reincarnation, races and individuals

I don’t want this discussion — on race doctrines and reincarnation as a potential way to ‘justify’ or exhonerate hierarchal beliefs about human races — and these important contributions to be lost in a thread  on an unrelated topic, so I’m moving a couple of comments to this post; please do feel free to continue discussing this topic here!

Tom wrote:

Jefferson may have been a worse racist than Steiner, but Jefferson did not enshrine his racism in his life’s work but Steiner did. That’s the crucial difference. You see, racism is not incidental to anthroposophy; it is fundamental to anthroposophy. But it’s actually good for us, just like bitter medicine.

How so? Two major reasons.
[1] the flip side of racism in anthroposophy is reincarnation.
[2] racism is a necessary — but of course by no means sufficient — condition for us to transcend said racism and gain our individual freedom.

Starting with [1], Steiner’s racial doctrine is especially cruel for those people who do NOT accept reincarnation. So why are you surprised at the hatred and vitriol directed at Steiner and anthroposophy from all the critics here, most of whom reject reincarnation? Don’t you realize that without reincarnation, anthroposophy slips down to the default value of Nazi race doctrine? […]

Having said that, though, the acceptance of reincarnation does not make Steiner any less racist; rather it shifts the racism into the more benign but patronizing realm of anthroposophists carrying their version of the “white man’s burden.” With reincarnation, then, a black person in this life is not doomed to his or her blackness. Rather he or she can pull up by the spiritual bootstraps, as it were, and earn many karma points to cash in with a Caucasian body in the next incarnation. And it might be added that a white person in this life might become so morally bankrupt, that he or she could conversely reincarnate into a “lower race” as a punishment. See, at least that attitude is color-blind, don’t you think?


So, in short, by Steiner’s own logic, Steiner himself — and his anthroposophy — are BOTH racist AND not racist — simultaneously!

Diana replied:

Reincarnation does nothing to mitigate against the racist doctrines in anthroposophy. The idea that reincarnation provides some sort of theoretical loophole is clever but it’s wishful thinking. Neither in theory nor in practice does a belief in reincarnation somehow mean that a doctrine of higher and lower races isn’t racist.

The word for a doctrine that’s “racist AND antiracist” is racist. A person might hold contradictory beliefs, or different beliefs at different times in their life. A theory or doctrine can’t do that. A theory that posits higher and lower races is racist; other parts of the theory don’t nullify the racist parts. Other facets of the doctrine might render it contradictory, or incoherent, but they cannot succeed in also making it “antiracist.”

And later continued:

[The reincarnation loophole] doesn’t work, even theoretically. It’s a complete misunderstanding about what makes a theory racist or not. The statements *about various races* are what make Steiner’s doctrine racist.

I understand the reasoning behind the claim that reincarnation provides a “loophole.” But it’s mistaken reasoning. The idea is that if a person reincarnates, we are not to judge them on the basis of what race they may have been in a particular lifetime, since it may change in later lifetimes. But racism is not about judgements or stereotypes or beliefs about individuals. It’s about beliefs *about races*. What we think about an individual is just what we think about an individual. What we think about their race reflects our racial doctrines (if we hold such a doctrine). Many racists believe that their positive assessments *about individuals* make them not racist. They like a particular black person, for instance, or they have a positive assessment of that black person, so they think they can’t be racist. Believing the person may reincarnate in another race later (or may have incarnated in another race previously) works in an analogous fashion. It’s like the person gets points for the possibility they will reincarnate in a better race. Darker skin counts against you, the possibility of lighter skin later (or previously) counts in your favor. Such a scoring system is racist. Its premise is racist. How high or low a particular person scores in such a system is not what makes it racist.

It doesn’t matter what you believe about an individual’s past or future lives. What you believe about their *race* – in any lifetime – is what makes your belief racist or not.

In my opinion, the belief in reincarnation works exactly the opposite of the way Tom thinks it works. The belief not only doesn’t save the doctrine from being racist, it gives it away as racist. It amounts to saying, to dark-skinned people, “I won’t hold your dark skin against you, ‘cus you might have lighter skin next time” (or, even more radically, or so the adherents to this view apparently think), “I won’t hold your dark skin against you, because I MYSELF may have once had dark skin, or may some day in the future have dark skin!”

