Saturday, June 24, 2017

Racist Lives Matter

Every time I read a Slate Star Codex post that touches on politics, I want to pick a fight with it. I՚m not sure why – Scott is such a bright and well-intentioned and witty guy that it makes me question my own motives. But I can՚t help it, something seems deeply wrong there, in a way that connects to various issues I tend to obsess about.

The recent post entitled Against Murderism attempts to make a case that we are too quick to be outraged at racism, or too quick to dismiss people for their racist tendencies. Racism, he says, denotes a large number of phenomena, some of them emergent from perfectly innocent behaviors and preferences. Very few people have a root motivation of pure racial hatred, and it՚s unfair and incorrect to tar people with more epiphenomenal discriminatory behaviors and attitudes with the sins of those few. We should be more forgiving of those we have labeled racists, or maybe not forgiving, but we should at least try to understand them rather then treating them as pure evil, to be shunned or exterminated rather than reasoned with.

And there՚s something to this – accusations of racism are flung around pretty freely these days, and they often serve to end an argument, or turn what should be an argument into an existential battle. Scott doesn՚t want an existential battle (a civil war, in his terms). Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil wars, and liberalism requires that we show maximum intellectual charity to all points of view, racism included.

All of the above is valid and well-reasoned and supported. Nevertheless, it has the glaringly obvious property that it is far more worried about people being mean to racists than it is about racism itself. This is like a textbook illustration of the concept of privilege. That՚s not an accusation I throw out very often, in fact I՚ve probably more often been on the receiving end of it.

I՚m sure it doesn՚t feel like an exercise of privilege to Scott, who views himself as bending over backwards to extend empathy to a despised subgroup (racists) and encouraging others to do the same. From his standpoint, the fact that liberals and polite society is hostile and discriminatory to racists is more important, more salient, more worth crusading about, than actual racial discrimination.

Racist Lives Matter would be the slogan for this movement, if it was a movement. And indeed they do! Maybe Scott is simply being more courageous, more intellectually advanced, than the mainstream of civilized discourse, where of course racism is already taboo. So he argues that we dehumanize racists by accusing them of racism, and dehumanization is bad:
Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you…It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This paragraph fascinates me in its rhetorical technique; specifically, in the way it attempts to enforce a conceptual separation between things that are in fact inseparable. On the one had we have “different cultures, different values, and different conclusions”; on the other, “an irrational mind-virus of hatred”. The former is to be respected and reasoned with, the latter can՚t be, so we better try hard to frame things in the former way.

But hatred, like every other human thought and emotion, is part of cultures and values. And tribal animosity specifically is a very common and ingrained part of many human cultures, not something external and alien to them. Fortunately, and here we agree, we have also developed a new kinds of culture that has liberal, cosmopolitan, and tolerant values. These values are irreducibly in conflict with the more traditional tribal cultural values. This conflict plays itself out in many forms, some peaceful, others less so, but it's never going away,

In the extreme case, these conflicting values produce war. Nazi Germany had different culture and values, and we fought them. The slaveholding south had different cultures and values, and we fought a war over those as well. The good guys won those wars, but the underlying bad values were not permanently defeated and at this particular historical moment seem to be gaining strength. That would seem to be the thing to worry about, for those who are truly on the side of liberalism. Liberalism, in its actually existing form, is not a form of pacifist rationalism that can solve all problems by talking them out, as much as it would like to, Eventually, it has to pick up a gun, because it has enemies.

Scott seems to want us to stop fighting and instead deploy a lot of empathetic concern. And maybe that's not a bad idea in itself, certainly it behooves us to understand people better, even enemies. But his basic posture is that he wants to avoid civil war at all costs, and thus doesn't notice that the war is happening and has been for a very long time.