Tag Archives: racism

H.P. Lovecraft & Racism

HPL 2015Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was my gateway drug to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His works shaped my view of horror and led me to write adventures and monographs for Chaosium. I am rather pleased that one of my creations is now included among the Great Old Ones. I even co-authored a paper on Lovecraft with physicist Paul Halpern. While Lovecraft is well known for the horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos, he is becoming well known for another sort of horror, namely racism.

When I was a kid, I was rather blind to the prejudices expressed in Lovecraft’s writings—I was much more focused on the strange vistas, sanity blasting beings, and the warping of space and time. As I grew older, I became aware of the casual prejudices expressed towards minorities and his special horror of “mongrel races.” However, I was unsure of whether he was truly a racist or trapped just expressing a common world view of his (and our) time. Which, to be honest, can be regarded as racist. Since I rather like Lovecraft’s writings, I was a bit disturbed as revelations about his racism began to pile up.

For the past forty years the World Fantasy Convention has given World Fantasy awards that take the form of a bust of Lovecraft. Nnedi Okorafor won a WFA in 2011 and was rather disturbed to find that Lovecraft had written a racist poem. While not as surprising as the revelation that Dr. Seuss  drew racist cartoons,  such evidence of blatant racism certainly altered my view of Lovecraft as a person.

As should be expected, there have been efforts to defend Lovecraft. One of the most notable defenders is S.T. Joshi, one of the leading authorities on the author. The defense of Lovecraft follows a fairly stock approach used to address the issue of whether or not artists’ personal qualities or actions should be relevant to the merit of their art. I turn now to considering some of these stock arguments.

One stock defense is the “product of the times” defense: although Lovecraft was racist, nearly everyone was racist in that time period. This defense does have some merit in that it is reasonable to consider the social and moral setting in which an artist lived. After all, artists have no special immunity to social influences. To use an analogy, consider the stock feminist arguments regarding the harmful influence of the patriarchal culture, sexist imagery, sexist language and unrealistic body images on young women. The argument is often made that young woman are shaped by these forces and develop low self-esteem, become more likely to have eating disorders, and develop unrealistic images of how they should look and behave. If these cultural influences can have such a devastating impact on young women, it is certainly easy enough to imagine the damaging impact of a culture awash in racism upon the young Lovecraft. Just as a young woman inundated by photoshopped images of supermodels can develop a distorted view of reality, a young person exposed to racism can develop a distorted view of reality. And, just as one would not hold the young woman responsible for her distorted self-image, one should not hold the young racist accountable for his distorted other-image.

It can be countered that the analogy does not hold. While young women can be mentally shaped by the patriarchal influences of the culture and are not morally accountable for this, people are fully responsible for accepting racism even in a culture that is flooded with racism, such as the United States in the 1900s. As such, Lovecraft is fully to blame for his racist views and his condemnation is justified. The challenge is, of course, to work out how some cultural factors can shape people in ways that excuse them and other shaping leaves people morally accountable.

Another reply is that this stock argument is a version of the appeal to common practice fallacy—a fallacy that occurs when a practice is defended on the grounds that it is commonly done. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not justify that practice. So, although racism was common in Lovecraft’s day, this does not serve as a defense of his views.

A second stock defense is that the artist has other traits that offset the negative qualities in question. In the case of Lovecraft, the defense is that he was intelligent, generous and produced works of considerable influence and merit. This defense does have some appeal—after all, everyone has negative traits and a person should be assessed by the totality of her being, not her worst quality taken in isolation.

While this is a reasonable reply, it only works to the degree that a person’s good qualities offset the negative qualities. After all, there are many awful people who are kind to their own pets or loved some other people. As such, a consideration of this defense would require weighing the evil of Lovecraft with the good. One factor well worth considering is that although Lovecraft wrote racist things and thought racist thoughts, there is the question of whether his racism led him to actually harm anyone. While it might be claimed that racism itself is crime enough, it does seem to matter whether or not he actually acted on this racism to the detriment of others. This, of course, ties into the broader philosophical issue of the moral importance of thoughts versus the moral importance of actions.

