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.


16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't consider myself a racist in the typical sense, but I am somewhat of a segregationist (not for the way it worked in the US 100 years ago, but mostly on the level of nation states), for the simple reason that a good chunk of the population would be happier this way, roughly speaking. I think forcing "diversity" on them would do more harm than forcing homogeneity would do to the pro-diversity crowd.

Some kind of tribalism is inevitable and if people want ethnic/racial tribalism, let them have it. As long as it's done in a humane way (no persecution, no Nazis, mostly just immigration policies) why does it bother you?

mtraven said...

Because in practice, there are no innocuous tribalists who just want to hang out with their own kind. Or if they are, they don't bother me. The two anti-liberal forces I mentioned (Nazis and slavers) are notorious for not leaving other groups alone, and every movement for an ethnically pure homeland ends up in war crimes.

Dain said...

"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."

I read him as saying that in fact people are often INCORRECT in their assessment that someone is racist, and that the quest to uncover it is turning up a lot of false positives and contributing to counterproductive rhetoric and attitudes. He attempted to establish something like a checklist for discerning real racism from fake. Seems a legit and valuable endeavor.

I get the sense that what you're bothered by is that in a world of finite resources and mental energy, to even take up a task such as that is a wrongheaded and perhaps a little morally suspect.

mtraven said...

I read him as saying that in fact people are often INCORRECT in their assessment that someone is racist, and that the quest to uncover it is turning up a lot of false positives and contributing to counterproductive rhetoric and attitudes. He attempted to establish something like a checklist for discerning real racism from fake.

That՚s not how I read him (although maybe I will go take another look). He՚s saying that racism is used to mean a bunch of very different phenomenon and we shouldn՚t tar the ones that stem from basically innocent motives with the sins of those that are based on hatred. So there isn՚t a simple correct/incorrect about it as you have it.

To that extent I agree with him.

Where I disagree with him is in his epistemological stance – roughly, that racism is just another belief system, and liberalism requires that we let all belief systems have their say. And that liberalism is so important – because it՚s an amazing cognitive and political tool – that preserving its standards is more important than, say, shielding victims of racism from having their feelings hurt. We can՚t treat racism any differently than we treat any other questionable set of ideas, like Mormonism or Scientology or flat-earthism.

I՚m kind of steelmanning his ideas, or trying my best to. So all of the above sounds very plausible. But I don՚t buy it, for two reasons: (1) I don՚t think thats how liberalism works and (2) it leads, despite all of Scott՚s brilliance, to the really dumb position of desperately wanting to avoid a civil war that is already underway.

I get the sense that what you're bothered by is that in a world of finite resources and mental energy, to even take up a task such as that is a wrongheaded and perhaps a little morally suspect.

I am not sure exactly why I am so bothered, to be honest. Scott՚s stance on racism may or may not be morally suspect but why is that any of my business? It՚s the more abstract issues that interest me: how do you maintain something like liberalism in the face of illiberal threats? Or if you can't and liberalism is dead, what's the way forward?

Dain said...

"Or if you can't and liberalism is dead, what's the way forward?"

This question is vital. On my most cynical days I believe you just HAVE to pick a side in the culture war and that above-it-all liberalism really is dead. It's like answering the question "Should gays be allowed to marry?" by saying "How about just get the government out of it." Since that's a non-option, you end up unofficially on the side of whatever the status quo is. If free speech absolutism and rule of law is dead, you may as well as root for the team - crudely identified as they are - you think has the best societal outcome in mind. Forget means, go for ends?

mtraven said...

Stumbled on another SSC post from 3 years ago in the same vein, and my reactions were about the same mix of:
- very well written and argued
- he's brave for jumping into this potentially toxic area
- it also reeks of privilege
- he's right that the discourse around race and racism and "racism" is broken in various ways.
- he wants the underlying power struggles between groups and ideologies to please go away

It's the latter point that interests me most, probably because it is the most abstract.


Dain said...

All in all it sounds like you don't have a very compelling argument, apart from how it just FEELS wrong, what he's saying. And what's this about privilege? You're a white guy, right? Is your point of view likewise a manifestation of privilege? Sounds like the genetic fallacy in action.

mtraven said...

