Tag Archives: racism

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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Discerning Racism

The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.

From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.

Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.

Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...

Clearly racist.

has served to generate considerable attention.

Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.

The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.

As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.

One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.

Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.

A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.

There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.

Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.

In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.

People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.

It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.

While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me  a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered.  At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.

While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof  would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.

It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.

My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations.  Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.

Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.

As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.

My Amazon author page.

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The Sexist Imperative


English: Arcade fighting games

Image via Wikipedia


Being a long time gamer, I am very familiar with the vile mucous pits of sexism and racism that constitute much of the gaming habitats. Although I am not a member of any of the preferred target groups of the spewers of hate, their casual vomiting of hate causes me considerable dismay. While I have made the occasional futile attempt to correct such behavior, my usual recourse is avoidance (or the mute option).

Interestingly enough, there are those who actively defend this element of the gaming community and some of the top players are counted among this body. Most recently Aris Bakhtanians presented the sort of quality defense one would expect to given for sexism:

The sexual harassment is part of the culture. If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

One problem with this “defense” is that Bakhtanians is committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. After all, the mere fact that something has been “established” for years is no evidence that it is good, correct or even sensible. For example, people have been committing murder and rape for years, yet no one would consider these practices justified by their longstanding existence.

Another way to see the problem with this “defense” is by considering the following modification of his argument:

Slavery is part of the culture. If you remove that from the slave plantation community, it’s not the slave plantation community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

While the racism and sexism he is defending are clearly not as wicked as slavery, his reasoning does parallel the sort of “reasoning” that is regularly used to defend immoral practices. As such, his reasoning should be rejected on the grounds of its absurdity. My criticism is, of course, based on using parity of reasoning and a reductio ad absurdum.

Interestingly enough Bakhtanians seems to believe that any attempt to criticize the fighting game folks because of their  behavior would be  “ethically wrong.”

Like  Ben Kuchera at Penny Arcade, I think that this is perhaps the first time an “argument” has been given that it would be unjust to reduce sexism and racism in the gaming world (or at least the fighting game community).

On the face of it, it seems absurd to think that it would be wrong to reduce or at least criticize behavior that is itself morally wrong.  Of course, Bakhtanians does attempt to defend this sort of behavior but his defense hardly seems to be intellectually compelling. As such, he does not seem to have much of a case. On the positive side, having a high profile gamer say such things does serve to draw attention to the vile attitudes that taint the gaming community (of which I am a member) and the need to clean up these mucous pits.

He even attempts to defend this behavior by claiming that this attitude of hateful exclusion is the “beauty” and “essence” of the fighting game community:

The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this – it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it.  When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.

This sort of attitude hardly seems beautiful. It might be the “essence” of the existing community, perhaps in the same way that racism is the essence of white supremacist groups. However, this sort of essence seems to be undesirable. After all, the general idea of a community that is based on an activity like gaming should be founded on inclusion rather than exclusion. After all, this is a community of video game players and not the KKK.  In any case, the burden of proof seems to be on him to show that such sexism and racism are both morally desirable and essential to this community.

It is at this point that someone might wish to bring up the matter of free speech. I am, of course, a well-established defender of free speech. However, freedom of speech does not extend to the freedom to say things that do unwarranted harm to people. This includes intentionally creating an environment that is brutally hostile to people based simply on their gender or race and this seems to be the sort of thing that he is defending. While he thinks that being told that this is wrong is wrong, his moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction.

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The Antinomies of Privilege

There’s a tired old argument that seems to have gained a new lease of life in these less exacting times (bad internet!), which holds that privilege functions as an epistemological barrier when it comes to understanding sexism, racism, inequality, etc; and, conversely, that being part of a group that is in various ways marginalized, oppressed or subordinated confers a sort of epistemological privilege when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of that situation.

Obviously, there is a kernel of truth to this argument, but it is also highly problematic (especially for people committed to the importance of reason, evidence, etc., as mechanisms for assessing truth-claims). Here are some of the things you need to get straight about if you’re tempted to deploy this argument.

1. If you think that one’s lived experience has systematic and predictable epistemic consequences, then you have to accept that this might flow in the opposite direction to the one suggested by the argument above. In other words, it is entirely possible that structural privilege confers epistemological privilege even when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of the situations of the subordinated, marginalized, etc. This is not a particularly counterintuitive thought (indeed, one could argue that it underpins most of our ideas about education). It’s easy enough to find examples of precisely this sort of argument from amongst even those who champion the cause of the underprivileged. So, for example, you’ll find that Marxists bang on about false class consciousness, ideological state apparatuses, hegemonic projects, etc., to explain how the marginalization and powerlessness of the proletariat messes with its head so it can’t see the reality of its true situation.