Another concern with this defense is that even if a person’s positive traits outweigh the negative, this does not erase the negative traits. So even if Lovecraft was a smart and generous racist, he was still a racist. Which is certainly grounds for condemnation.

A third, and especially intriguing stock defense against one moral flaw is to argue that the flaw is subsumed in a far greater flaw. In the case of Lovecraft, it could be argued that his specific racism is subsumed into his general misanthropic view of humanity. While there is some debate about the extent of his (alleged) misanthropy, this does have some appeal. After all, if Lovecraft disliked humans in general, his racism against specific ethnic groups would be part of that overall view and not racism in the usual sense. Many of Lovecraft’s stories (such as in “the Picture in the House”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, ‘the Rats in the Walls”, and “the Dunwich Horror”) feature the degeneracy and villainy of those of European stock. The descriptions of the degenerated whites are every bit as condemning and harsh as his descriptions of people of other ethnicities. As such, Lovecraft cannot be accused of being a racist—unless his racism is cast as being against all humans.

One counter to this is to point out that being awful in general is not a defense of being awful in a particular way. Another counter is that while Lovecraft did include degenerate white people, he also wrote in very positive ways about some white characters—something he did not do for any other ethnicities. This, it could be argued, does support the claim that Lovecraft was racist.

A final stock defense is to argue that the merits of artists’ works are independent of the personal qualities of the artists. What matters, it can be argued, is the quality of the work itself. One way to argue for this is to use an analogy from my own past.

Years ago, when I was a young cross country runner, there was a very good runner at another college. This fellow regularly placed in and even won races—he was, without a doubt, one of the best runners in the conference. However, he was almost universally despised—so much so that people joked that the only reason no one beat him up was because they could not catch him. Despite his being hated, his fellow runners had to acknowledge the fact that he was a good runner and merited all the victories. The same would seem to apply in the case of an artist like Lovecraft: his works should be assessed on their own merits and not on his personality traits.

Another way to make the argument is to point out the fact that an artist having positive qualities does not make the art better. A person might be a moral saint, but this does not mean that her guitar playing skill will be exceptional. A person might be kind to animals and devoted to the wellbeing of others, but this will not enhance his poetry. So, if the positive traits of an artist do not improve a work, it should follow that negative traits do not make the work worse.

This then leads to the concern that an artist’s personality qualities might corrupt a work. To go back to the running analogy, if the despised runner was despised because he cheated at the races, then the personality traits that made him the object of dislike would be relevant to assessing the merit of his performances. Likewise, if the racism of a racist author infects his works, then this could be regarded as reducing their merit. This leads to the issue of whether or not such racism actually detracts from the merit of a work, which is a lengthy issue for another time.

My own view of Lovecraft is that his racism made him a worse person. However, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering). As such, Lovecraft should be condemned for his racism, but given due praise for the value of his work and his contribution to modern horror.


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Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Race & Performance Based Funding

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school in performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: there net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.


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Narratives, Violence & Terror

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.


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Race Nominalism

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.


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Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

One in a series of posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been argued that everyone is a little bit racist. Various studies have shown that black America are treated rather differently than white Americans. Examples of this include black students being more likely to be suspended than white students, blacks being arrested at a higher rate than whites, and job applications with “black sounding” names being less likely to get callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person. There are, of course, many other studies and examples that support the claim that everyone is a little bit racist.

Given the evidence, it would seem reasonable to accept the claim that everyone is a little bit racist. It is, of course, also an accepted view in certain political circles. However, there seems to be something problematic with claiming that everyone is racist, even if it is the claim that the racism is of the small sort.

One point of logical concern is that inferring that all people are at least a little racist on the basis of such studies would be problematic. Rather, what should be claimed is that the studies indicate the presence of racism and that these findings can be generalized to the entire population. But, this could be dismissed as a quibble about induction.

Some people, as might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because to be accused of racism is rather offensive. Some, as also might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because they claim that racism has ended in America, hence people are not racist. Not even a little bit. Other might complain that the accusation is a political weapon that is wielded unjustly. I will not argue about these matters, but will instead focus on another concern, that of the concept of racism in this context.

