A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2016

When Trump began his bid for the Presidency in 2015, it was largely dismissed as a joke. He then trounced his Republican opponents. So as to not let them forget their shame, Trump still occasionally takes shots at his fallen rivals. As this is being written, Trump has a very real chance of winning the election, sending Hillary Clinton’s dream of being the first female president into the flaming dumpster of history.

Trump’s success was a shock to the elites of many realms, from the top pundits to the Republican leadership. Liberal intellectuals, who once mocked Trump with witty remarks between sips of their gluten free lattes, are now moping the sweat from their fevered brows with woven hemp handkerchiefs. Sane commentators predicted, with each horrific spew from Trump’s word port, that Trump would be brought down with a huge and luxurious self-inflicted wound. Now the sane commentators have gazed into the mouth of madness and have accepted that there seems to be nothing that Trump can say that would derail the onslaught of the Trumpernaut.

Trump’s run, win or lose, will be a treasure trove for many dissertations in psychology, political science and other fields as thinking people try to analyze this phenomenon from the perspective of history. There is, of course, considerable speculation about the foundation for Trump’s success. Or, more accurately, his lack of failure.

As someone who teaches critical thinking, one of the most striking thing about Trump’s success is that many of the reasons Trump supporters give for supporting Trump are objectively unfounded in reality. One of the main mantras of Trump backers is that Trump “tells it like it is.” The usual meaning of these words is that a person is saying what is true. After all, “like it is” is supposed to refer to what the world in fact is and not what is not. As a matter of objective fact, Trump rarely “tells it like it is.” The proof of this can be found on Trump’s Politifact page. 4% of Trump’s claims have been evaluated as true and 11% as mostly true. This is hardly like it is. Yet, Trump supporters persist in claiming that he tells it like it is, despite the fact that he does not.

One possible explanation is that his supporters believe his claims. If so, they would certainly think that he tells it like it is. This would require either never making an inquiry into the truth of Trump’s claims or refusing to accept the inquiries that have been made. Trump has, of course, availed himself of a sword forged and often wielded by other Republicans, which is the attack on the “liberal media” as biased. This allows any assessment of Trump’s claims to be dismissed.

Another possibility is that their use of the phrase is meaningless, a mere parroting of Trump’s talking point. This would be analogous to the repetition of other empty advertising slogans, like “it gets clothes brighter than bright” or, for those more cynical than I, “hope and change.” If someone is asked why they back Trump, they typically feel the need to present a reason, and this empty saying no doubt pops into the mind.

His supporters also claim that they back him because of his great business success. While it is true that the Trump brand is known worldwide, it is not clear that he has been a great success in business. Newsweek, which was once a success itself, has done a rundown of Trump’s many business failures. While it is true that Trump’s people have skillfully used the bankruptcy laws and threats of lawsuits, this seems to be rather different from the sort of business success that people attribute to him. Some critics have speculated that Trump is refusing to release his tax forms (which he can—the IRS does not forbid people being audited from releasing their forms) because they would show he is not as wealthy as he claims. This is, of course, speculation and Trump could have other good reasons for not releasing the forms. Of course, some might make use of the classic cry of “what is he hiding?” Trump can, obviously, claim to be something of a success: he is world famous and clearly has his name on many things.

Trump supporters also use the talking point that Trump is not politically correct. This is true—Trump relentlessly says things that horrify and terrify the guardians of political correctness. To those who are tired of the political correctness enforcers, this is very appealing.

However, Trump goes far beyond not being politically correct and, some would claim, he heads into racism and sexism. This has suggested to some critics that Trump’s backers are racists and sexists who like what he has to say.  He also routinely crosses boundaries of decency that, until Trump, most Americans thought no candidate (or decent human being) would cross. The latest example is his battle with the Khan family, whose son was an Army captain killed in Iraq. Normally a savage attack on a Gold Star family would be a death blow to a candidate. However, while Trump’s backers often condemn his remarks, they stick with him. One possibility is that although they condemn his remarks in public, they secretly agree with these claims. Another possibility is that the offenses are condemned but are not regarded as serious enough to break the deal. This would, of course, require that there be other motives to support Trump.

For many, the best reason to back Trump is that he is not Hillary Clinton. As pundits like to point out, Trump and Hillary have record high unfavorable ratings. There are also people who are party loyalists (or at least party pragmatists) who support Trump because he is the Republican candidate. Interestingly, Trump is also attracting support from voters who have traditionally backed the Democrats—that is, working class whites.