2. Yes, yes, I know, it’s one thing to know something in principle, but that’s not the same as experiencing it – there’s a sort of knowledge that comes with experience (some might claim). Well, there’s certainly a sort of something that comes with experience, but whether it is knowledge, and what sort of knowledge, is a difficult issue to sort out. Consider, for example: (a) that people disagree about the nature of their experience as members of purportedly marginalized groups (and some get called “gender traitors” for their trouble); (b) that there’s a wealth of data that suggests we’re actually pretty bad at correctly understanding the situations we inhabit (and indeed, even our thoughts about these situations); and (c) that people do not necessarily experience what most us would take to be marginalized situations as being problematic (check out, for example, some of the literature on FGM; or ask yourself whether slaves in the ancient world would have accepted the legitimacy of the institution of slavery).

3. The annoying tendency of (some of) the marginalized and subordinated not to see or experience their own marginalization and subordination in quite the same terms as those of us who are less marginalized and subordinated would have it is a problem of individual differences (i.e., the fact that individuals cannot be reduced to group characteristics). This comes up in a different guise in a row that played out between socialist and radical feminists in the 1970s, and which is still relevant today. In essence, the problem is that it is… implausible to suppose that there is enough that unites all women, or the working class, for example, so that it makes sense to think mere “membership” of these groups means a common identity or interests. So, for example, the idea that the Queen of England has more in common with a working-class woman than does a working-class man, and is consequently better qualified to talk about their shared lived experience as women is… well, problematic, to say the least. (Similarly, one might consider how working-class politics in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by endless rows over pay differentials).

4. There’s an epistemological problem with the argument to epistemological privilege. Specifically, it’s not easy to see that it is possible to substantiate the claim that epistemological privilege necessarily flows from certain kinds of marginalized experience without falling into contradiction. This is because the moment you appeal to evidence, argument, etc., you are operating precisely on the terrain of epistemic equality. The trouble is if you deny that this evidence is generally accessible – if you really are committed to the view that there are certain privileged ways of knowing (and that you can’t know this to be the case unless you’re in a position of privilege) – then your position is simply an article of faith (in fact, it’s disconcertingly similar to the proof of god from religious experience).

5. Finally, there’s a rather subtle point about how you can know that some particular belief you have about your experience as a marginalized person is genuinely flowing from your epistemological privilege, rather than just being a possibly flawed everyday sort of belief. Or, to put this crudely, if you’re committed to the idea of epistemological privilege, it’s hard to see that you can ever be sure you’ve got it. Basically, the problem here is that if epistemological privilege (about certain sorts of things) belongs uniquely to the marginalized, then it seems to be required that the beliefs that are acquired via this privilege are valid even if they do not stand up to scrutiny in the court of universal reason (because if they do have to pass this test, then it seems there’s nothing in principle privileged about the epistemological situation of being marginalized – albeit de facto it might still be true that it’ll be easier to come by particular beliefs that turn out to be true if one is marginalized). However, if the court of universal reason has no jurisdiction here, it’s not clear you can subject your own beliefs to any sort of test. This is because it seems to be the case that even the most minimal of tests – for example, determining whether your beliefs are in accord with your experiences – requires that one makes use of the normal rules of rationality, evidential warrant, etc., all of which would also be available to the court of universal reason.

Okay, that’ll do for now. If you can sort that lot out, then good luck to you, you should carry on using the privilege argument. But the really cool thing here is that if you can’t sort any of it out, no problem, you can just tell yourself that these arguments are themselves a function of privilege. How lovely it must be to have recourse to a hermetically sealed argument that means you get to be right even if you have no idea why you’re right.

Is Ladies’ Night Sexist?

Ladies Night

Image by infinitewhite via Flickr

A segment on Den Hollander, a lawyer who become moderately famous for his crusade against ladies’s night drink pricing, appeared recently on the Colbert Report. This mocking segment got me thinking about this topic and the philosophical issues involved with the matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ladies’ night, this is a practice followed by many bars and nightclubs that involves free (or reduced prices on) drinks and admission for women. The objective is, of course, to lure in women with the special pricing and use the women to lure in men (who will be paying full price).

