Tag Archives: racism

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.

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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...

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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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The State & Discrimination

Image via Wikipedia

One rather important subject is the role that the state should play in regards to discrimination. Put roughly, this is a question about the extent of the scope of the state’s power to regulate citizens.

I will be begin with the obvious: the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion. This would include the military as well as civilian organizations like NASA and ESA. The basis for this is that a democratic state founded on a principle of equality seems to be obligated to provide equal opportunity to its citizens. To exclude certain citizens on illegitimate grounds would be to rob them of the rights of other citizens in an unjust manner and this would, obviously enough, be wrong.

Moving to a bit less obvious realm, there is the public realm that is not directly part of the state. This would include private schools, private companies, other business entities and so on. On one hand, it could be argued that private entities should be able to exclude whoever they wish. For example, female only gyms should be allowed to legally exclude men (which they, in fact, do). On the other hand, even private entities enjoy the benefits of the state and are under its umbrella, so to speak. As such, if they accept the benefits of the state, then they cannot discriminate against the citizens of the state.

Of course, a private entity could refuse all the goods of the state and this would presumably allow them to discriminate.  In short, they would withdraw from the public realm and into the purely private and personal realm. Of course, they would have to refuse everything-road access, police & fire protection, and so on. In fact, they would actually have to leave the state. But then they would be free to do as they wished.

One area where the state seems to have no right to intrude is in the case of purely personal, private relationships. To use an obvious example, a beautiful woman might refuse to date poor or ugly men. She might even refuse to date black men, white men or Jews.  While this would be discrimination, this is entirely within the realm of her private, personal life. As such, the state has no business being involved. Of course, buying into this principle would also involve accepting that many existing laws that limit private behavior would need to be repealed.

Of course, the border between the personal and the public can be debated. For example, suppose that the woman mentioned above runs her own escort service. While she can freely refuse to date ugly men, black men, white men, or Jews does she have the right to refuse a client simply because he his ugly, black, white or a Jew? On the face of it, she would be acting in the public realm (in a business context). As such, she would no longer be operating within the realm of the purely private and personal.

However, some folks do argue that businesses should be largely left alone by the state. In a true free market economy, one might argue, the business realm would be a private matter (they do not call it “private sector” for nothing). As such, businesses could elect to refuse to do business with or hire certain people. Those who are fond of a totally free market but who are not so keen on discrimination would probably argue that discriminatory businesses would be sorted out by the invisible hand. After all, they would be denying themselves customers and employees. There is also the matter of the impact of such policies on the reputation of the business.

In light of the above discussion, one key matter that must be settled is the border between the public and the private. After all, the state seems to have far less right to intrude into private matters.

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Obama, Race and Comedy

I recently heard a bit on the radio about comedy and Obama. The point was raised that white comedians are tending to avoid making fun of Obama out of fear of seeming racist. It was also said that the Obama victory has helped bring greater opportunities for black comedians-they will be needed because they can make fun of Obama without seeming racist. This does raise interesting issues about race and comedy.

I teach a class on Aesthetics and have included a discussion of race and comedy for the past several years. Naturally, when I teach the class this spring we will no doubt be discussing this issue as it relates to Obama.

The general consensus in the class has been that race is quite relevant when it comes to the question of who can make fun of whom and in what manner. Content is, of course, relevant and presumably any comedian could cross the line into racism. Put roughly, I’ve found that the majority of students think that comedians can “mock up and across”, but that “mocking down” is not acceptable. “Mocking up” means to make jokes towards those who are seen, as a class, to have more power. Or, as one student put it, “towards the oppressors.” For example, women making fun of men could be seen as “mocking up” as could blacks making fun of whites. “Mocking across” is to mock other groups that are seen as being at the same level. Obviously, one’s own group would be included here. For example, a Hispanic comedian making jokes about Hispanics or blacks might be seen as “mocking across” because Hispanics and blacks are seen as being oppressed by whites. “Mocking down” has often been seen as being unacceptable by my students, mainly because such humor can be seen as part of the tools of oppression. For example, it might be regarded as belittling or condescending.

In contrast, “Mocking up” can be regarded as an act of defiance against the oppressor classes and “mocking across” could be seen as comradely. Obviously enough, this sort of view takes the notion of oppressors and oppressed very seriously (even in comedy).

This view does have some plausibility. However, the fact that Obama is the President elect does change the power dynamic. Any comedian making fun of Obama would be “mocking up”, unless the comedian also happens to be a world leader as well. In this case, she would be “mocking across.” As such, it would seem to be fine for white comedians to make fun of Obama.

Then again, it might be the case that the direction of mocking (up, down or across) depends not on the individuals but the status of the classes they belong to. Since Obama is black, for white comedians to make fun of him would be “mocking down” because whites as a class are above blacks as a class on the power curve. So, until blacks and whites are on equal footing, white comedians will need to be careful in what they say about Obama (and the next black President).

Race can also be taken to matter in ways other than in terms of classes and power. I have heard people argue that it is acceptable for the members of one race to make fun of their own race, but not others. This has often been based on the view that a person cannot be racist to his own race. For example, David Alan Grier can present comedic pieces on Chocolate News based on black stereotypes without being racist because he is black. Some people extend this privilege to all minorities in terms of comedians from one minority making jokes about another minority. Not surprisingly, whites are fair game for everyone.

