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Understanding & “An Open Letter to My White Colleagues”

The May 2016 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate features “An Open Letter to my White Colleagues” by Professor Dana Stachowiak. Since I have a genetic background that is a blend of Mohawk, French and English, I am not entirely sure if I am, in fact, white. However, I look white and I am routinely identified by others as white. As such, my social identity would seem to be white. Thus, the intended audience for the letter probably includes me. The letter provides a five-point guide to “sustainable anti-racist work.” While the entire letter is certainly worthy of assessment, I will focus this essay on the third point.

Professor Stachowiak asserts that whites should “Stop trying to understand how it [racism]feels or relate to it with a personal anecdote.  You are white; you will never ever know what it feels like to experience racism.”

This assertion about what whites can never ever know is a matter of what philosophers call epistemology, which is the study of knowledge. More specifically, it falls under the subject of the limits of knowledge. In this case, the assertion is that a person’s epistemic capabilities are limited and defined (at least in part) by their race. Interestingly, this sort of view is routinely accepted by racists—a stock racist view is that other races have limits on what they are capable of knowing and this is typically connected to alleged defects in their cognitive capabilities. I am not claiming that Stachowiak is a racist, just that she has presented a race-based epistemic principle that whites cannot, in virtue of their whiteness, know the experience of racism.

There are epistemic views that do rest on the idea of incommensurable experiences. One extreme version is that no one can know what it is like to be another being. Stachowiak is presenting a less extreme version, one that limits knowledge about a specific sort of experience to a certain set of people. This can be seen as an assertion about the social reality of the United States: American racism is, by its nature, aimed at non-whites. As such, whites can never experience the racism of being targeted for being non-white. To use an analogy, it could be asserted that a man could never know the experience of misogyny because he cannot be hated as a woman (presumably even if he disguised himself as a woman).

This view obviously also requires that there cannot be racism directed against whites (at least in the United States), otherwise whites could experience racism. At this point, most readers are probably thinking that whites can be subject to racism—they can be called racist names, treated poorly simply because they are white, subject to hatred simply because of their skin color and so on for all the apparent manifestations of racism. The usual reply to this sort of claim is that whites can be subject to bias or prejudice, but racism is such that it only applies to non-whites. This requires a definition of “racism” in which the behavior is part of a social system and is based on a power disparity. To illustrate, a black might call a white “cracker” and punch him in the face for being white. This would be prejudice. A white might call a black the n-word and punch him in the face for being black. This would be racism. The difference is that the United States social system provides whites, in general, with systematic power advantages over non-whites.

It might be wondered about specific institutions that are predominantly non-white. In such cases, a white person could be the one at the power disadvantage. The likely reply is that in the broader society the whites still have the power advantage. So, if a philosophy department at a mostly white university does not hire a person because she is black, that is racism. If a philosophy department at a predominantly black university does not hire a person because she is white, that is prejudice but not racism. Thus, with a certain definition of “racism” a white can never experience racism.

It might be asserted that since anyone can experience prejudice and bias in ways that match up with racism (like being attacked, insulted or not hired because of race) it follows that a white person could have an understanding of what it feels like to experience racism. For example, a white person who finds out she was not hired because she is white would seem to be able to understand what it feels like for a black person to not get hired because she is black. There are also white people who belong to groups that are systematically mistreated and subject to oppression—such as women. One might contend that a white woman who experiences sexism her whole life would be able to know what racism feels like, at least by analogy. However, it could be countered that she cannot—there is an insurmountable gulf between the sexism a white woman experiences and the racism a black person experiences that renders her incapable of understanding that experience.

While it is certainly true that a person cannot perfectly know the experience of others, normal human beings are actually quite good at empathy and understanding how others feel. Many moral theorists, such as David Hume, note the importance of sympathy in ethics. It is by trying to understand what others suffer that one develops sympathy and compassion. It is certainly reasonable to accept that perfect understanding is not possible. But, to use an example, a white person who knows what it is like to be beaten up and brutalized because he would rather read books than play football could use that experience to try to grasp what it feels like to be beaten up and brutalized just because one is black. Such a person, it would be expected, would be less likely to act in racist ways if they were able to feel sympathy based on their own experiences.

Another point worth considering is the moral method of reversing the situation, more commonly known as the Golden Rule. Using this method requires being able to have some understanding of what it is like to be in a situation (say being a victim of racism) so as to be able to reason that certain things are wrong. So, for example, a person who can consider what it would be like to be refused a job because of his color would presumably be less likely to engage in that wrongful action. Given the importance of sympathy and the Golden Rule, it seems that whites should not stop trying to understand—rather, they should try to understand more. This, of course, assumes that this would lead to more moral behavior. If not, then I would concede the matter of Professor Stachowiak.

In regards to the anecdotes, I am more inclined to agree with Stachowiak. Having taught at Florida A&M University for almost twenty-five years, I have lost count of the awkward anecdotes I have heard from well-meaning fellow whites trying to show that they understand racism. On the one hand, I do get what they intend when they are sincere—they are making an effort to understand racism within the context of their own experience. This is a natural thing for humans to do and can show that the person is really trying and does have laudable intentions. As such, to condemn such attempts seems unfair.

On the other hand, when a white person busts out an anecdote trying to compare a personal experience to racism I immediately think “oh no, do not do this.” This is usually because the anecdotes so often involve comparing some minor incident (like being called a name as a child) to racism. This is analogous to a person speaking to combat veterans and talking about how he was punched once on the playground. There is also the fact that such anecdotes are often used to say “I understand” and are then followed by clear evidence the person does not understand.  From a purely practical standpoint, I would certainly agree that whites should avoid the awkward anecdote.