In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.

To use an analogy, consider the matter of lying. A liar, put informally, is someone who makes a claim that she does not believe with the intention of getting others to accept it as true. Since there is considerable evidence that people engage in this behavior, it can be claimed that everyone is a little bit of a liar. That is, everyone has told a lie.

Another analogy would be to being an abuser. Presumably each person has been at least a bit mean or cruel to another person she has been in a relationship with (be it a family relationship, a friendship or a romantic relationship). This would thus entail that everyone is at least a little bit abusive.

The analogies could continue almost indefinitely, but it will suffice to end them here, with the result that we are all racist, abusive liars.

On the one hand, the claim is true. I have been prejudiced. I have lied. I have been mean to people I love. I have engaged in addictive behavior. The same is likely to be true of even the very best of us. Since we have lied, we are liars. Since we have abused, we are abusers. Since we have prejudice and have discriminated based on race, we are racists.

On the other hand, the claim is problematic. After all, to judge someone to be a racist, an abuser, or a liar is to make a strong moral judgment of the person. For example, imagine the following conversation:

Sam: “I’m interested in your friend Sally. You know her pretty well…what is she like?”

Me: “She is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “But…she seems so nice.”

Me: “She is. In fact, she’s one of the best people I know.”

Sam: “But you said she is a liar and a racist.”

Me: “Oh, she is. But just a little bit.”

Sam: “What?”

Me: “Well, she told me that when she was in college, she lied to a guy to avoid going on a date. She also said that when she was a kid, she thought white people were all racists and would not be friends with them. So, she is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “I don’t think you know what those words mean.”

The point is, of course, that terms like “racist”, “abuser” and “liar” have what can be regarded as proper moral usage. To be more specific, because these are such strong terms, they should be applied in cases in which they actually fit. For example, while anyone who lies is technically a liar, the designation of being a liar should only apply to someone who routinely engages in that behavior. That is, a person who has a moral defect in regards to honesty. Likewise, anyone who has a prejudice based on race or discriminates based on race is technically a racist. However, the designation of racist should be reserved for those who have the relevant moral defect—that is, racism is their way of being, as opposed to failing to be perfectly unbiased. As such, using the term “racist” (or “liar”) in claiming that “everyone is a little bit racist” (or “everyone is little bit of a liar”) either waters down the moral term or imposes too harsh a judgment on the person. Either way would be problematic.

So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it? My suggestion is to speak instead of people being subject to race linked biases. While saying “we are all subject to race linked biases” is less attention grabbing than “we are all a little bit racist”, it seems more honest as a description.


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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism

Opposition poster for the 1866 election. Geary...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was asked to write a post about the ad baculum in the context of sexism and racism. To start things off, an ad baculum is a common fallacy that, like most common fallacies, goes by a variety of names. This particular fallacy is also known as appeal to fear, appeal to force and scare tactics. The basic idea is quite straightforward and the fallacy has a simple form:

Premise: Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).

Conclusion:  Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).


This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people (or threatening them) does not constitute evidence that a claim is true. This tactic can be rather effective as a persuasive device since fear can be an effective motivator for belief. But, there is a distinction between a logical reason to accept a claim as true and a motivating reason to believe that a claim is true.

Like all fallacies, ad baculums will serve any master, so they can be employed as a device in “support” of any claim. In the days when racism and sexism were rather more overt in America, ad baculums were commonly employed in the hopes of motivating people to accept (or at least not oppose) racism and sexism. Naturally, the less subtle means of direct threats and physical violence (up to and including murder) were deployed as well.

In the United States of 2014, overt racism and sexism are regarded as unacceptable and those who make racist or sexist claims sometimes find themselves the object of public disapproval. In some cases, making such claims can cost a person his job.

In some cases, it will be claimed that the claims were not actually racist or sexist. In other cases, the racism or sexism will not be denied, but an appeal will be made to freedom of expression and concerns will be raised that a person is being denied his rights when he is subject to a backlash for remarks that some might regard as racist or sexist.