This merely gives away the beliefs the person holds about dark skin.


41 thoughts on “reincarnation, races and individuals

  1. The human genome project rendered all these racial theories dead as dodos. I liked this article by Francis Holland:

    Holland writes:

    ‘while the concept of separate human sub-species called “races” was developed four hundred years ago, during a time when white supremacists and the slave trade were seeking to justify the enslavement of Blacks, as well as the social, economic and political exaltation of whites, however, the most recent in-depth study of human DNA ever completed has shown that “race” does not exist.’

    And adds:

    ‘When people say, “my race”, they might as well be saying “my fairy wings” as far as science is concerned.’

    I wonder what Francis Holland would say about Steiner’s race doctrines..

    Anthroposophy is not however science, ‘spiritual’ or otherwise. It is religious. It is a new-religion presently allowing its followers to indulge in an out-dated concept of race. (At least, as Holland says, it ought to be outdated). Peter Staudenmaier suggests that a revision of doctrine is not impossible and certainly not without precedent in new religions like anthroposophy, but it wouldn’t be easy.

  2. I might add that the human genome project concerned existing humans, not those in any future epochs. We don’t have to transcend race, or become race-less. In scientific terms, the idea of ‘race’ is meaningless. Skin-colour however does exist, as Holland says, and prejudice.

  3. And some genetic traits differ between populations. Some bloodtypes being more common in certain areas, e g. Nothing of this renders

  4. Tom and I have had this exact conversation several times previously. Here he is again arguing that reincarnation provides a “wider perspective.” He doesn’t take it in. Or maybe he does, but finds it entertaining to see if his flawed arguments will impress people who haven’t heard them 40 times.

  5. It is very funny. But, yes, of course. Lots of people did. Lots of people did not. It wouldn’t be an insurmountable problem that Steiner held these ideas abd shared them with some contemporaries… unless anthroposophists today had such difficulty dealing with this part of Steiner’s teachings and the movement’s past.

  6. Diana — yes, we’re stuck in repeat mode. Not just on this topic. In a way though — the reincarnation justification for racist thinking is standard anthroposophical thinking. So, in that sense, it’s better confronted than ignored. I e, if one has the patience.

    (I can’t claim to possess the requisite amount of patience — the anthro-racism stuff… becomes tedious after a while. It’s like this huge issue which overshadows much of the rest and equally worthy subjects — well, maybe you can’t exactly rank topics like that. Of course it is somehow significant for all the other issues. But still… it gets nowhere… it seems. Though maybe it does; it is just that progress is so subtle.)

  7. when we wrote the Steiner posts at DC’s we were more or less ignored by the movement until I wrote about the race doctrines. Then the SWSF and Richard House(flower) and Sune all made an appearance, ‘meeting the elephant’, you could say, or at least bringing a bucket to clear up after the elephant.

    All the same arguments were rehearsed, as Diana says. What’s telling though is that the real life consequences of these doctrines are understood outside the movement, that learning communities who have to deal with Steiner schools are not innocent of these ideas. As one English school governor said to me with regard to Free Schools, without knowing about my avatar, ‘We know what these people are’.

  8. That’s when they show up. It really is THE sensitive spot. Understandably. Their problem is that they don’t deal with it and thus have to keep tidying up after the elephant who’s apparently running around more than s/he should.

    Interestingly, a Swedish tabloid called Steiner a nazi supporter — which is not quite accurate, if we’re talking about the party and S himself, not his followers later — and not a word from Sune. I haven’t checked today though.