A final talking point used by Trump supporters is that he is against the elites. This is amazing in its irony: Trump was born into wealth and has always been among the moneyed elites. That said, Trump does have a persona that some would regard as crude and non-elite. Trump is tapping into a very real sense of anger and desperation among Americans who believe, with complete correctness, that they have largely been abandoned by the elites. I certainly get this. I am from Old Town, Maine—a very small town that relied on the paper mill for employment and tax revenue. After ownership of the mill shifted a few times, the last owner shut down operations, presumably going overseas. When I was a kid, the mill smelled bad—which my dad called the “smell of money.” That smell is now gone, and my hometown is struggling. My dad said that there are about fifty abandoned houses in town, and on my runs I saw many empty houses—including the house I grew up in. Meanwhile, we get to see app billionaires on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert talk about their billions. Those who dig into the numbers see that the elites have consistently gotten their way at the expense of the rest of us; that the economic success at the top has not trickled down, and that we will be worse off than our predecessors. Our elites have failed us and we have failed by making them our elites.

Trump, the elite billionaire who got his start with a “little loan” of a million dollars from his father, is able to somehow tap into this anger. Most likely because Hillary is clearly identified with the elites that have failed us so badly. That is, Trump is seen as the only viable option, the only voice for the non-elite.

This itself is a sign of the failure of our elites—that so many people regard Trump as their only hope. Or perhaps they see him as someone who will burn it all in an act of vengeance against the elites. While I do understand the rage against the failures of the elite and get that Hillary is the elitist of the elite, Trump is not the savior of America. Voting for Hillary is essentially voting for more of the same. But voting for Trump is to vote for disaster.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Yoga & Cultural Appropriation

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2015

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.



In the fall of 2015, a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa was suspended out of concern that it might be an act of cultural appropriation. Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities, where the class was offered, made this decision on the basis of a complaint.  A Centre official noted that many cultures, including the culture from which yoga originated, “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”  In response, there was an attempt to “rebrand” the class as “mindful stretching.” Due to issues regarding a French translation of the phrase, the rebranding failed and the class was suspended.

When I first heard about his story, I inferred it was satire on the part of the Onion because it seemed to be an absurd lampooning of political correctness. It turned out that it was real, but still absurd. But, as absurdities sometimes do, it does provide an interesting context for discussing a serious subject—in this case that of cultural appropriation.

The concept of cultural appropriation is somewhat controversial, but the basic idea is fairly simple. In general terms, cultural appropriation takes place when a dominant culture takes (“appropriates”) from a marginalized culture for morally problematic reasons. For example, white college students have been accused of cultural appropriation (and worse) when they have made mocking use of aspects of black culture for theme parties. Some on the left (or “the politically correct” as they are called by their detractors) regard cultural appropriation as morally wrong. Some on the right think the idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous and people should just get over and forget about past oppressions.

While I am no fan of what can justly be considered mere political correctness, I do agree that there are moral problems with what is often designated as cultural appropriation. One common area of cultural appropriation is that which is intended to lampoon. While comedy, as Aristotle noted, is a species of the ugly, it should not enter into the realm of what is actually hurtful. As such lampooning of cultural stereotypes that cross over into being actually hurtful would cease to be comedic and would instead be merely insulting mockery. An excellent (or awful) example of this would be the use of blackface by people who are not black. Naturally, specific cases would need to be given due consideration—it can be aesthetically legitimate to use the shock of apparent cultural appropriation to make a point.

It can, of course, be objected that lampooning is exempt from the usual moral concerns about insulting people and thus that such mocking insults would be morally fine. It must also be noted that I am making no assertions here about what should be forbidden by law. My view is, in fact, that even the most insulting mockery should not be restricted by law. Morality is, after all, distinct from legality.

Another common area of cultural appropriation is the misuse of symbols from a culture. For example, having an underwear model prance around in a war bonnet is not intended as lampooning, but is an insult to the culture that regards the war bonnet as an honor to be earned. It would be comparable to having underwear models prancing around displaying unearned honors such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor. This misuse can, of course, be unintentional—people often use cultural marks of honor as “cool accessories” without any awareness of what they actually mean. While people should, perhaps, do some research before borrowing from other cultures, innocent ignorance is certainly forgivable.

