Point of View

Fabricating the ties that bind

December 16, 2011 

— Recently, following on the heels of a proposed law to give Saudi Arabian women the right to drive, a "scientific study" was published that purported to show that if Saudi women were allowed to drive there would be an outbreak of illicit sexual deviation from marriage.

This document was not the first to be fabricated or skewed in order to promote a social or political point. Throughout history there have been campaigns to justify one individual or group's power grab from another. These movements often require documents to validate actions that will be taken to serve the purposes of the campaign. The documents may be fabricated; history provides plenty of examples.

"The Prague Cemetery" is a recent book by Umberto Eco set in the late 1800s in which a forger comes to realize that there is more money to be made in fabricating documents for organizations desiring to oppress or delegitimize other groups than there is in simple forgeries of wills or contracts. All the forger has to do is make up documents "proving" that an opposition idea or group is involved in a sinister or criminal conspiracy.

At various times in the forger's life he provides fabricated documents to demonize Masons, Jesuits, Jews, Napoleon and various individuals that some government or religious order wishes to defeat. The novel is based on historical fact. At the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, an exhibit called "Race - Are We So Different" explores, among other things, the concept that similar fabrications were designed to allow slavery to be tolerated.

Certainly the new colonies in America were not the first to have slaves, or to justify that slavery was correct because those enslaved were "inferior" beings, perhaps even subhuman, and therefore unfit for the rights accorded to other citizens. Numerous "scientific" studies were produced over two centuries, even after slavery was outlawed, to show that those enslaved were genetically inferior and thus deserving of either enslavement, repression or discrimination.

Numerous laws were passed and cultural customs were developed as a result of those documents. We live with the residue of those documents today.

True, all of the prior studies showing significant genetic disparities among racial groups have since been repudiated, but their cultural legacy lives on. No one doubts the minor genetic differences that define skin color, appearance and some affinity for certain diseases, but the concept of race is much more cultural than genetic, as the exhibit clearly demonstrates.

Why should you care? The exhibit shows mainly how unscientific and fabricated documents resulted in the cultural black-white racial issues we see today. Similarly, in our history we have seen persecution of other groups (Irish, Catholics, Jews, Asians, etc.) based on similar closed-minded and unsupported "facts" accepted by true believers of various political or cultural movements.

Tell a lie often enough and it may eventually be believed by those whose "confirmation bias" makes them want it to be true. Demonization of those different from us is not a new concept, whether it's in politics, race, religion or gender.

You certainly wouldn't be one of those people, would you? A visit to the "Race - Are We So Different" exhibit (which runs through Jan. 22) will show you some examples of how cultural biases evolve.

Larry M. Crane is a retired physician who volunteers in the Investigate Health Lab at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. He is also on the museum board, but wrote this article as an individual.

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