    But I mean — even if you stop running around after the elephant… s/he is still running around…

  9. Steiner Waldorf disclaimers say (often quite rudely): ‘This is not an elephant. No, it is an … anteater. Only the very stupid or wicked would think it was an elephant. I admit it is a very large anteater but nevertheless there is absolutely no pachyderm under that voile. Please do not offer it a bun. Yes well ..Anteaters also like buns, it is a well known FACT which only you are too MATERIALISTIC to comprehend. I have an important job at Roehampton University and wrote a book with the Archbishop of Canterbury, have you done that? Have you? Know Rowan, do you? Well, smart-arse; the Archbishop doesn’t think it’s an elephant… ‘

  10. Diana – it’s fascinating stuff. These themes could do with being collated.

  11. Peter has posted reams of material on this over the years. It’s a topic I remain helplessly fascinated by. He’s tried several times to help me understand the differences between western and eastern conceptions of karma, but it’s thorny.

  12. I’m not sure what google translate will make of the parallel discussion on another thread (‘tregrening’) but if you like you might try read it. (I’m not really fully updated on it and must read properly when I have more time.) Anyway, you’ll have to google translate from both norwegian and swedish… But it may be interesting.

  13. And it will delight anthroposophists, those who have spent decades throwing shit at Peter, to know that he’s a pathological hater.

    We all are I guess. And to speak of the anthro conception of the human being — we’re all, history scholars or former parents or students (et c) alike, demons in human form.

    That’s an unrelated observation. I’ll return later.

  14. The fact that Highland Hall actually taught Steiner’s racist ideas as science is going to haunt Waldorf for years to come. Highland Hall does not deny teaching the lesson, but claims that the idea of “European blood” being more “evolved” than the blood of people on other continents (specifically Africa and Asia) isn’t racist. This is an amazing stance in light of Waldorf’s attempts to distance themselves from Steiner’s racism. Every time someone from Waldorf claims there isn’t racism in Waldorf education – they are going to have to define exactly WHAT they mean by racism first. They clearly don’t understand what the term means.

  15. Yep — and that is the problem. They have their own definition. And this definition needs to be examined first. At least before assuming there’s no racism in waldorf or anthroposophy.

    That said, I wasn’t taught anything like that. Not as far as I can remember. But I quit after sixth grade.

  16. It would, of course, depend on the teacher as to what he/she believed should be taught and when. Some teachers, I would expect, feel they can slip more in to some classes than others. My son’s class was featured on the Highland Hall film. They had the least interrupted education of any class at Highland Hall and most of the kids in it had been there since first grade… so this particular class may have been more “ripe” for a dose of Steiner than yours was… who knows for sure. It isn’t as if they fired this teacher… or even objected to what she taught… they DEFENDED IT! That’s problematic for Waldorf regardless of whether this was the only instance on the planet of racism being taught directly to students. Highland Hall defended the lesson; they cannot call it an anomaly… it’s part of what Waldorf education teaches NOW! No comment from AWSNA?

  17. It may matter, too, that my head teacher was a regular teacher — w proper teacher training — before she was waldorf trained; and she had taught in public school. I guess that there’s a higher risk seeing this stuff come from a teacher whose only training is anthroposophy. And, in addition, accepts it as valid and as truth.

  18. I agree — defending it really adds an other layer to it. It indicates that it’s not one person’s error but that the school agrees with it or is ignorant not to understand the problem (the latter is less likely and isn’t any better than agreeing anyway) — and that is the real issue. That is why organisations like Awsna need to react. But they don’t. Look at the Swsf. They’re as incompetent. Or the european org — I’ve forgotten, esswe? — whose racism document is laughable. Wholly inadequate. At least if they wanted this ugly racist monster to be something of the past. Instead it will continue to haunt them. The longer they drag it out, the more difficult will it be to get rid of the problem. (They’ve already waited too long. Anthroposophical organisations could react too but most of them stick their heads in the sand and some of them rely on Sune for the ‘facts’.)

  19. It’s only sustainable if no one analyses it – or reads the history concerned, or thinks seriously about it (as if children really do matter).

    The problem for Steiner institutions is that a sordid denouement is inevitable – maybe via a celebrity – and certainly if they continue to pursue public money. I don’t believe all the teachers are racist – and I agree with Alicia that the race doctrines can eclipse the other worrying aspects of Waldorf – the poor quality of the education for example – but only obscurity can protect the movement in this regard. People will not understand. Or rather, people WILL understand what seems to be so difficult for Waldorf supporters to comprehend: this stuff is indefensible. So they need to get their house in order, and start with a little humility and honesty.

