A Philosopher's Blog

Discerning Racism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly racist.

has served to generate considerable attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Amazon author page.

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The Sexist Imperative

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2012
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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Tea Partiers and Muslims

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 23, 2011
Description: A Ku Klux Klan meeting in Gainesv...

A racist group.

I recently had an interesting discussion about the Tea Party and Muslims. It began with a Tea Party person being upset about the accusations of racism against the Tea Party. I think I surprised him a bit when I agreed that the Tea Party folks are often accused of being racist on the basis of a very visible fringe element-the sort of folks who carry signs depicting Obama as witch doctor. I also made the point that a group should not be defined by its fringe element or by the worst of those who claim to belong to the group. Rather, a group should be assessed on its actual values and the general behavior of its core. So, for example, the various Tea Party groups are not racist groups. In contrast, something like the KKK would be a paradigm of a racist group. That said, there are some grounds for being concerned about what seem to be racist elements in individual Tea Partiers. Of course, the same can be said about Democrats.

The conversation then switched to the matter of Muslims and how they pose a threat to the United States. I did the obvious move and pointed out that he had just agreed that a group should not be judged by its fringe or worst elements. To be consistent, what applies to the Tea Party should also apply to Muslims. After all, just as the fact that there are racists in the Tea Party does not make the Tea Party a racist movement, the fact that there are Muslim terrorists does not make Islam a terrorist faith.

As I expected, the counter was that Islam is inherently a religion of terror while the Tea Party is about taxes and not about race. This is a reasonable counter in the sense that it is based on the principle of relevant difference: if being a terrorist is part of being a Muslim and being a racist is not part of being a Tea Partier, then all Muslims would be terrorists while Tea Party members need not be racists.

While I do agree that most Tea Party folks are not racists, I do not agree that all Muslims are terrorists. While people do point to quotes from the Koran, people also point to some rather bad stuff in the bible. Just as I would not infer that all Christians are pro-slavery based on what the bible says, I would not infer that all Muslims are pro-terror based on what the Koran says about jihad.  Fortunately enough, most people do not follow their holy books to the letter.

My considered view is that labeling the entire Tea Party as racist is just as unfair and unjust as labeling all Muslims as terrorists. As such, the Tea Party folks who resent being called racists should extend the same courtesy to Muslims and refrain from labeling them all as terrorists. Sure, there are Muslims who are terrorists-just as there are Tea Partiers who are racists.

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Victim Fallacy

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 17, 2010
Rendering of human brain.
Image via Wikipedia

I’m working on the next volume in my fallacy book series, so I’ll post the entries as I write them. Any useful criticism would be appreciated.

Victim Fallacy


This fallacy occurs when a person uncritically assumes that the cause of a perceived mistreatment (such as not being hired or receiving a poor grade) is due to prejudice (such as sexism or racism) on the part of the person or persons involved in the perceived mistreatment. The form of “reasoning” is as follows:

1. Person P believes s/he is being mistreated by person or persons M.

2. Person P regards himself or herself as a member of group G and believes this group has been subject to prejudice. Or P believes that M regards him/her as a member of G.

3. P uncritically concludes that his/her perceived mistreatment is the result of prejudice against G on the part of M.

This is a fallacy because the mere that that a person perceives himself or herself as being mistreated does not provide sufficient justification for the claim that the alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice. After all, even if the situation does involve mistreatment, it might be the result of factors that have nothing to do with prejudice of the sort being considered. For example, imagine the following situation: Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late, disrupting the lecture when she strolls in. She also blatantly checks her text messages on her mobile phone during class. She earns a B in the class, but is assigned a C instead because the professor is angry about her behavior. Jane would be correct to conclude she has been mistreated  given the disparity between what she earned and what she received, but she would not be justified in assuming that it was “just because she was a woman” without adequate evidence for the professor being a sexist.

This mistake is reasoning is similar to the various causal fallacies. In these fallacies an uncritical leap is made from insufficient evidence to conclude that one thing caused another. In this case, a leap is being made without sufficient evidence to conclude that the alleged mistreatment was caused by prejudice.

Reasonably concluding that an alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice involves establishing that the mistreatment is, in fact, a mistreatment and the most plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in his/her conclusion-even if the conclusion is, in fact, true. This is because good reasoning is not just about getting a correct conclusion (this could be done accidentally by guessing) but by getting it in the right way.

If a person has good reason to believe that the alleged mistreatment is a mistreatment and that it is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would obviously not be fallacious. For example, if Jane was aware that she earned a B and was intentionally assigned a C, she would be justified in believing she was mistreated. If the professor made sexist remarks and Jane knew he downgraded all the other women in the class and none of the men, then Jane would be justified in concluding that the mistreatment stemmed from prejudice.