 

 

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Nominations & Democracy

As the United States continues its ultra-marathon campaign season, the pundits speak relentlessly about the possibility of a brokered Republican convention and the inevitably victory of Hillary Clinton.

The Republican establishment is not at all pleased that Donald Trump has become the populist candidate. They wail because has harvested what they sowed and insist the wheat should go to the elite of their choice. The people should, as always, get the shaft. I mean, of course, the chaff. The current plan of the elite is for Cruz and Kasich to deny Trump the number of delegates he needs to secure the nomination and then have a desirable candidate selected at the convention. Trump has been expressing his dismay at this plan and his supporters have shared his orange rage.  Thus, Trump will almost certainly arrive at the convention with significantly more delegates than his rivals, yet he might lose the nomination because of the way the rules work.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic establishment has anointed Hillary Clinton as the once and future candidate. As some critics have noted, many in the media have joined in the chorus and stick to the script which says that while Bernie has not been locked out, he has no chance at all of winning. Bernie supporters point to what they regard as the chicanery of the super-delegate system and are not pleased with the way the primary process works.

While Bernie is losing to Hillary, there is the concern that her winning is due to the rules of the party and not her popularity with the voters. As such, the populists are facing similar plights: they face being blocked by the rules of the parties which rule America.

The populists have raised a rather reasonable objection against the way the system works: the candidate with the most votes should become the nominee for the party. That is, as Trump points out, the way democracy is supposed to work.

Trump is right, but also wrong. He is right that the process should be democratic in a democracy. Otherwise, there is a mere half-democracy in which people can vote for anyone, provided that person is put forth by the ruling parties. As one of my undergraduate political science professors used to point out, the difference between the old Soviet system and the American system was one party—they had one, we have two.

Trump is wrong in that the parties are not democratic systems. That is, they are not part of the government and are, in fact, private organizations like corporations and unions. As such, they are free to make their own rules in regards to how the candidates are selected. Trump might well think that the parties are supposed to work like a democratic system—after all, the primaries do involve voting via the official voting machinery of the state. However, this is like having Exxon or GE decided to conduct its election process through the state—they could presumably make that happen, yet can obviously set their own rules and determine the outcome as they wish.

The parties do, of course, prefer to claim that they are following the will of the people and certainly want to avoid the appearance that the elections are actually settled in backroom deals. However, the parties remain private organizations and those that control the party decided how the process will work. If a party does break its rules, a candidate could presumably sue (one of Trump’s favorite past times)—but as long as the rules are properly followed, the only recourse of a candidate would be to appeal to the people.

When Hillary is crowned the candidate for the Democrats, I suspect Sanders will stand beside her throne. Trump, however, would be king by his own hand—if he is “robbed” of the nomination, he might decide to run on his own. This would be ideal for Hillary—her victory would be assured.

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Is the Republican Party Doomed?

Despite the predictions of the pundits, Trump has done exceptionally well in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. This is despite concerted attacks against him by what remains of the Republican intelligentsia and millions of dollars spent to try to bring him down.

Trump has, quite obviously, polarized the Republican party and has exposed the chasm between the party base and the party elite. Because of these facts, some pundits have predicted that the party will be torn asunder by the upcoming election.

On the one hand, the arguments for the doom of the Republican party have a certain plausibility. As Trump has demonstrated, there really is a chasm between the base and the elites that seems to mirror the economic chasm in America. It is, of course, ironic that the gilded Trump is seen as the champion of the common man. The common woman, though, seems to have serious worries about Trump.

There is also the long standing tension between those who are Republicans because of their economic values and the social conservatives—the social conservatives seem to have figured out that while the establishment gladly takes their votes, they have generally failed to deliver on their promises to roll back the clock to a dreamtime 1950s world.

The Republican Party has also run up against the fact that it is still trying to serve the interests of straight, rich, old, white men in a time in which women, the young and non-whites matter a great deal politically. While this will not tear the party apart, it does serve (so some pundits claim) to keep the party from recruiting new blood to help keep it going. This, some claim, will cause the party to fade away—provided that it does not burn out first.

On the other hand, the Republican Party seems to be facing the chaos only at the level of national politics—specifically presidential politics. The Republicans have solid control of Congress and, at the local level, dominate 23 states (holding the governorship, state senate and state house). In contrast, the Democrats only dominate 7 states. This is as of March, 2016 and these numbers can change.

While it might be argued that the Republican dominance is through trickery and misdeeds in the form of gerrymandering, voter suppression and the corrupting hand of big money, the fact is that the Republicans are essentially running most of the country. This, one might argue, is good evidence that the party is not about to explode or tear itself apart. Rather, it is the sign of a party that has its act together—in contrast to the Democrats who seem to excel at losing.

Some, such as devoted Democrats, might contend that this is a false vitality—that the Republican party is driven by the energy of dying desperation and, like a wolverine, is fighting hardest just before its death. It might also be pointed out that trickery and misdeeds can only sustain the party for so long, that eventually the party will be overwhelmed by the vast volume of voters who are not Republicans.

The counter to this is to point out that even if the majority of people will not be Republicans, winning elections is not about who is in the majority of people. It is a matter of being the majority of voters. As such, Republicans could keep winning as long as they get enough of the fraction of people who bother to vote to vote Republican. This could go on for a long time, at least as long as most people eligible to vote do not do so.