  20. Greetings, Diana!

    I’m somewhat puzzled at your reaction to my assertion that Rudolf Steiner is both a racist and not a racist simultaneously, since that position of embracing such an ambiguity is identical to Peter Staudenmaier’s position on the issue, not to mention Helmut Zander’s and that of some other scholars.

    Please read my response on WC to Pete K.’s similar confusion about the antinomy here

  21. Thetis — that’s what they rely on, people not analizing it. Or people who think there’s a big bright shining essence of love for humanity which eclipses all those sordid details; which lots of people are prepared to believe, without further analysis. People saying it’s silly to say Steiner said racist things when he loved humanity so much. Well, this was claimed in another thread recently. The problem with this stance isn’t that — understandably — anthroposophists (and non-anthros apparently) would want to focus on this nicer side, both in their anthroposophical activities and in what they choose to incorporate into their lives; the problem is that the ugly stuff is still there, and won’t be ignored, because it has consequences, both for anthroposophy and the world outside anthroposophy.

  22. Whether Steiner was a racist and not a racist at the same time wasn’t at issue. That isn’t particularly hard to understand, or controversial; it probably applies to most people, not just Rudolf Steiner, and not just Tom Mellett. Your huge personal conflict is less unusual (and less interesting to other people) than you apparently think.
    Whether the doctrine is racist is a different question; that’s where I said that a doctrine that is “racist and nonracist” is actually just racist.

  23. Diana, I couldn’t have said it better myself… actually, I had just finished reading your post about this before answering Tom (as if that wasn’t obvious enough)…

    It’s pretty much the same as the reason I wasn’t biting on the “was Steiner gay” thing… who cares. It’s what he taught about that matters… not what he personally ascribed to.

  24. I re-read my own comments to be sure. Nowhere do I make any pronouncements about whether Rudolf Steiner was a racist. This is sure to puzzle Tom, whose raison d’etre is to get people to fight about something, anything, and the more personal judgments we make about people, rather than talking about anthroposophy, the surer we are to have a nice fight.

    Sure, Rudolf Steiner was a racist and he wasn’t a racist. Who cares?

    Also reading back over the articles and comments on the DC blog, Tom challenged me to say what I wanted to see happen after we “indict” all anthroposophists as racists. I gave a boring reply ignoring the shit about “indictments” and said instead that Waldorf organizations should hold a regional conference or something.

  25. Was Steiner gay is a very boring topic. I don’t care if Steiner slept with swans. Actually I wish he did because his actual sexuality seems to have bored even himself.

  26. “I don’t care if Steiner slept with swans. Actually I wish he did because his actual sexuality seems to have bored even himself.”
    Great to see your comments Diana.

    Henning says on another post, he just “can’t bear it” when Steiner is called racist; but isn’t prepared to discuss the areas of Steiner’s work which are racist. It’s back to the skewed idea that Steiner as a man is untainted; and the spiritual smocked once upon a time world he invented is untouchable.

  27. Because Steiner’s love of humanity eclipses any racist or otherwise unpleasant remarks. That’s folly. You could argue that the unpleasant stuff should be discarded from modern anthroposophy. That would be absolutely fine. As long as you don’t ignore or even excuse its presence.

    If you can’t bear it that Steiner made racist remarks, and that some of his teachings include racist ideas, then you frankly can’t bear Steiner. And you ignore the fact that Steiner had (and still has) adherents who take these racist teachings to heart. Acknowledging that these remarks exist, and that some of Steiner’s teachings has this racist streak, isn’t the same as accepting these ideas as valid or true — unless you happen to believe everything Steiner said was valid or true. And, usually, even anthroposophists deny they take this approach to Steiner’s teachings. If anthroposophy is a path of ‘knowledge’ (supersensible or of the ordinary kind) then, surely, it can’t be a problem reassessing Steiner’s doctrines in light of better knowledge…

    Pretending there is no problem or tha there’s a justification for these things must be the worst of all possible paths to choose.

