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The Apportionment of Human (In)security
Thoughts on and at SHB23
I’m writing this at Pittsburgh International Airport, waiting for my flight home. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for the past three days attending a workshop on Security and Human Behavior (SHB) at Carnegie Mellon University. SHB is an annual, by-invitation-only meeting that is jointly organized by computer scientist Ross Anderson, security technologist Bruce Schneier, and professor of information technology and public policy Alessandro Acquisiti.
SHB has been running for thirteen years, and I have had the privilege of attending all but two of the meetings.
SHB has several remarkable features that other conference organizers could profitably emulate. Although attended mainly by people working in the security industries, especially cybersecurity, it is an explicitly interdisciplinary event, with a smattering of philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists in the mix. With the exception of graduate students, every participant is required to give a presentation on their work. This requires every presentation to be very brief (this year, no longer than eight minutes each). Presentations are more like prompts for discussion, for which a great deal of time is allocated, than papers. This conversation-rich format also places strict limits on the number of participants that can attend, so meetings small and intimate. Participants do not disperse during lunch and dinner, so conversations continue over ample quantities of food and wine. Overall, it’s aimed at promoting intellectual cross-fertilization and collaborative research. SHB is an intellectually and interpersonally rich experience that I look forward to each year.
Over the years I have presented on a number of topics at SHB that are dear to my heart and central to my work, including topics like how dehumanization works, a theory of ideology, Trump’s use of Nazi-style rhetoric, and the persistence of medieval anti-semitic tropes in the twentieth century. On every occasion, my audience has been receptive, curious, and appreciative. There have even been occasions when other participants have included aspects of my thinking into their work on cybersecurity.
This year, my talk was on “The apportionment of human (in)security.” Anyone acquainted with research into the biology of race will recognize this as an allusion to what is arguably the most influential scientific publication about race ever written—Richard Lewontin’s “The apportionment of human diversity,” published just over half a century ago. Lewontin, who was a founding father of population genetics, demonstrated that there is vastly more variation within racial groups than there is between them, and thereby undermined the view that races are meaningful bio-taxonomic categories. Put concisely, there is no biological justification for belief in the existence of races.
Lewontin’s work cleared the way for two alternative views of race. One, often called “social constructivism” (but which I prefer to call “social realism”) is the thesis that races are perfectly real, but are brought into existence and sustained by social forces rather than biological ones. As is the case with things like money, marriage, and iphones, races are invented, but are also perfectly real. The other view, often called “eliminativism” (but which I prefer to call “anti-realism”) is the thesis that races do not exist. Races are indeed social creations, but they are fictional.
I’m an anti-realist about race.
What does all this have to do with security and human behavior? Unlike threats to cybersecurity, which for the most part do not discriminate between groups, racialized people are often subjected to threats to their physical security. Those racialized as Black or Brown do not just experience threats to their security when exposed to on-line scams. In many instances they experience threats to their security simply by walking down the street.
This has a centuries-long history. In the United States, people of African descent have been subjected to racial violence, and the chronic threat of violence, for centuries. This is no accident. Violence is intrinsic to race. The ideology of race was created with the aim of legitimating the oppression and in some cases the extermination of human beings. Violence is its raison d’etre. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
I reject the commonplace assumption that race is detachable from racism—that we can combat racism while leaving the ideology of race untouched. To put the point bluntly, affirming race, however well-intentioned, is promoting the White supremacist project.
This was a lot to argue in a short eight minutes. But judging from the ensuing conversation, as well as those who approached me privately after the session finished, my audience got the point. Fortunately, I could supplement it by recommending an article co-authored with my spouse, the philosopher Subrena Smith, titled “The trouble with race and its many shades of deceit,” published in New Lines magazine earlier this year. It sets out our position in much greater detail. You can read it here.