Given that people are sometimes subject to negative consequences for making claims that are seen by some as racist or sexist, it is not unreasonable to consider that ad baculums are sometimes deployed to limit free expression. That is, that the threat of some sort of retaliation is used to persuade people to accept certain claims. Or, at the very least, used in an attempt to silence people.

It is rather important to be clear about an important distinction between an appeal to fear (using fear to get people to believe) and there being negative consequences for a person’s actions. For example, if someone says “you know, young professor, that we carefully consider a person’s view on race and sex before granting tenure…so I certainly hope that you are with us in your beliefs and actions”, then that is an appeal to fear: the young professor is supposed to agree with her colleagues and believe that claims are true because she has been threatened. But, if a young professor realizes that she will fired for yelling things like “go back to England, white devil honkey crackers male-pigs” at her white male students and elects not to do so, she is not a victim of an appeal to fear. To use another example, if I refrain from shouting obscenities at the Dean because I would rather not be fired, I am not a victim of ad baculum. As a final example, if I decide not to say horrible things about my friends because I know that they would reconsider their relationship to me, then I am not a victim of an ad baculum. As such, an ad baculum is not that a person faces potential negative consequences for saying things, it is that a person is supposed to accept a claim as true on the basis of “evidence” that is merely a threat or something intended to create fear. As such, the fact that making claims that could be taken as sexist or racist could result in negative consequences does not entail that anyone is a victim of ad baculum in this context.

What some people seem to be worried about is the possibility of a culture of coercion (typically regarded as leftist) that aims at making people conform to a specific view about sex and race. If there were such a culture or system of coercion that aimed at making people accept claims about race and gender using threats as “evidence”, then there would certainly be ad baculums being deployed.

I certainly will not deny that there are some people who do use ad baculums to try to persuade people to believe claims about sex and race. However, there is the reasonable question of how much this actually impacts discussions of race and gender. There is, of course, the notion that the left has powerful machinery in place to silence dissent and suppress discussions of race and sex that deviate from their agenda. There is also the notion that this view is a straw man of the reality of the situation.

One point of reasonable concern is considering the distinction between views that can be legitimately regarded as warranting negative consequences (that is, a person gets what she deserves for saying such things) and views that should be seen as legitimate points of view, free of negative consequences. For example, if I say that you are an inferior being who is worthy only of being my servant and unworthy of the rights of a true human, then I should certainly expect negative consequences and would certainly deserve some of them.

Since I buy into freedom of expression, I do hold that people should be free to express views that would be regarded as sexist and racist. However, like J.S. Mill, I also hold that people are subject to the consequences of their actions. So, a person is free to tell us one more thing he knows about the Negro, but he should not expect that doing so will be free of consequences.

There is also the way in which such views are considered. For example, if I were to put forth a hypothesis about gender role for scientific consideration and was willing to accept the evidence for or against my hypothesis, then this would be rather different than just insisting that women are only fit for making babies and sandwiches. Since I believe in freedom of inquiry, I accept that even hypotheses that might be regarded as racist or sexist should be given due consideration if they are properly presented and tested according to rigorous standards. For example, some claim that women are more empathetic and even more ethical than men. While that might seem like a sexist view, it is a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can be tested and thus confirmed or disconfirmed. Likewise, the claim that men are better suited for leadership might seem like a sexist view, it is also a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can presumably be investigated. As a final example, inquiring whether or not men are being pushed out of higher education is also a matter of legitimate inquiry—and one I have pursued.

If someone is merely spewing hate and nonsense, I am not very concerned if he gets himself into trouble. After all, actions have consequences. However, I am concerned about the possibility that scare tactics might be used to limit freedom of expression in the context of discussions about race and sex. The challenge here is sorting between cases of legitimate discussion/inquiry and mere racism or sexism.