Another counter is to accept the Republican claim that they are the true party of inclusion and that they have more to offer non-whites and women than the Democratic party has to offer. That is, that despite all the apparent hostility to women and minorities and all the associated laws do not reflect the real soul of party. This soul, they could argue, wants to lovingly embrace all voters who will vote Republican. Perhaps this is true. There are, after all, some excellent people who are Republicans.

It might be suspected that I hope that the Republican party will either burn out or fade away. Actually, this is not true. While I am, by default, a Democrat, I recognize the importance of having a competent and effective opposition party (or parties). In my personal life, I accept that I cannot and should not always get my way. While I do think I am right in my views, I also know that many of them are wrong—I just do not know which ones. That is why I value competent criticism that can expose where I am in error. Likewise, I value political opposition.

I also accept that even if I am right, this does not necessitate that I deserve to get my way all or even most of the time. One mark of being an adult is getting that other people have legitimate needs and interests that conflict with one’s own and this entails that compromise is something that must be accepted in certain matters. It is tempting to always try to get what I want, which is why opposition is important to ensure that others can also get what they need.

Because of these views, I hope that the Republican party can either get it together or, if that fails, split and form at least one effective and competent opposition party. Then again, perhaps the party does have it together—except for the Trump thing.

 

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Trump & Abortion

Abortion is a contentious matter in the United States and politicians must expect to answer questions about their position. As such, Trump should have been prepared when the questions turned to abortion during Chris Matthews interview of him on MSNBC.

While Trump has expressed a pro-choice position in the past, he told Matthews that he was now pro-life. When Matthews inquired about the legal implications of an abortion ban in terms of punishing women, Trump asserted that the “answer is that there has to be some form of punishment, yeah.” Since Trump has routinely been rewarded for talking tough and expressing misogynistic views, he was probably genuinely surprised when he experienced a broad backlash for his remarks—most especially from anti-abortion advocates.

In response to this backlash, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Interestingly enough, many anti-abortion advocates hold to this view as well (at least in public statements): women should not be punished for getting illegal abortions and the punishment should be limited to the abortion provider.

While some might claim that Trump’s initial position was an expression of misogyny, his inference was certainly justified given the usual approach to illegal actions. If abortion was criminalized and crimes should be punished, then it would follow that a woman who chose to have an abortion should be punished. This is the case with other crimes.

To use an obvious analogy, if Sally hires Jean to kill Jack, then Sally has committed a crime and should be punished for her role in it. A just court would and should punish Sally for her role in this crime. It would be patently absurd for someone to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making murder illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban murder under state and federal law, the assassin or any other person performing this illegal act for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” As such, if abortion were a crime (which opponents often consider murder), then it follows that the woman should also be punished.

Another analogy is with illegal drugs. If Sally buys illegal cocaine from Jean, then Sally has also committed a crime and should be punished.  It would be ridiculous to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making cocaine illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban cocaine under state and federal law, the drug dealer or any other person performing this illegal act (providing cocaine) for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” Once again, if abortion were a crime, then the woman should also be punished.

Obviously, the analogies could continue through a multitude of crimes, thus showing that the position advocated by Trump and others is contrary to the usual workings of justice, namely that those participating in a crime are to be punished. That said, there is a way to hold to the position that the woman should not be punished and the abortion provider should.

Holding this position requires asserting that the woman lacks agency in the crime and is thus not responsible. One approach, which is not uncommon, is to argue that women in general lack agency. This sort of view was used to justify, for example, denying women the right to vote and treating them as property.

This approach would be analogous to that taken by some states in regards to child prostitution. Although prostitution is a crime, children lack the agency to consent to sexual relations and are thus not responsible for the crime. Instead, those providing or purchasing the sexual services are responsible for the crime. As such, they should be punished and the children should not.

While some might find this approach appealing, it is obviously problematic. One rather absurd implication is that denying that women have agency would give them this legal status across the board—thus undermining the possibility of fully holding women accountable for crimes they commit. There are, of course, so many other problems with this approach that it has no legitimate appeal.

Another option is to accept that while women have agency, they generally lack such agency when it comes to choosing to have an abortion. Or, rather, women do not truly choose to have abortions—they are coerced, tricked or beguiled into having them. If this were generally true, then the position that women should not be punished for illegal abortions while those performing them should be punished would be reasonable.

To use an analogy, if Jean kidnaped Sally and her daughter, then killed the daughter, Jean would be the criminal and Sally would be a victim. As such, Sally should obviously not be punished. The challenge is, of course, to show that abortion providers generally use coercion to compel women to get abortions against their will. This, however, seems contrary to the facts.

As another analogy, if Jean was able to beguile Sally into believing she was in terrible danger from Jane and only Jean could save her at that moment by killing Jane, then Sally should not be punished for agreeing to this. Likewise, if abortion providers beguile and trick women into having abortions that they would not have had without being under the mesmeric influence of the abortion providers, then women who have illegal abortions should not be punished. What would need to be shown is that abortion providers have such powers to beguile. This also seems unlikely.

It could be claimed that surely there are cases in which women are coerced or beguiled into having abortions against their will. This, I accept, probably does happen. I am also confident that people are also coerced or beguiled into committing other crimes. As with such cases, I would agree that the person who is forced or beguiled into participating in a crime should have any punishment reduced or eliminated based on the degree to which they lacked agency. Obviously enough, those that coerce or beguile people into crimes should be subject to punishment proportional to their contribution to the crime. This all assumes that the crimes are morally worthy of punishment—crime is a matter of law and there can be unjust laws.