  28. I think Steiner possibly being gay is a fascinating topic. Not because of the potential gayness itself, but because his life is fascinating. In particular when it comes to the human and non-guru aspects of it. Well, both aspects are fascinating. It’s a remarkable way to lead a life. He’s unusual. Plus, there’s this related issue about anthros and sex in general. And Steiner’s hypothesis that people reincarnate as women and men alternately, and his theories on how human reproduction did take place in the past and will take place in the future.

  29. I definitely agree that Steiner’s teachings on sex and reproduction could bear much more intense scrutiny than they’ve been subjected to so far, at least to my knowledge (in English). It’s just that if we drag his life into it, we get on very shaky ground drawing any kind of tenable conclusions. If he was gay, what relationship would that fact have to his teachings? We could discuss it for centuries and not necessarily draw any meaningful conclusions.

    Of course discussing his life could be interesting in itself, as he’s historically a very interesting figure. It’s just that this amounts to gossip, rather than analysis of anthroposophy. Tom tries all day, every day, to drag the conversation to its lowest level and evoke the most rage from the most people, and one way to do that is to insist on talking about people and their personalities and proclivities, rather than about anthroposophy or Steiner education etc.

  30. No — I’m thinking the opposite (more in the way you suggest in the second passage): that his life is interesting, and that these teachings possibly shed some light on it. I don’t think it would be a good idea to scrutinize the teachings in light of Steiner’s life or lifestyle though. So rather than dragging Steiner’s life into the discussion of his teachings, I was thinking about dragging some of his teachings into the topic of his life. It’s definitely not an analysis of anthroposophy or anthroposophical doctrines; it’s about Steiner and who he was. It’s an interesting topic, but it’s a different topic. And Steiner’s personality has little bearing on such topics as the merits of waldorf education. That said, I do find him a fascinating person and personality; there’s no denying this.

  31. Have you ever thought about the fact that Steiner was trying to do something with the education that had never been done before, and that his view of it could possibly be interesting even though the following waldorf teachers never was interesting? Think of the difference between him and for example the people who started kristofferskolan.You cannot possibly think they would succed making a modern school in the way that Steiner with his very modern, sharp thinking and way of looking at things could do it?Those people were more far from Steiner then you are ever going to be.And here we are today waisting an education that could have been so surrealistic,so interesting,so topmodern.Look at it now.Come into a waldorf school you feel like you are back in the time before Steiner was even born.No room for modern life at all.Me,myself, I found Steiners books before I ever saw a waldorf school.And it was a chock to see that something could be so far from his spirit.I still think it is true and I do not ever think I will accept the fact that this is the school that should have been the revolution of mankind.

  32. Have you ever thought about the fact that Steiner was trying to do something with the education that had never been done before, and that his view of it could possibly be interesting even though the following waldorf teachers never was interesting?’

    Absolutely. And I do think his views are interesting — highly so –, although I also think many of these ideas should be kept far away from education. He started a spiritual movement, and I’m not sure he should have ventured into education. And the fact that he was a spiritual leader — rather than a professional in education (for example) — means that his followers, i e, in this case the teachers, were followers of this spiritual movement, and he the leader of it. He had superior insights — and nobody trusts themselves to have better, more modern, insights than him — maybe people are too afraid to take what he left and develop it, according to spirit rather than to letter (to put it that way). So we’re stuck in time. Which, perhaps, means that waldorf might have abandoned the spirit of it, as you say.

    Of course, if waldorf isn’t what it’s supposed to be — who can actually tell what it’s supposed to be? Assuming it’s not what it is today, and assuming it can’t be stuck in Steiner’s time, you need to interpret, and reinterpret, and develop and all that. And even if that was established — what it is — you still have one problem: would waldorf teachers be capable of implementing it?

    And, if they were, would it benefit the children? I guess that the anthroposophical view on that would be yes — but that requires you to accept the anthroposophical foundation as valuable and valid. And non-anthroposophists aren’t likely to do that.

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