Not surprisingly, the main factor that leads people to commit this fallacy “honestly” is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it is natural for a person who is aware of prejudice against the group in question to perceive mistreatment as coming from that prejudice. And, as a matter of fact, when considering a perceived mistreatment it would be quite reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that-a mere possibility.

In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this type of “reasoning” is cynically exploited as an excuse or even as a means of revenge (charges of prejudice, even if completely unfounded, can do a lot of damage to a person’s career in many professions). As an example of an excuse, a person who has done poorly in a class because of a lack of effort might tell his parents that “the professor has this thing against men.”

In addition to the fact that this is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid this fallacy. First, uncritically assuming that other people are prejudiced is itself a sign of prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites are racists is just as racist as assuming that all Jewish people are covetous or all blacks are criminals. Second, use of this fallacy, especially as the “reasoning” behind an excuse can have serious consequences. For example, if a student who did poorly in a class because of a lack of effort concludes that his grade was the result of racism and tells his parents, they might consider a law suit against the professor. As another example, if a person becomes accustomed to being able to fall back on this line of “reasoning” they might be less motivated in their efforts since they can “explain” their failures through prejudice.

It must be emphasized that it is not being claimed that prejudice does not really exist or that people are not victims of prejudice. It is being claimed that people need to be very carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.


Example #1

Sam: “Can you believe this-I got a C in that class.”

Jane: “Well, your work was pretty average and you didn’t put much effort into the class. How often did you show up, anyway?”

Sam: “That has nothing to do with it. I deserve at least a B. That chick teaching the class just hates men. That’s why I did badly.”

Bill: “Hey, I earned an ‘A’, man.”

Sam: “She just likes you because you’re not a real man like me.”

Example #2

Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”

Ann: “Where did you apply?”

Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”

Ann: “So, why didn’t you get a job? Was it because you don’t actually have any experience in software?”

Ricardo: “All the people interviewing me were white. A person like me just can’t get a job in this white world.”

Example #3

Dave: “Can you believe that-those people laughed at me when I gave my speech.”

Will: “Well, that was cruel. But you really should make sure that you have your facts right before giving a speech. As two examples, Plato was not an Italian and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I iz.’”

Dave: “They wouldn’t have laughed if a straight guy had said those things!”

Will: “Really?”

Dave: “Yeah! They laughed just because I’m gay!”

Will: “Well, they didn’t laugh at me, but I actually did my research.”

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Is There Such a Thing as Islamophobia?

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2010
Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock
Image via Wikipedia

A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.

One recent example of such an argument  is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because  people should dislike Islam for its tenets.

One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).

One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of.  For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia.  As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).

But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.

Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.

In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because  one knew that Oswald was  a Marine and  Timothy McVeigh was in the Army.  As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.

Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.

Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?

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Williams & Satire

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2010
Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol
Image by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

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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Snookered by Fox

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2010
The current logo of Fox Television
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Shirley Sherrod was condemned by the NAACP and fired by the USDA on the basis of an edited video clip of her speech. This clip, posted by Andrew Breitbart, was selectively edited to show only what appeared to be racist comments. However, the entire clip reveals the truth.

Breitbart seems to have intended the clip as a return shot in response to the NAACP’s accusation that the Tea Party tolerates racism. The point was, of course, to show racism at a NAACP meeting, thus showing that the NAACP was inconsistent. Apparently Breitbart could not find actual evidence of racism, so perhaps he resorted to manufacturing the evidence by posting the edited version of the clip. If so, this is clearly a morally reprehensible act of deceit. If, however, he merely acted in ignorance of the full clip, then he would only be guilty of not engaging in proper research before posting the clip.

Of course, he would not be the only one guilty of a failure to do research. As noted above, the NAACP and the USDA rushed into action on the basis of the edited clip and not the full version. In what seems to be an effort to dodge blame, the NAACP now claims that they were snookered by Fox News. I would have thought that the folks in the NAACP would be aware of  the nature of Fox News. As such, they should have been a bit more critical. In any case, they should not have relied on such a limited number of sources. After all, such a serious condemnation should have been backed up with equally serious research and due diligence. To fail to do so is both a professional and a moral failure. Blaming Fox in no way mitigates their responsibility.

The same applies to the USDA. While it is understandable that they would wish to act quickly, it is clear that they acted far too hastily. The source of the edited clip should have been considered and, of course, the entire clip should have been viewed. Such a review would not have taken very long and both professionalism and ethics demand that such a proper review take place before a person is fired.

While the clip probably did not have exactly the effect that Breitbart expected, the situation might be seen as a win for certain people. After all, the NAACP took a hit as did the Obama administration. On a more positive note, the situation did an excellent job of exposing how poorly charges of racism are handled. I would like to hope that this incident will result in some positive change, but I suspect the lesson will not stick.

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The Racism Monster

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 20, 2010
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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.