Lest anyone be confused about my overall position, I would prefer that there were fewer abortions (as argued in another essay). But, I do accept that abortion is generally morally acceptable under the current social conditions. As such, I oppose banning abortion and certainly oppose punishing abortion providers or women who have abortions. My point is that those who wish to criminalize abortion need to accept that the punishment of women is entailed by this view. As such, the position that abortion is a crime and that abortion providers should be punished while women should not be punished for their role in the “crime” is an inconsistent and untenable position. This, naturally enough, is for cases in which abortion is not the result of coercion or deception.

 

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North Carolina’s Anti-Antidiscrimination Law

Apparently eager to do some serious damage to North Carolina’s reputation and economy, the state’s Republican controlled legislature passed “the bathroom bill” and the Republican governor signed it immediately. This law seems to have been in response to Charlotte, North Carolina passing a city ordinance extending legal protection for LGBT people and allowing transgender folks to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

The “bathroom bill” makes it so that local governments cannot pass their own antidiscrimination laws—the state law, which is more restrictive than the Charlotte ordinance, trumps all local laws. The reason it is called the “bathroom bill” is that it has the effect of forbidding transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Instead, they must use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate. Interestingly enough, the law also precludes any local government from passing its own minimum wage laws—the minimum wage falls under the antidiscrimination law.

While the most plausible explanation for the law is prejudice against people who differ from the heterosexual norm, the proponents of the law obviously cannot make that the public reason for their support. Rather, there are two main reasons presented in defense of the law. The first is that the imposition of state control over local governments was an attempt to rein in “governmental overreach” on the part of Charlotte and other local governments.

There is a certain irony in Republicans passing a law that restricts the liberty of local governments—this is because the importance of local government and assertions about getting big government off the back of the people are stock talking points. However, many Republicans seem to be fine with local government only to the degree that the locals do what they want.

To be fair, there are legitimate issues here about the extent of the authority of local governments and the extent to which the state has the right to impose on local authorities. One approach is practical: having a hodgepodge of inconsistent laws across a state would be difficult for citizens and businesses—there are advantages to uniform, statewide laws. Another approach is a matter of ethics—the restrictions and liberties of laws should be the same across the state based on the principle of fairness. Of course, using a moral foundation for uniformity would require a moral assessment of the laws being imposed: having an unjust law imposed uniformly would be worse than a just law that was imposed in limited locations.

My own view is that antidiscrimination laws should be uniform but also just. As such, I do agree that the state (and federal government) should be setting these laws. But, these laws must be just. In the case of the North Carolina law, my view is that it is unjust because it codifies discrimination while forbidding local authorities from passing just laws. Hence, the state is in the wrong here. I now turn to the second justification for the law.

Proponents of the law contend that they do not support it from prejudice and that it does not discriminate. They claim that the law is needed in order to protect people, especially children, from being assaulted in bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender people.

On the face of it, the law does aim at meeting what I consider a basic justification of a restrictive law: it has the professed intent of protecting people from harm. This is an excellent justification for limiting liberty and is the principle that justifies, for example, forbidding companies from knowingly selling dangerous or defective products.

While the professed intent does matter, the proper assessment of a restrictive law aimed at preventing harm requires considering whether the harm in question justifies the restrictions being imposed.  In the case of the bathroom bill, the easy and obvious answer is that it does not. The reason is that there seems to be an exceptional lack of evidence that transgender people will present a danger to others if they are permitted to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

While it is certainly not impossible for a transgender person to engage in such an attack, the statistical evidence is that there have been no attacks. There are currently numerous states and many cities that allow people to use facilities based on their gender identity—so there have been many opportunities for such attacks.

The obvious reply is to point to claims that such attacks (or at least sexual misconduct) have occurred, thus refuting the claim that transgender people are not a threat. The counter to this is to point to the fact that such claims tend to be mere urban myths and that the evidence shows that the myth of the transgender bathroom assault is just that, a myth.

It could be countered that while there is currently no evidence that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, an attack could happen and this possibility, however remote, justifies the law.

The easy and obvious response to this counter is that basing restrictive laws on the mere possibility that something bad might happen would be absurd. This principle would warrant incredibly restrictive laws across the board and would also warrant violating most, if not all, rights. For example, men might attack women on hiking trails, so trails must be restricted to one gender to avoid the possibility of attack. As another example, a car might be used in vehicular homicide, therefore people should be forbidden from owning cars. Naturally, if it could be shown that transgender people pose a serious risk to the safety of others, then restriction would be justified. However, the threat would need to match the restrictions imposed by the law.

As a final response, a proponent of the law could say that when a case of a transgender person attacking someone in a bathroom is confirmed, that will show the law is justified. The counter to this is to point out that this principle is absurd—if a car ban were proposed, it would not be justified by pointing to a case or even a few cases of vehicular homicide. As noted above, what would be needed is evidence of a threat that warrants the restriction.

In light of the above discussion, the “bathroom bill” fails the basic test of restrictive laws: it imposes restrictions without the justification of preventing a sufficient harm. This should come as no surprise—the law is not about protecting people but about prejudice.

 

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“Trump” Terror at Emory

It was the day that fear and pain came to Emory University. No, it was not another horrific campus shooting. This day of terror was inflicted by chalked “Trump 2016” messages. In response, students staged a protest. Comedians, such as Larry Wilmore, mocked. The administration, somewhat amazingly, decided to take no action to find the chalk wielding Trump terrorist.

