Einstein's diaries contain shocking details of his racism (?)

All they show is that he was a normal human being as well as a brilliant theorist. To Leftists, the most casual mention of race or some ethnic group puts the mentioner into the same category as Adolf Hitler -- which is utter nonsense -- but nonsense that can be used to intimidate.

In fact up until WWII, it was normal to talk as Einstein did in his diaries.  Let me give a striking prewar example of that:  In interwar Britain it was a well-known usage to express gratitude to someone by saying: "That's white of you" -- implying that whites are more noble and kind than others.  From my readings I get the impression that the usage was most common among British members of the armed forces and former members of the armed forces. They in effect praised whiteness

One must remember that at that time Britain had the largest empire the world had ever seen, that most members of that empire were brown and that those brown people were generally poor.  And Britons were very conscious of their empire and their dominance of that empire.

In one way or another (e.g. as administrators; as troops) many Britons would have had some personal contact with the people of their empire -- contact with India particularly. And dirt-poor people worldwide tend to have a lack of moral restraint when attempting to ensure  their own survival.  In plain words, many  would lie and steal from their colonial overlords at any opportunity. And that did not go un-noted among the British.  To them, brown people really were morally inferior. White people in their experience really were more admirable.

I note that Wikipedia has a similar view of the origins of the expression: "The racial sense of the expression may refer more explicitly to the administrators and soldiers of the 18th, 19th and 20th-century British Empire".

Another version of the expression was: "That's mighty white of you", which was mainly used sarcastically.

So it was perfectly normal human discourse to refer to people by racial categories.  I remember in my own upbringing during the '40s and '50s it was perfectly routine for Southern European migrants (mainly Italians) to be referred to as "Wogs" or "Dagoes".  As with Einstein's diaries, however, such usages were kept private. You used such expressions among yourselves, not in the presence of the people being referred to.  And despite any private reservations they may have had, my fellow Anglo-Australians were perfectly civil with the migrants and co-operated with them perfectly well in the workplace and in business.  It helped that the Italians tended to be hardworking and genial people.

So that is an example of a phenomenon well-known to social psychologists:  Attitudes are a poor guide to behaviour.  It is sometimes referred to formally as "The attitude-behavior discrepancy".  Another striking example of that discrepancy is the composer Richard Wagner. He voiced some very derogatory  opinions of Jews -- so much so that Hitler held him in great esteem. Yet in his personal life he was particularly helpful to Jewish musicians and Jews were among his closest friends. Some of his best friends really were Jews.

What was going on in the speech discussed so far is that making generalizations is a great human skill.  The work of a scientist is to discover true generalizations.  But the degree of precision needed from a generalization varies with the circumstances. Scientists need great precision but in everyday speech much precision is not needed.  People need only to get the general drift of what is being said.  It is understood that you are not making scientifically precise statements.  It is understood that you are talking about generalities rather than "all or nothing" rules.

So people talk about -- say -- "blacks" among friends when in more critical company they would add "in general". Once again, the degree of precision varies with the audience.  Being steeped in scientific caution I sometimes refer to blacks by the anthropological term "sub-Saharan Africans" where others would refer simply to "blacks" or "Africans". If I do use "blacks" by itself I am simply using it as a form of shorthand, something readily expandable as "many Sub-Saharan Africans" if required.  So, as you can see, there is a tradeoff between precision and brevity.  And in casual conversation, the briefer form will usually be the one used.

And that was what Einstein was doing.  He was writing for his own private purposes not for publication so he wrote with maximum brevity, not with maximum precision.

He would have been perfectly capable of expanding "children" to "The children I saw on this trip" if he thought he might be misunderstood as making over-broad generalizations.

And note that he did insert some qualifications to his observations.  In speaking of the Japanese he used "seem to" rather than "are". And instead of calling the Chinese "dreary", he said "for the likes of us" they would be dreary.  So he was clearly thinking in a cautious way rather than uttering literally-meant generalizations.  And in speaking of the Ceylonese he would undoubtedly have said "most of the locals" rather than "the locals" if he had expected his words to be given critical scrutiny.