As noted above, I have written about the possibility of sexism against men in current academics—but I have never been threatened and no attempt has been made to silence me. This might well be because my work never caught the right (or wrong) eyes or it might be because my claims are made as a matter of inquiry and rationally argued. Because of my commitment to these values, I am quite willing to consider examples of cases where sensible and ethical people have attempted to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or inquiry in regards to race or sex and have been subject to attempts to silence them. I am sure there are examples and welcome their inclusion in the comments section.


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“One more thing I know about the Negro.”


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the election and re-election of President Obama, some Americans seriously considered the notion that America had become a post-racial country. Seemingly acting in accord with this notion, the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings based on an assumption that racism is no longer a significant factor in America. Things seemed good, at least in that perception of reality. And then Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling started talking.

Cliven Bundy originally gained national fame when the federal government decided to seize his cattle in response to his illegally grazing his cattle on federal land for decades. Some conservative politicians, Fox News personalities and armed militia rushed to his defense—to stand between law enforcement and someone accused of stealing from the government.

Not surprisingly, some critics pointed out that Bundy seemed to be engaged in all that conservatives profess to hate, namely sponging off the government, breaking the law and defying legal authority. Sean Hannity emerged as his staunchest media defender, despite the fact that Hannity had, on previous shows, denounced and railed against people who had done the same sorts of things—namely sponging off the state and breaking the law.

In an interesting, but perhaps not surprising, turn of events, Bundy made some claims that most people would regard as rather racist: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, many of those who had rushed to embrace him suddenly released their grip and ran to put as much daylight as they could between themselves and their former hero. This distancing could be dismissed as mere political theater and not an expression of actual distaste. That is, it might be claimed that his former supporters abandoned him not because of their own moral commitments but because they are well aware that overt racism no longer sells as well as it did.

After the Bundy story started cooling down in the media, Donald Sterling gained the spotlight when a recording of him making racist comments was leaked to the public. While Sterling’s views on race and gender have not been a secret, these remarks resulted in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life from NBA events and imposing a $2.5 million fine. There is also talk of compelling him to sell his team (based on the clause regarding damage done by an owner’s actions).

Not surprisingly, Sterling has been widely condemned and his punishment applauded. Sponsors and advertisers have also pulled away from the Clippers. While this might seem like a victory for morality, it seems unlikely that the NBA and the sponsors were primarily motivated by ethics. After all, Sterling is well known for his views and racism has been evil since, well, the advent of racism. The more plausible explanation is that Sterling’s words did financial damage to the NBA and failure to publicly punish him would probably have cost the NBA a considerably amount of money. As such, this was a triumph of money and not morality. In the case of Bundy, it was a triumph of politics and not principle. Or perhaps not.

While it is certainly reasonable to explain the response of the politicians and pundits in terms of political expediency and the response of the NBA in terms of financial expediency, there are reasons why racism now comes with a high cost politically and financially. One explanation popular with some is that there is a liberal conspiracy to punish people for being racists—that the liberals are somehow in the wrong for considering racists to be wrong and imposing penalties on them for their racism. Perhaps this is based on the belief that the liberals are not sincere and that race is just a political game-piece to them. This speculation is, of course, based on an “unknown fact” about the secret motive of liberals.

Another explanation is that while racism remains, the arc of the moral universe has bent further towards justice and now most Americans correctly regard racism as evil—or at least it is recognized as something that is to be publicly condemned. If this is the case, then while America is not post-racial, at least it is further along the moral arc. This is, as Dr. King had claimed, a step towards making good on the promise of America—we profess to hold all people to be created equal and to be endowed with inalienable rights. We also claim to believe in liberty and justice for all.  Because we seem to be taking these moral principles seriously, racism is now quite costly—so much so that it factors strongly in the pragmatic decisions of politicians and businesspeople.


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Islam, racists, and legitimate debate

A version of this post was published as “Islam and ‘Islamophobia’ – a little manifesto” on my personal blog, over a year ago now. You can look up the earlier version if you’re interested in the changes, which are intended, in part, to produce some extra clarity, but especially to develop some thoughts at the end. Both versions are based on a longer discussion of related issues that was eventually published earlier this year in my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

First, I acknowledge that it doesn’t settle all the questions about criticism of Islam to point out that Islam is a belief system, or a set of overlapping belief systems, rather than a category based on ancestry or so-called “racial” characteristics. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But if we simply think of Islam as a “race” and treat criticism of it as racism, we can go very wrong.