While this incident can be easily dismissed as yet another case of the absurdly fragile state of the coddled college elite, it does have some philosophical interest that makes it worth considering. I will begin by offering a defense of the pained and frightened students, then move to a discussion of free expression.

While chalked messages are frequently encountered on campuses, there are three ways to argue that the students were legitimately threatened by the Trump chalk marks. One approach would be to argue that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and apparent bigotry make his name something to be feared, such that chalking it on campus is akin to chalking actually threats or hateful remarks.

A possible reply to this is that Trump is not actually bad enough to warrant such a fearful response from the mere writing of his name—that is, the reaction is far too extreme given the level of threat. Another reply is that even if Trump is truly a threatening bigot, the invocation of his name should not suffice as a threat. It is, after all, just his name.

A second approach would be to argue that the chalk marks occurred in a broader context—that the much dreaded hostile environment had been created and in this context “Trump 2016” is a dire threat. This does have a certain appeal since, given the right context, almost any words can present a frightening threat. That said, it would certainly require quite a remarkable context to make an expression of support for the leading Republican candidate to strike legitimate terror into the hearts of grown people.

A third approach would be to argue that the words were written with an intent the threatened students were aware of—that is, “Trump 2016” and similar messages are a known code for actual threats. If this is the case, then the students could be thus justified in their terror and pain. This does, however, create a bit of a problem—what if “Bernie 2016” or “Hillary 2016” become code words for vile threats?

As might be suspected, my own view is that the students were most likely not warranted in their terror and pain. However, if it turns out that there really was a coded threat that the students understood, then I would revise my view. What is, I think, more interesting about this situation is the matter of free expression.

As many folks on the right have noted, there seems to be an ever increasing hostility to free expression on certain “elite” college campuses. There does not seem to be such a problem at many other schools, such as my own Florida A&M University. This might be because the students are rather busy with classes, university activities and working to pay for school. Interestingly, even some people in the liberal spectrum have regarded such things as “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones” as signs of an intolerance on the part of some of the left. These concerns, at least at certain schools, do seem legitimate—as supported by the Trump Terror Chalk Incident of 2016 (as history shall know it).

This episode of terror has not resulted in any change to my view of free expression: people should have complete freedom to express their views, provided that doing so does not inflict actual harm directly or indirectly. Making threats of violence, inciting violence or engaging in harmful slander would be clear examples of expression that should not be protected. What is merely offensive, annoying, or even regarded as vaguely threatening should not be restricted.

One practical concern is sorting out what legitimately counts as harmful expression that should be limited under the classic principle of harm. In this specific case, the problem is deciding whether or not it suffices that the students felt pain and believed they were threatened. On the one hand, one could use an analogy to physical pain: if something hurts, then it did cause pain. So, if chalked Trump support hurts students, then they should be protected from it.  On the other hand, there is the matter of what can reasonably be considered painful and what would be an overreaction. After all, if people could merely claim pain or fear was caused by some expression and shut down free expression, silence would soon reign. Fortunately, good sense can prevail in such cases—supported by arguments, of course. In the case of the Trump chalk marks, this would be on par with someone claiming assault and battery when someone merely brushed past them while walking. Such contact might strike terror into some, but it would be absurd to consider it an attack. Likewise, sensitive students might fear the words “Trump 2016”, but to claim true pain would be an absurd overreaction. The real pain will come when Trump is president.

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RNC & Gun Free

The Republican Party is well known for its consistent support of gun rights and opposition to attempts to impose restrictions on these rights. As such, it might strike some as odd that the gun-loving Republicans are holding their national convention in a gun free zone in Cleveland, Ohio. Though the party might seem helpless in the face of the Secret Service (which banned guns from the Republican national convention in 2012), brave patriots have risen in its defense. A petition to allow open carry at the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican Party’s national convention has been signed by over 50,000 supporters of the Second Amendment.

While some have suggested that the petition is not the work of true gun-loving patriots but by wily Democrat James P. Ryan, it is well grounded in an interesting moral argument. In any case, to dismiss the moral argument because of the identity of the author would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy. After all, the merit of an argument depends on the argument, not the identity of the author.

The argument used to justify the petition is based in the principle of consistent application—this is the principle that standards must be applied the same way in similar circumstances. Exceptions can be justified, but this requires showing that there is a relevant difference between the applications that warrants changing or not applying the standard.

Not being consistent is problematic in at least three ways. One is that the person or group runs the risk of hypocrisy, which is morally problematic. The second is that inconsistent application is unfair, which is morally problematic as well. The third is that such inconsistent application runs the risk of undermining the justification for the standard, thus suggesting that the standard might not be well supported.

The case for the inconsistency of the Republican Party, the NRA and the three remaining Republican candidates is rather effectively made on the petition site. As such, I will present a rather concise summary of the case.

First, the NRA has argued that gun free zones, like where the convention will be held, are essentially advertising the best places for mass shootings. The NRA consistently opposes such zones—or at least it did. Second, Trump, Cruz and Kasich have explicitly opposed gun free zones. Trump and Cruz have both echoed the NRA’s line that gun free zones are bait for mass shooters. Third, there are the stock arguments made by the NRA and pro-gun Republicans that people need guns to defend themselves—that a good guy with a gun is the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun. As such, for the Republican Party to hold its convention in a gun free zone with Cruz, Trump, Kasich and the NRA agreeing to this would be a clear act of moral inconsistency. Since they all oppose gun free zones (including, in some cases public schools) they should insist that the same standard they wish to apply to everyone else must also be applied to them. That is, guns must be allowed at the convention.