On the face of it, the claim that ladies’ night is sexist seems laughable. After all, it is simply a marketing device used to increase business and hardly a device of cruel oppression. To claim that this practice would be on par with claiming that deals limited to children (such as reduced movie prices) or the elderly (such as reduced admission prices to some parks) are cases of ageism. Since such a claim would be absurd, it would follow that the attack on ladies’ night is absurd as well.

It could also be argued that ladies night is not sexist on the basis that men are not actually being harmed by the practice. After all, while men do have to pay more than women on ladies’ night, men typically go to ladies’ night to meet women who have been knocking back the free (or cheap) drinks. As such, far from oppressing men, ladies’ night is actually advantageous to men in two ways: 1) there will be more women present and 2) their judgment will probably be impaired by alcohol.

However, it is certainly possible to argue that ladies night is sexist. After all, what the customer is being charged is based on the customer’s sex and this not does seem to provide a relevant difference that would justify a difference in pricing. As such, this would seem to be a clear case of sexism.

In regards to the analogy to special pricing for seniors and children, there are various replies that could be made. The first is that the analogy breaks down because everyone gets to be a kid (and hence can have access to the children’s specials) and everyone has a shot at being a senior (and hence can get access to those specials). In the case of sex based pricing, men do not get to become women without expensive medical procedures, and hence men will not have access to that pricing. The second is that many of the discounts are situations that involve relevant differences. For example, children’s meals are often less because they are smaller than adult portions. As such, the analogy seems to fail.

It can also be argued that age based specials are, in fact, cases of ageism. After all, in those cases in which there are no relevant differences (such as portion size), then a difference in treatment would seem to be ageist in nature. Likewise for ladies’ night.

Another approach to arguing that ladies night is sexist is to consider whether or not the following would be a case of racism. Imagine, if you will, a night club that offers (in addition to ladies’ night) a whites’ night. On white night, whites get free admission and free drinks , while non-whites have to pay the normal prices. No one is excluded based on race, it is just that whites get special pricing for that night. I am inclined to believe that whites’ night would be regarded as a sexist event. However, it seems no more racist than ladies’ night is sexist.

It might, of course, be argued that whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.

While this is a point worth considering, accepting this sort of reasoning would seem to involve accepting that without an established history of sexism or racism against people of type X, then an action cannot be sexist or racist against people of type X. This would mean, obviously enough, that racism and sexism could never occur. After all, there could be no racist or sexist acts prior to racism and sexism and there could be no racism and sexism prior to racist acts.

It might be replied that ladies’ night is not really sexism or at least not a big deal because it is such a small thing. After all, allowing women to have free drinks while men must pay hardly seems like a big deal. It is not like men are being denied the right to vote or being denied access to scholarships that are only for women. There is no systematic or wide scale oppression; just a difference in drink prices.

That reply does have some appeal. After all, it actually is a little thing and people generally find it laughable that anyone would be concerned about something so silly. However, the fact that something is a little thing does not mean that it is not sexist.

In light of the above arguments, it seems reasonable to believe that ladies’ night is actually sexist. As compensation for years of cruel oppression, I only ask that the ladies buy me a drink now and then.

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Tea & Satire

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

Folks outside of the States are probably wondering, as usual, what the hell we Americans are up to with our Tea Parties and whatnot. The Brits will be glad to know that we are not messing with their tea this time around. Instead, we are busy spilling our own tea.

While our latest Tea Party is about politics, I won’t be focusing on that aspect in this post. Rather, I’ll use a recent incident as a concrete foundation for a brief discussion of satire.

Satire can be a rather sharp sword and can easily cut the hand that forged it. Mark Williams has been wounded by his own satirical blade: he  decided to leave the Tea Party Express due to the fallout generated by his blog.

Satire, being a form of comedy, falls within the realm of the ugly. As Aristotle argued, it involves presenting “some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” That, then, is the challenge of satire-being ugly, but not crossing into the realm of pain and destruction.  Crossing that line transforms the satire into the merely mean. As one might expect, discerning where the line lies does involve considering the purpose of the satire being examined.

I will, of course, admit the obvious: the line between the satirical and the merely mean is not an exact one. However, when someone crosses deep into the realm of the merely mean, that can often be readily seen.

Williams, I think, crossed that line.

Perhaps his failure at satire was due merely to a lack of skill rather than, as some have argued, racism. I will not render a judgment on this, but will merely consider the content of his post.

