminalised. That is my moral stance and I intend to stand by it.
Pondi Road: Why have you taken that stance with respect to Jamaica? There are tons of countries at different stages of political and social development where human rights of different groups are not fully guaranteed whether it is based on race, religion or sexuality. Why single out Jamaica for special self-exile?
Jason D Hill: Well, there are some truly pernicious countries like Saudi Arabia which practises gender apartheid, and even Russia, which is lapsing into a state of incivility that I would never visit. Jamaica is the country of my birth. I left there when I was 20 years old. I’ve singled it out, of course, because as a gay person I certainly would not be comfortable living there or even visiting with my partner of twelve years. I think that in an era when half of Europe is in the process of legalising gay marriage, to have a country in which you can be arrested for your sexual orientation is regressive. But things will change when gay people and people who stand for human rights take ownership of morality and defend the rights of gays on moral grounds. This is a moral battle, and only in the crucibles of implacable moral principles can this battle be won. The homophobes cannot have an exclusive monopoly on moral discourse. Morality is on our side.
Pondi Road: Noted, but it is still unfortunate that you will not be coming to Jamaica as part of your promotional tour. What are you working on now?
Jason D Hill: Well, I am under contract to write my third book which is about how to achieve moral clarity in our lives. And I just finished a novel, a massive multi-generational political and family saga about Jamaica from the 19th century up to the 1970s.
Pondi Road: Both sound quite interesting. Congrats on all your success and good luck with this book and all future endeavours. Allow me to be tribal and say that I am certainly proud to see Jamaicans pushing out in all kinds of different disciplines beyond music and sports for which we are already well-known. Thank you for taking the time to share your sociological and philosophical insights.
Jason D Hill: Thank you for giving me a forum to share my views. Good night.