It could be countered that the Republican Party does back private property rights and, as such, they could consistently say that the Quicken Loans Arena owners have the right to ban guns from their property (though they are just laying out irresistible murder bait by doing so). While it is reasonable to accept that private property rights trump gun rights, the obvious counter is to insist that the convention be moved to a private or public venue that allows guns unless Quicken Loans Arena is willing to change its policy for the event.

Another counter is to note that the Secret Service has apparently insisted that guns not be allowed at the event. The Republicans could thus say that they really want to have guns, but the government is violating their rights by forcing them to ban the guns they so dearly and truly love. That is, if it was up to them the convention would be well armed.

The easy and obvious reply is that the Republican Party and candidates could take a principled stand and insist that guns be allowed. After all, their position on the matter of gun free zones is quite clear—the least safe place to be is a gun-free zone. Presumably the Secret Service is concerned that someone might bring a gun to the convention and try to kill Trump, Cruz or Kasich. Since these three men believe that gun free zones would simply attract assassins, they should be able to convince the Secret Service that they would be safer surrounded by armed citizens and, of course, sign whatever waivers or forms would be needed to make this so. If the candidates and the party lack the clout to make the convention gun friendly, surely the gun-friendly Republican majority in Congress could pass legislation allowing guns to be carried at the convention. This, one might suspect, would be a law that Obama would be quite willing to sign.

If the Republicans do not approach this affront to their gun rights with the same will and tenacity they deploy against Obamacare, one might suspect a hypocrisy regarding their position on guns: doing without gun free zones is fine for everyone else; but the Republican establishment wants the protection of gun free zones. This does not, of course, show that they are in error in regards to their avowed position opposing gun free zones—to infer that would be to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque (the fallacy that an inconsistency between a person’s claim and her actions shows her claim is wrong). However, it might be suspected that if the Republican establishment is fine with the convention as a gun free zone, then they have some evidence that gun free zones are not, contrary to their professed view, murder bait and are safer than gun zones.

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Why Gun Rights Advocates Should Back Apple

As this is being written, Apple is involved in a battle with the state over cracking its own security measures. The company has made its case via a letter to the customers. Although I have written on the matter of encryption and backdoors on other occasions, I will focus on why American gun rights advocates should back Apple in this particular matter and support encryption in general. To do so I will make use of three stock gun rights arguments. As always, I will also consider reasonable objections against my view.

The comparison of guns and encryption was inspired by two main factors. The first is that the alleged San Bernardino shooter whose phone Apple is supposed to crack used guns to commit the alleged murders. However, the central debate arising from this situation is over the alleged killer’s phone. The second is that encryption has been classified as a weapon, which makes for an interesting connection to other weapons, most importantly guns.  I now turn to my arguments.

One standard argument in defense of gun rights in the United States is to appeal to the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  This is supposed to provide citizens with the right to own weapons and is often used to argue for the rights to carry weapons openly.

While there is obviously no Constitutional Amendment that mentions a right to encryption, this right would appear to fall under the Fourth Amendment: “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While people can obviously be more or less fixated on different rights, if gun rights are regarded as justified by the Constitution, then consistency would require accepting that a right of encryption is justified by the Constitution. As such, gun rights advocates should also advocate on behalf of encryption rights.

It could be objected that while the Constriction makes clear reference to arms, papers and effects, it makes no reference to digital data. As such, since there is no right to be secure in regards to digital data, there is no right to encryption.

The easy reply to this is to employ a version of the argument used by gun advocates when their critics point out that the arms referred to in the Constitution are flintlocks, swords, and bayonets. That is, 18th century arms. The response is, of course, that “arms” now includes modern weapons as well, such as assault rifles. The same sort of argument can be used in support of encryption rights: the modern version of papers would include digital data—in the 18th century “papers” referred to a means of data storage.

Another objection is that the Fourth Amendment does not grant a right to encryption—it merely grants a right to be secure such that the state has to go through a specific process to violate that security. Crudely put, it is not a right to have locks on your door; it is a right that the state must have a proper warrant before coming in. In the case of digital data, the lock would be the encryption.

The reasonable reply to this is supplied by Thomas Hobbes. He made the excellent point that a right without the means to exercise it is not a right at all. As such, the people need the means to exercise their right to be secure and this would cover the use of encryption.

A final objection is that even if people have a right to encryption, it does not follow that they have a right to unbreakable encryption that would keep the state out. After all, the Fourth Amendment allows for reasonable searches and seizures.

The reply to this is to point out that while reasonable searches and seizures are allowed, they are not granted to the state as a right.  That is, the state does not have a Constitutional Guarantee to get into our effects and papers. As such, citizens are under no obligation to provide the state with a means to access their papers and effects.

Given these arguments, there would seem to be a Constitutionally protected right to encryption and those who profess a love of the Constitution and the Second Amendment in particular should lovingly embrace encryption.

A second argument commonly used by gun advocates is that citizens need guns in order to protect themselves from criminals, terrorists and other bad guys. This argument is used even in the face of the obvious fact that criminals, terrorists and other bad guys use guns to cause harm. When it is argued that the way to ensure safety is to restrict or even eliminate gun ownership, two stock replies are that then only the bad guys will have guns and that the only way to stop a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

The same sort of argument applies to encryption: there are criminals, terrorists and other bad guys who want to harm us by getting into our data. Just as a gun is supposed to protect a citizen from threats in the physical world, encryption is a weapon of defense in the digital world.