It could be objected that such misuse is not morally problematic since there is no real harm being done when a culture is insulted by the misuse of its symbols. This, of course, would need to be held to consistently—a person making this argument to allow the misuse of the symbols of another culture would need to accept a comparable misuse of her own most sacred symbols as morally tolerable. Once again, I am not addressing the legality of this matter—although cultures do often have laws protecting their own symbols, such as military medals or religious icons.

While it would be easy to run through a multitude of cases that would be considered cultural appropriation, I prefer to focus on presenting a general principle about what would be morally problematic cultural appropriation. Given the above examples and consideration of the others that can be readily found, what seems to make appropriation inappropriate is the misuse or abuse of the cultural elements. That is, there needs to be meaningful harm inflicted by the appropriation. This misuse or abuse could be intentional (which would make it morally worse) or unintentional (which might make it an innocent error of ignorance).

It could be contended that any appropriation of culture is harmful by using an analogy to trademark, patent, and copyright law. A culture could be regarded as holding the moral “trademark”, “patent” or “copyright” (as appropriate) on its cultural items and thus people who are not part of that culture would be inflicting harm by appropriating these items. This would be analogous to another company appropriating, for example, Disney’s trademarks, violating the copyrights held by Random House or the patents held by Google. Culture could be thus regarded as a property owned by members of that culture and passed down as a matter of inheritance. This would seem to make any appropriation of culture by outsiders morally problematic—although a culture could give permission for such use by intentionally sharing the culture. Those who are fond of property rights should find this argument appealing.

One interesting way to counter the ownership argument is to note that humans are born into culture by chance and any human could be raised in any culture. As such, it could be claimed that humans have an ownership stake in all human cultures and thus are entitled to adopt culture as they see fit. The culture should, of course, be shown proper respect. This would, of course, be a form of cultural communism—which those who like strict property rights might find unappealing.

The response to this is to note that humans are also born by chance to families and any human could be designated the heir of a family, yet there are strict rules governing the inheritance of property. As such, cultural inheritance could work the same way—only the true heirs can give permission to others to use the culture. This should appeal to those who favor strict protections for inherited property.

My own inclination is that humans are the inheritors of all human culture and thus we all have a right to the cultural wealth our species has produced.  Naturally, individual ownership of specific works should be properly respected. However, as with any gift, it must be treated with due respect and used appropriately—rather than misused through appropriation. So, cancelling the yoga class was absurd.



My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Illegal Alien Costume

Posted in Ethics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2009
Cover of "Illegal Aliens"
Cover of Illegal Aliens

In a flashback to political correctness, Target recently caved in to pressure and removed the illegal alien costume from its stores. Apparently some other costume shops did so as well. The costume consists of an alien (of the sci-fi sort) mask, an orange jumpsuit and (oddly enough) a green card.

On one hand, it does make some sense that certain folks would be offended by this costume. After all, it can be seen as a slight against human illegal aliens. Folks who see racism in all things will also no doubt see it as a statement that illegal aliens are inferior beings.

On the other hand, the costume does not seem to be hateful or racist in nature. This sort of illegal alien joke has been around for a rather long time and it is generally used without any malice or racism. For example, Nick Pollotta and Phil Foglio wrote a hilarious sci-fi book called Illegal Aliens back in 1989. The book cannot, in any way, be seen as attacking human illegal aliens or as racist. If you doubt this, read it. Naturally, it could be claimed that the title itself is a vehicle of hate-but I think that the burden of proof is clearly on those who make this claim. After all, as noted above, the book itself seems to be free of hate and racism.

Of course, there are cases in which illegal alien jokes do come with some racism and hatred attached. For example, I vaguely recall seeing a cartoon showing Aliens (from the Alien movie) dressed up in Mexican garb picking crops. While this was intended to be funny, it could also be seen as vaguely racist. Naturally, there are no doubt some attempts at humor in this vein that are overtly racist and hateful.

In the case of the costume, the key question is whether it falls into the mere joke category or into a more sinister category. My view is that since the mask is a stock “gray” alien and not a distorted “space Mexican” sort of thing, then it seems most reasonable to take it as a mere joke. Now, if the alien was a caricature of a Hispanic person, then the charge of racism would certainly stick.

It could be objected that this costume intentionally or unintentionally depicts human illegal aliens as non-humans and, as such, is a racist attack on such people.

My response is that while such an interpretation is possible, it seems to be quite a leap in the case of the specific costume in question. The specific costume seems to be merely a joke-a play on the ambiguity of “alien” and not a vehicle for racism. Once more, I think that the burden of proof rests on those who see such racism in this costume.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]