It's all based on feeling (as is the original SSC piece), we aren't exactly doing abstract mathematics here. Accusations of "the genetic fallacy" only apply to decontextualized facts, there are none of those in the neighborhood.

Privilege does not mean that white guys are automatically wrong. It means that circumstances matter, and if you are lucky enough to have relatively privileged circumstances you have a moral and intellectual responsibility to make an extra effort to take the viewpoints of the less privileged into account. (You may disagree that this obligation exists -- certainly it is not universally observed, but it is central to the ethos of a democratic and egalitarian society). I am a white guy but I try and think about how a black guy might react to the idea that being mean to racists is a bigger problem than racism. (I'm also a Jewish guy whose parents fled Nazi Europe so sensitive to the fact that privilege can be temporary),

I don't mean to pick on Scott, whose writing I admire. But in many contexts, he seems to be bending over backwards to be fair and ethical. But he seems to bend more readily for some things than others.

Anonymous said...

I read him a bit differently from the other readings here. I don’t think he’s saying that racism is just another point of view that should be respected, nor do I think he’s saying that lots of times people incorrectly assess others as being racists, and they should be more careful.

I read him as saying that racism exists, and it is bad, and it should be fought. However in order to fight it, we have to get past the notion that racism is caused by irrational hatred. Almost all of the time it is not, but rather caused by incorrect beliefs, actions based on incomplete information, and other things that are not irrational hatred. This doesn’t lessen the injustice or oppression of racism to those on its receiving end, but it does suggest different, and more liberal, ways of fighting racism than would be used to fight people who are driven by blind irrational hatred.

mtraven said...

"However in order to fight it, we have to get past the notion that racism is caused by irrational hatred" -- if that's what he's saying, I agree, but I don't think it's a very incisive point. Pretty much anyone who thinks about racism seriously recognizes that it is a structural problem of society that goes way deeper than the irrational hatreds of individuals.

He may be saying, it's bad to label racists as bad evil people, because they aren't that evil, they are just expressing these deep social forces. On that too I at least partially agree, the way we talk about and try to combat racism doesn't work very well. However, I don't have any better ideas, and making racism socially toxic, which seems to be the current more or less successful strategy, seems like an improvement on the previous status quo.

Dain said...

"Pretty much anyone who thinks about racism seriously recognizes that it is a structural problem of society that goes way deeper than the irrational hatreds of individuals."

Actually, no. Trying to parse out just where real, actual racism is at work - as opposed to some other less nefarious and often perfectly anodyne dynamic - is what Scott is trying to do. And so far it undermines the unfalsifiable voodoo that is "structural racism."

mtraven said...

And just what is "real, actual racism" according to you?

The reality of structural racism is not really controversial; the only reason I can see to call it "voodoo" is if you are a prisoner of some kind of hyperindividualist ideology. I don't find such POVs interesting. If you sincerely don't understand how it works you can start here.

Paolo Giarrusso said...

> The reality of structural racism is not really controversial; the only reason I can see to call it "voodoo"

It seems clear you sincerely want to engage with Scott. Whatever you think of structural racism, you should know in that blog such theories are considered unfalsifiable and that what's unfalsifiable is not accepted. Not because Scott is an hyperindividualist, simply because of methodological problems.
Commenting on Scott's post and seemingly being unaware of that seems... Wrong on a literary/Kuhnian sense. Like reading a Gospel without knowing about the Old Testament. I mean absolutely no offense, and the community has its own jargon sometimes, but I do mean that confusion will result.

mtraven said...

Well, if Scott and the gang really believe something that stupid than I probably don't actually want to engage with them. Structural racism is not a theory but an easily observable fact, although exactly how it works and what its consequences are are all open questions. The article I linked goes into some detail about one quantifiable aspect of it; the dollar amounts might assuage whatever ridiculous aspie rule you have about what counts as facts and what doesn't.

Maybe you are right and the epistemological gulf between me and SSC/rationalism is unbridgeable. That would be too bad, I certainly would like to engage, but I will still feel free to write posts like this because their real purpose for me is to try to clarify this gulf and understand and articulate my own positions.

mtraven said...

I knew it reminded me of someone

Dain said...

"Maybe you are right and the epistemological gulf between me and SSC/rationalism is unbridgeable."

I think it is.