Let’s accept – as I think we should – that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a kind quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. It is not coincidental that much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right, such as the Front National in France and the British National Party in the UK. These organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism – combined with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered “Christian identity”. They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change.

Once that’s noted, an obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share the values of the extreme right is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam have (sometimes) gained a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., these figures have sometimes attacked such practices as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador.

At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. The extreme right exploits and encourages an environment where all this is possible. In the circumstances, it is unsurprising when a phenomenon such as Islamophobia is identified by academics, political commentators, and public intellectuals… and steps are taken to combat it.

This situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, there is a risk that the word “Islamophobia” – or, as we are now seeing, even the more dramatic word “racism” – will be used to vilify, demonize, and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islam is genuinely based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favorable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism.

Even attacks on Islam that are made opportunistically – motivated by something like racist thinking, or by extreme kinds of national or cultural supremacism – cannot be dismissed out of hand as worthless. To be clearer, attacks on Islam that are opportunistic and ill-motivated may repeat critiques that originally had merit, and still have merit in themselves.

After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism, secularism, etc. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and practices associated with it. Whether or not they are put in good faith by organizations such as the BNP – and I take it they are not – nothing precludes them also being put sincerely, and perhaps cogently, by others who are genuinely passionate about the issues.

Thus, there are legitimate reasons for some people who are not racists, cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain forms of Islam, especially heavily political varieties, or to express hostility towards it. People can legitimately disapprove of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, and of the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures. Accordingly, expressions of disapproval or repudiation cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they must be racially motivated. Such dismissals are, moreover, all-too-convenient for those who wish to stifle genuine criticism of Islam.

A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of Islam, or some of its forms, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of “Islamophobia.” When these accusations are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they may also intimidate some individuals into silence. This suggests that we should understand that quasi-racism does not underlie all attacks on Islam. Quite the contrary. In particular, it would be wise, and only fair, to avoid painting individual critics of Islam as members, or dupes, of the extreme right without additional evidence.

There is also a lesson for critics of Islam, and associated practices, who do not identify with the extreme right. For a start, they need to understand the situation, including the extreme right’s co-option of mainstream issues and arguments. This may lead to greater patience with opponents who make the charge of Islamophobia, though it hardly makes the charge more palatable (and I must say that I find it difficult to maintain my patience when I see people who are palpably not racists being maligned).

At a more practical level, opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right’s sympathizers or dupes would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey. Where practical, they should explain their positions with as much nuance as possible, distance themselves from extreme-right figures making similar arguments, and avoid sharing platforms with them.

But usually these people do take some care. When they do so it would be good for debate on these sensitive issues if their disclaimers were presumed to be in good faith. Furthermore, there are limits. The words “where practical” are important, because what is practical in, say, a philosophical essay may not be practical in a satirical cartoon, or even in a polemical book aimed at a popular audience.

I’m a philosopher, so unsurprisingly I prefer to read material that is written in a reasonably civil, thoughtful way, but even if you try to do this you don’t have to walk on eggshells or adopt a defensive, hedged tone that makes you sound boring and bland. If you do end up saying some things that are false, or exaggerated, or unfairly snarky, or in need of qualification, other people can, quite properly, pick you up on it. That is all part of the back-and-forth of discussion in the public square.

But neither you nor those other people should be trying to bully ideas about important, yet difficult, topics off the table (to use a phrase that I picked up from Jean Kazez). It’s one thing to be clear and forthright, or even to use devices such as satire or ad absurdum arguments: you might be able to show that an opponent is logically committed to something untenable and even crazy-sounding unless she modifies her view. But trashing an opponent’s reputation, such as by falsely labeling him or her as a racist, is an unfair, intimidating, and fundamentally anti-intellectual tactic. This really shouldn’t have to be said, but increasingly I think it does have to be said .. said and repeated.

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