His post was supposed to be a fictional letter to Lincoln from the “Coloreds” and it begins as follows:

“Dear Mr. Lincoln, we Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”

While it is tempting to claim that any use of “Coloreds” must be racism, that would be an error.  While it is a rather sharp term, satire deals in sharp terms and hence almost no term can be excluded as unfit for use. However, the sharper the term being employed, he more deftly the satirist must handle his tools lest he be cut to the bone.

Williams does not seem to have handled the term particularly well, at least in terms of his avowed purpose of lampooning those who had raised concerns about racism and the tea party. After all, trying to satirize charges of racism by merely presenting racial stereotypes is hardly a demonstration of skilled handling. Using the term “cotton” is also rather questionable. After all, in the United States linking “coloreds” and “cotton” is a stock tool of racism.

As another example, consider the following:

“Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bailouts directly to us coloreds!”

I can see, somewhat, what Williams might have been attempting here. Perhaps he was trying to make the point that to see the Tea Party’s opposition to bailout’s as racism would itself be racist, presumably because it would be based on racist stereotypes about “Coloreds.” However, it seems to come across in a different way, namely that it asserts that “Coloreds” love welfare and hence oppose the Tea Party’s opposition to bailouts (which are seen as welfare). Thus, far from refuting the charge of racism via a clever satire, it rather seems to provide evidence for said racism.

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The Racism Monster

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Franke...

Image via Wikipedia

Once upon a time, in a place nearby, there were two monsters. One was the monster of racism. He was the metaphor of the evils of racism. Like Frankenstein’s creation, he was stitched together of various parts. These parts included specific things such as antisemitism and general things like bigotry. While this beast was sometimes well loved by certain people, it is now regarded widely as a monster.

The brother of this monster is the racism monster. Ironically, those who fought against the monster of racism helped spawn this metaphorical menace. In their attempt to defeat the monster of racism, they helped create a metaphorical killing machine that swiftly and mercilessly attacks almost anyone who attracts its attention.

The most recent victim of the racism monster is Shirley Sherrod.  An incomplete video of her was posted on YouTube which seemed to provide evidence that she was racist. In response to the video, she was pressured into resigning and the NAACP issued  a statement condemning her. Naturally, certain conservative pundits were having a field day.

All this was done, it must be said, without anyone actually reviewing the entire video or considering the full facts of the situation. The racism monster, it could be argued,  struck swiftly, savagely and mindlessly.

If it had turned out that the monster had actually struck down a racist, then perhaps it could have been forgiven for its zeal.  However, the full video seems to make it clear that the allegedly racist incident was actually an experience that changed her views. The evidence also shows that she helped the farmer in question and the fact that the farmer’s wife is defending her lends credence to these claims.  Other important details include the fact that the incident she mentioned  took place long before she worked for the USDA and that her record shows no signs of racism. These facts were, obviously enough, not considered by the Obama administration nor by the NAACP.

I suspect that one reason the NAACP rushed to judgment is because of their recent condemnation of the Tea Party for racism. When they heard a black woman saying what appeared to be racist things, they probably worried that if they waited, they would be accused of following a double standard-condemning white racism while condoning black racism. While this is understandable, such a condemnation should be based on facts and it is reasonable to expect at least a minimal investigation (such as viewing the entire video). Such a leap to judgment and condemnation is, to say the least, unjust. Even if she were, in fact, a racist, the NAACP had a moral obligation to properly confirm this.

Interestingly, Roland Martin appeared on CNN to defend the NAACP’s condemnation. While he admitted that the NAACP had not seen the whole video, he argued that people in government should censor themselves and not say anything that could taken as racism. He did note that this was a matter of political reality rather than a desirable situation.

While I do agree that it is wise to watch what one says, my real concern is with the existence of the political reality in question. If people need to be worried that even a story about how they overcame their past biases can be taken as proof of racism, then there is something seriously wrong with the political reality.

In the case of the administration, they also worry a great deal about race matters. While it is morally correct to remove known racists from such positions, there is also a moral obligation to investigate such allegations thoroughly. If Sherrod had been charged with committing a criminal offense, presumably her guilt or innocence would need to be established before she could be fired. However, in the case of a charge of racism the assumption is clearly that a person is guilty until she can prove otherwise.

While the monster of racism is a fearsome beast, letting the racism monster run free is not a solution. While we should condemn racism, we have a moral obligation to confirm before condemning.

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