So was he using stereotypes in his writings?  He may well have been doing so.  As Gordon Allport noted back in the 1930's, stereotypes have a "kernel of truth". And as more recent research has shown, the popular understanding of stereotypes as mentally imprisoning is the reverse of the truth.  Stereotypes change rapidly in response to new information.  They are a first approximation to a valid generalization but only a first approximation. If subsequent observations confirm the stereotype it will remain.  If subsequent information conflicts with the stereotype, it will be modified or abandoned. See here and here for coverage of the academic research on that.

But if anything he said about the various groups were also current stereotypes of those groups, he clearly saw nothing to contradict the stereotypes. Though he may have done so with the Japanese. His generally positive view of them at the time was  not generally held, I would think.  I think that they would have generally been seen as part of "the yellow peril" rather than anything else.

So is Einstein at fault for categorizing other people? That is a common complaint made about talk of races.  But it is an empty-headed  complaint.  Human beings are categorizing animals.  Every word in our language is a category (except of course syncategorematic words).  We have words such as "dog" when there is a great variety of dogs of all shapes and sizes.  But we often use just that one word to refer to all of them. "Dog" is a category and a useful one. Similarly "Japanese" is an ethnic  category that is often found useful.

So was Einstein a racist?  If we understand that charge to mean that he had overgeneralized and incorrect beliefs about some human groups, there is no evidence of it. All we see in his diaries is shorthand notes, and even there he sometimes inserts qualifications that deny any intention of firm generalizations.

So the takeaway from this episode is that we should not judge casual speech by scholarly standards.  It is not intended as such and does not work as such.  And to pretend that it is meant as a series of precise utterances generates false accusations and is in general a disreputable strategy designed to hurt rather than enlighten

Einstein's diaries contain shocking details of his racism

Albert Einstein's personal diary reveals that he was racist in his early life.

Newly translated into English, Albert Einstein's private travel diaries from the 1920s reveal that he was racist in his early life, especially toward Chinese people.

The journals, published as "The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein" by Princeton University Press, reveal that Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of all time and known for his theory of general relativity and the equation e=mc2, was extraordinarily biased toward certain populations. This is a stark contrast to his stance later in life, when he said that racism was a "disease of white people."

The diaries were written between October 1922 and March 1923. In one entry Einstein wrote that the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.”

Speaking about the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, he continued: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

Einstein also derided the people of Ceylon, which is now known as Sri Lanka. In Ceylon, he wrote, the locals “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level,” before adding they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”

Einstein also gave his thoughts on Japanese people, whom he viewed in a more positive light, calling them "unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing.” However, he also wrote the “intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones — natural disposition?”

"Entries ... contain passages that reveal Einstein's stereotyping of members of various nations and raise questions about his attitudes on race," a description of the book reads.

The journals were translated from the German and are described as "the first publication of Albert Einstein’s travel diary to the Far East and Middle East."

Speaking with The Guardian, the book's editor Ze'ev Rosenkranz said that Einstein's views were not intended for public consumption and provide a shock to those who read them.

“I think a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant — what he says about the Chinese in particular," Rosenkranz told The Guardian. “They’re kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon. I think it’s quite a shock to read those and contrast them with his more public statements. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

Rosenkranz is also the assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and has written several books about the life of Einstein.

The remarks in his journal are markedly different to the public image Einstein projected in his later years.

In 1946, speaking at Lincoln University, the first degree-granting historically black university in the U.S., Einstein said that racism was a "disease of white people" and added “I do not intend to be quiet about it," according to a 2007 article in the Harvard Gazette.

Einstein was a founder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and left it his literary estate and personal papers. He declined an invitation to serve as Israel's first president.

He died in 1955 at the age of 76.


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