From a moral standpoint, the NAACP and the government owe Sherrod an apology. At the very least she should also get her job back. This situation should also serve as  lesson about the misuse of charges of racism as a political tool.

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Tea For Two…

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 20, 2010
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The National Tea Party Federation recently booted the Tea Party Express.  This was, of course, in response to Mark Williams allegedly racist (rather than satirical) blog post. While some folks have created the impression that the Tea Party Express has been officially removed from the Tea Party movement, this is clearly not the case.

Unlike the two national parties, the Tea Party movement has no overall leadership or hierarchy of command. As such, while one organization can assert that it is banning or expelling another this really amounts mainly to posturing and statement making. Of course, much of politics is doing just that-making empty gestures for political points. Of course, taking a stand against racism can be more than a mere political gesture.

While it is reasonable and right to be concerned about the pernicious force of racism, charges of such racism should be made carefully, and need to be based on actual racism. Being critical of Obama’s policies is not racist. Using unflattering comparisons or modified images relating to Obama also need not be racist. After all, white presidents have been subject to such treatment (often by other white people).

This is not to deny that there are racists in the Tea Party movement. It would be odd if there were not, given that the two main political parties have racist members. As noted in an earlier post, it is not merely having some racist members that make a movement racist. Rather, it is the ideology and values of that movement. While the Tea Party movement has been linked to racism, the main concerns of the movement do not seem to be tainted with racism.

In various conversations I have heard people consider that the charges of racism against the Tea Party might be attempts (conscious or not) to wield that political sword to wound the movement. It does, of course, provide an all too easy and convenient avenue of attack: rather than engaging the actual political views of the Tea Party movement or addressing its criticisms, one can simply tar them with charges of racism. I suspect that there is some merit to these claims. The Tea Party does seem to be shaping up as a potentially significant political force. As such, it would hardly be surprising that the Democrats and the left would be attempting to weaken it.

It is also worth considering that some (perhaps even all) of the people accusing the Tea Party folks of racism are sincere in their belief. However, the sincerity of a belief is no measure of its truth. It could be argued that those who are very sensitive to racism will tend to perceive certain attacks on Obama as racist, even when they are not. For example, to claim that comparing Obama to Stalin is racism seems to be an error. After all, the point of this comparison is based on an alleged shared ideology between the two men rather than any reference to race. In other case, concerns about racism are better founded (such as the use of monkey comparisons).

Finally, it is well worth keeping in mind that some of the charges of racism could have merit and these should not be dismissed as mere political attacks.

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Race & Tea

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2010
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The charges of racism against the Tea Party are getting considerable media attention, perhaps because people have become bored with the oil spill and Lebron James has made his decision.

When assessing whether the Tea Party is racist or not, one has to consider the nature of the charge. One possibility is that the movement has racist principles. This does not seem to be the case. Rather, the main concerns seem to be with economics and politics. This is no doubt why the NAACP did not make a resolution against the Tea Party’s general political ideology.

Another possibility is that the movement contains racists and makes use of racism as a tool. To be specific, racist images, stereotypes and prejudices are used by Tea Party leaders and members to gain support and to attack the Obama administration. As noted in the previous post, some of the images used by and comments made by Tea Party members could be taken as racist. However, to justly accuse a group of racism it would have to be shown that such behavior is encourage or at least tolerated.

In general, the Tea Party leadership has taken pains to insist that they are opposed to racism and do not tolerate it. They point to minority members and leaders as evidence and also make public statements against racism and racist behavior.

In reply, people sometimes point out that the Tea Party is mostly white. However, if having membership that is mostly one color makes a group racist, then the NAACP would be racist. As such, this sort of reply is problematic. In any case, the fact that most members of a group are one race does not, by itself, indicate racism is at work.

As another reply, people point out that the Tea Party is very critical of Obama. However, being critical of a politician is not racism. That seems merely to be business as usual in American politics. What would be needed to prove racism is to show that the attacks and criticism of Obama are not based on political differences but are instead based on race. So, if the Tea Party were attacking Obama because he is black, then that would be racist. However, if they attack him because they think he is spending too much or not doing enough about the economy, then that is a politically based dispute and does not seem to be racist. To assume that any criticism of Obama must be based on race would itself seem to be racist. It also does Obama a disservice by making his race primary and not his political views.

While there do seem to be racists in the Tea Party, this is nothing unique to them. The Republicans and Democrats have their own racists, but this does not justify a sweeping condemnation of either party. The Tea Party should be afforded the same courtesy and not judged primarily by its fringe members.

That said, there are some legitimate concerns that there is an undercurrent of racism in the movement. However, some of the Tea Party leaders seem intent to damn that current. In any case, the Tea Party movement should be judged on the facts and care should be taken to avoid letting emotions and rhetoric cloud the judgment.

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