It can be objected that the bad guys will also use encryption to protect themselves from law enforcement. However, this is exactly like how the bad guys also use guns to protect themselves from law enforcement. As such, if people should be allowed to have guns to defend themselves against bad guys, the same right of self-defense justifies the possession of encryption. If it is argued that citizens should give up encryption in favor of safety, then the same must be said of guns—something that certain politicians apparently do not grasp.

It might be said that while citizens do have a right to encryption, the state must have the means to turn it off so it can engage in investigations and spying on the bad guys. The same argument could be made for a “turn off” device for guns that would allow them to be remotely disabled by the state—citizens who are law abiding will have nothing to worry about, since the state would have to go through due process to turn off their guns.

The response to such a gun switch proposal is easy to imagine—gun rights advocates would point out that the bad guys would soon acquire the means to turn off the guns of honest citizens and leave them helpless in the face of an attack. The same concern applies to having an off switch for encryption: the bad guys would soon have it and use it to harm honest citizens. As such, citizens need unbreakable encryption in order to be safe and this should be supported by those who believe that citizens need guns to be safe.

The third commonly used gun rights argument is based on the claim that citizens need guns in order to protect themselves from the tyranny of the state. The idea is that armed citizens provide a deterrence against state tyranny and arms provide a means of defense should deterrence fail.

This argument can also be applied to encryption: the rights of the citizens are protected from the state’s intrusion because the state cannot gain access to the citizen’s papers without the consent of the citizen. In this regard, encryption provides even greater security than the gun—the state, after all, has much larger guns and can easily kill any citizen or any mob of small arm carrying citizens. But encryption that it cannot break puts every citizen on equal footing with the state in this regard. Because of this, those who are worried about the tyranny of the state should support encryption.

In light of the above arguments, those that favor gun rights should also back encryption rights. After all, the justifications for gun rights even more strongly support the right to encryption.

 

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The Trumpernaut, Truth & Anger

When Donald Trump threw his hair into the presidential ring, the pundits predicted that he would burn brightly and then rapidly fade away. They were wrong. As Trump kept Trumping along, the pundits kept predicting that the establishment candidates would surge past him. As this is being written, Trump is riding high on victories in North Carolina and Nevada—thus proving the pundits wrong once again. Jeb, of course, has gone home to make some guacamole.

Trump’s continued success is certainly interesting from the standpoint of politics but also from that of psychology and even philosophy. After all, figuring out why he is doing so well and how this is likely to impact the future of politics are matters well worth considering.

Trumps detractors, which seems to include the entire Republican establishment, point to his alleged negative qualities. Trump is regarded as being a liar—or at least a relentless speaker of untruths. This won him Politifact’s Lie of the Year. He is also seen as a racist and a bully. Those who focus on substance are rather disappointed by the Donald: he seems to lack any substantive plans and policies. Instead, he makes outlandish claims about beating everyone, about getting Mexico to pay for a giant wall, and about banning Muslims from the United States. Given that he has never held political office and has an impressive string of business disasters to his name, this is not particularly surprising.

The usual narrative is that Trump is winning despite these alleged negative qualities and many commentators still cling to the hope that Trump will flare out and slam into the ground. While this has some appeal, I have argued before that Trump is doing well because of these qualities rather than despite them. One reason for this, as I argued in a previous essay, is that the Republican Party and its allies lovingly crafted a political environment that is well suited to Trump. Another reason is that there has been a change in the political mood of the country which makes the niche forged by the Republicans even more ideal for Trump. In this environment, his qualities are superb adaptations for success. As such, it is no wonder that he is doing so well. I will now turn to a brief discussion of how these traits fit the political ecosystem and are enabling Trump to thrive.

Trump majestically handles his untruths by doubling or even tripling down on them. His brashness and confidence is likely to be very refreshing to voters accustomed to weak and insincere apologies on the part of other politicians. As such, even his untruths make him appear strong and decisive in the eyes of some voters. His bullying also makes him appear strong; especially since it is easy to mistake the bluster of a bully for real strength. Trump’s alleged racism and sexism also make him appear defiant and strong—he is regarded as being brave enough to stand up to the bogeyperson that is the PC movement. This ties nicely into his ability to appeal to the fears of some of the population: they want a strong man to protect them from what scares them. Even when the fears are ill-founded and fundamentally irrational.

The appeal of Trump’s lack of experience in politics is very easy to explain. In addition to the concerted effort to discredit the very idea of government on the part of many conservatives, Congress endeavors to do all it can to disappoint and annoy the American people. Thus, while the idea of getting medical care from someone with no medical experience would seem crazy, the idea of having a president with no experience in any political office strikes many as appealing. Presumably the reasoning is that being an experienced politician simply makes a person worse. To use an analogy, a person would not want an experienced criminal handling their money. They would prefer someone who has never been involved in crime.

Trump’s lack of substantive policy positions and the absence of anything that could sensibly be called a plan would seem to be problematic to explain as appealing to people. However, it is easy enough to do this. First, the Republicans have bashed Obama for thinking too much, for being too professorial, and not being bold and decisive (that is, not rushing in to do something). As such, Trump’s lack of thought, failure to plan and promises to “do something” are all very appealing. This ties nicely into the appeal of doing something, even if it is wrong. Somewhat ironically, this is what helped spell the end of Jeb Bush. While Bush is a moderate conservative, he seems very Obama-like in regards to being a calm, soft-spoken man with a plan. This is exactly what Republicans have been told to hate.