Of course, it seems obvious that a person can be racist towards his own race and that being in a minority is not proof against racism. This can easily be shown. Imagine you heard someone expressing all the hateful stereotypes about blacks and his hatred of blacks. You would no doubt think “what a racist.” But, suppose when you saw him, he turned out to be black. Would you then say, “well, I guess he is no racist after all”? Obviously not. Naturally, I have in mind the fictional blind black racist from the Chapelle Show.

In the case of why a minority can be racist, simply imagine that the white population became a minority and that people in the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups still held the views they do now. It would be absurd to say “well, since whites are a minority, the KKK is suddenly not racist.” Mere numbers, one suspects, is not a decisive factor in defining what is racist.

It might be thought that race provides a person with a special status that allows certain behavior between members of that race that is denied to others. An obvious example is the use of the N-word. I sometimes hear black students using that term when referring to each other and people generally do not take offense (there have been some rather notable exceptions). Obviously, if a white student started throwing the word around, things would be just a bit different. Perhaps the same applies to comedy.

Of course, the view that race grants such special comedic and language privileges does seem to be a bit racist. This is because it is based on the assumption that racial distinctions are real and that people are to be granted certain privileges because they belong to a particular race. So, to think that white comedians cannot make fun of Obama without being racist and that black comedians can safely do so because they are black would seem to be a racist view. After all, race would be the deciding factor rather than the content of the comedy. Obviously, there can be racist comedy-but the color of the comedian should not be the determining factor.

So, everyone should be free to make fun of Obama (within the limits of comedic taste, of course). He is the President of all Americans and we have a God given right to make jokes about whoever sits in that oval office regardless of race, creed or color.

Mohawk in America

Now that Obama is President, people are talking a great deal about race-at least in terms of blacks and whites. There is, on occasion, some side mention of Hispanics and Asians-perhaps as a modest acknowledgment that there are people who are not black or white in America. However, I almost never see references to Native Americans. For example, I carefully followed the political discussions of the white voters, the black voters and the Hispanic voters. However, I cannot recall any mention of the Native American voters. After the election, I began reading about race in America and, once again, the emphasis was on blacks and whites. Asians and Hispanics are, once again, sometimes mentioned on the side. However, Native Americans are consistently left out. In this way, and in many others, Native Americans seem to be invisible in their own country. Of course, they do get a bit of the spotlight in November-people remember the Indians when they serve the Thanksgiving Turkey. After that, Indians go back to being seen mainly as mascots for sports teams.

Naturally, I wonder why Native Americans are so consistently ignored.

One reason might be the desire to avoid reminding people about what happened in America. Massive theft and attempted genocide tend to be things that most people would rather forget. Perhaps it is a subconscious thing, perhaps not. Or perhaps this is not the reason at all.

Another reason might be that Native Americans make up only about 1% of the population (down from 100% before the Europeans arrived). Hence, they might be seen as largely irrelevant when it comes to politics and concerns about race. In contrast, blacks make up about 12% of the population, hence they are of greater concern to the media and politicians.

A third reason is that Native Americans seem to lack the spokespeople needed to gain the attention of the media and the politicians. There is, as far as I know, no Native American equivalent to Jesse Jackson or Oprah. Without such people to attract attention, the media has little interest.

This situation does bother me. In part, it is an ethical concern. It seems wrong that Native Americans are now all but invisible in their own lands. In part, it is a personal concern. My great grandfather was Mohawk, although I look white (and not just white-”Nazi recruiting poster white” as my friend Lena once said). This leads to another possible reason why Native Americans are effectively invisible.

America has had a long obsession with race and this has mostly focused on an obsession with blacks and whites. This is most manifest in the “one drop rule.” The idea is that someone is black if they have “one drop” of “black blood.”

This view is still held today. After all, people do not say that Obama is white-they say he is black. The same is said of many black people who are actually mostly not black. Interestingly, the “one drop” rule does not apply to other ethnic groups.

This has various implications for how race is viewed. In my case, I’m seen as white. First, because my non-white ancestry is Mohawk (hence the “one drop” rule does not apply). If my great-grandfather had been black instead of Mohawk, I’d be black. Interesting how that works. Second, because I look white and race is a very visual thing.

When I first started teaching at Florida A&M University (an historically black college) I had an experience that nicely showed the typical American view about race. We were discussing race in class and I told the students that my great-grandfather was Mohawk and asked if that made me a Native American. One student laughed dismissively and said “you’re white.” The other students agreed that I was, in fact, white. Then I asked the obvious question: what about “black” people who have mixed ancestry? The unanimous view was that such people are black. Then I asked the next obvious question: what about someone whose last “100% black” ancestor was his great-grandfather? They all agreed this person would be black. So, I asked the last obvious question: so, why am I white and not Native American? No one had an answer to that one. But, the clear answer is that I’m white because of how people see whiteness and the black person would be black because of how people see blackness.

So, one reason that Native Americans are largely invisible is that many of us are not seen as Native Americans. In my case, people just see a white guy and the Mohawk is invisible.