Second, planning and thinking are seen as contrary to what a strong man of action would do—as such, Trump’s vague “plans” and his bold assertions about winning make him seem even stronger. After all, only weak people need to think about what they will do and have a plan. The strong can just bash away at things until they break.

Third, Trump is promising people what they want to hear. Somewhat ironically, laying out the plan of how he would, for example, get the Mexicans to pay for the wall would make his claims far less plausible. Laying out a plan would cause people to think about the process, which runs the risk of making them realize there is no way he can do what he claims. By making bold promises and avoiding any planning, he allows people to share the fantasy with him.

In closing, the fact that Trump lacks quality and substance yet is winning should be no surprise. One has only to consider McDonalds, the Transformer movies and the Kardashians to realize that success and substance can be complete strangers.

 

 

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Apple, the FBI & Backdoors

Data breaches, hacking and device theft are a routine part of modern life. In order to help defend customers, Apple and Google added very effective security features to their phone operating systems. American law enforcement, who had grown accustomed to easy access to the treasure trove of evidence that is a smartphone, were generally dismayed by this—they could no longer get Apple or Google to unlock a phone because the phones were effectively unlockable.

In the light of revelations about the extreme ineffectiveness, egregious incompetence and privacy violations on the part of the state security apparatus, the public was generally in favor of the strong encryption offered by Apple and Google. The FBI, however, thinks it has found an ideal rhetorical tool to exploit against encryption: the murders in San Bernardino. The FBI has claimed that the work iPhone of one of the alleged attackers contains critical evidence and a judge has demanded that Apple write a special version of its iOS to enable the FBI to crack the phone. Apple, which has cooperated fully with the investigation to this point, has refused to create a means of breaking iPhone encryption. The company has made its case via a letter to the customers.

Since people have an irrational fear of domestic terrorism vastly out of proportion to the actual threat level, the FBI has chosen wisely with this case. They can try to make use of scare tactics and appeal to fear to get the public to unwisely side against Apple. Since I have argued at length against backdoors in general, I will not rehash those general, rational arguments here. Instead, I will focus on the situation at hand. Since I am not a lawyer, I will stick primarily to the ethics of the matter and leave the legal wrangling to those who have billable hours.

The standard argument in favor of giving the state access to private information, be it on a phone or written on paper, is based on security: the state needs that information in order to protect citizens from harm. In the case of the iPhone, the argument is presumably that the phone contains information the FBI needs to conduct its investigation. Since the person who knew the passcode is dead, the FBI cannot compel that person into allowing access to the phone. Either the FBI lacks the means to get into iPhones or has elected not to reveal that capacity, so they need to turn to Apple to access the data.

Others in law enforcement advance similar arguments: they have many phones that they think contains data relevant to cases and the argument from public safety should, they think, override all other concerns. Since the focus of the FBI and law enforcement in general is on finding and prosecuting criminals to protect the public, it makes sense that they would see the matter from that perspective. Apple and Google, as they see it, are helping the criminals and terrorists by providing them with unbreakable vaults for their data.

The argument from safety should not be simply dismissed.  After all, the primary function of the state is to protect its citizens and the usual utilitarian moral argument can be made in favor of endeavors aimed at reducing privacy in order to increase security.

The easy and obvious counter to this security argument is another security argument. If the United States government and law enforcement were the only ones who could access such data and could do so only via due process of the law, then it would be reasonable to allow such access. Unfortunately, such access cannot be limited to the United States and history has shown that the state has a rather vague notion of due process. Because of this, it seems likely that far more harm would be done by getting on the road the FBI wants Apple to walk. While law enforcement would, it is true, be able to crack some phones and get some information that would prove useful, this would be outweighed by the harm done to citizens by criminals and foreign states. After all, if law enforcement can get into an iPhone, then so can China and criminal hackers. It could, of course, be argued that my estimate is in error—that the harms prevented by allowing law enforcement into phones will vastly outweigh the harms that will occur from hackers getting into the phones of citizens and the harm done when foreigners decide to go with competing phones rather than risk using an American iPhone or Android phone. However, given the damage done by hacking and the fact that law enforcement can use other means of investigation (such as what they did before smart phones), this does not seem to be the case.

Another approach is to make use of stock conservative arguments against government overreach and in favor of rights. Conservatives routinely argue against government regulation, in favor of small government, against government intrusion and in favor of constitutional rights. While these arguments are usually employed against environmental regulations and in defense of gun rights, they would also apply with slight modifications to the matter at hand. Libertarians who grasp the concept of consistency are in favor of such encryption and against such intrusions into privacy rights. Unfortunately, some conservatives throw away their espoused principles in the face of overblown fears about terrorists and criminals. However, these principles need to be applied consistently and, if they were, conservatives should oppose such government overreach and intrusions into the freedom of businesses and into constitutional rights.

As a final point, consider the stock argument in favor of gun rights that citizens need guns in order to engage in self-defense and to do so even against the tyranny of the state. The same sort of argument would seem to apply in the case of phone encryption: it serves as a digital defense against criminals and terrorists, but also as a very real defense of the tyranny of the state. So, if citizens have a right to firearms to defend against the forcible acts of criminals and state tyranny in the physical world, they should have the right to encryption to defend against criminals and state tyranny in the digital world. What is needed is a suitable slogan on par with the NRA’s famous line about guns: “I’ll give you my data when you take my phone from my cold, dead hands.”

 

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