A Philosopher's Blog

Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 9, 2014
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I was asked to write a post about the ad baculum in the context of sexism and racism. To start things off, an ad baculum is a common fallacy that, like most common fallacies, goes by a variety of names. This particular fallacy is also known as appeal to fear, appeal to force and scare tactics. The basic idea is quite straightforward and the fallacy has a simple form:

Premise: Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).

Conclusion:  Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).


This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people (or threatening them) does not constitute evidence that a claim is true. This tactic can be rather effective as a persuasive device since fear can be an effective motivator for belief. But, there is a distinction between a logical reason to accept a claim as true and a motivating reason to believe that a claim is true.

Like all fallacies, ad baculums will serve any master, so they can be employed as a device in “support” of any claim. In the days when racism and sexism were rather more overt in America, ad baculums were commonly employed in the hopes of motivating people to accept (or at least not oppose) racism and sexism. Naturally, the less subtle means of direct threats and physical violence (up to and including murder) were deployed as well.

In the United States of 2014, overt racism and sexism are regarded as unacceptable and those who make racist or sexist claims sometimes find themselves the object of public disapproval. In some cases, making such claims can cost a person his job.

In some cases, it will be claimed that the claims were not actually racist or sexist. In other cases, the racism or sexism will not be denied, but an appeal will be made to freedom of expression and concerns will be raised that a person is being denied his rights when he is subject to a backlash for remarks that some might regard as racist or sexist.

Given that people are sometimes subject to negative consequences for making claims that are seen by some as racist or sexist, it is not unreasonable to consider that ad baculums are sometimes deployed to limit free expression. That is, that the threat of some sort of retaliation is used to persuade people to accept certain claims. Or, at the very least, used in an attempt to silence people.

It is rather important to be clear about an important distinction between an appeal to fear (using fear to get people to believe) and there being negative consequences for a person’s actions. For example, if someone says “you know, young professor, that we carefully consider a person’s view on race and sex before granting tenure…so I certainly hope that you are with us in your beliefs and actions”, then that is an appeal to fear: the young professor is supposed to agree with her colleagues and believe that claims are true because she has been threatened. But, if a young professor realizes that she will fired for yelling things like “go back to England, white devil honkey crackers male-pigs” at her white male students and elects not to do so, she is not a victim of an appeal to fear. To use another example, if I refrain from shouting obscenities at the Dean because I would rather not be fired, I am not a victim of ad baculum. As a final example, if I decide not to say horrible things about my friends because I know that they would reconsider their relationship to me, then I am not a victim of an ad baculum. As such, an ad baculum is not that a person faces potential negative consequences for saying things, it is that a person is supposed to accept a claim as true on the basis of “evidence” that is merely a threat or something intended to create fear. As such, the fact that making claims that could be taken as sexist or racist could result in negative consequences does not entail that anyone is a victim of ad baculum in this context.

What some people seem to be worried about is the possibility of a culture of coercion (typically regarded as leftist) that aims at making people conform to a specific view about sex and race. If there were such a culture or system of coercion that aimed at making people accept claims about race and gender using threats as “evidence”, then there would certainly be ad baculums being deployed.

I certainly will not deny that there are some people who do use ad baculums to try to persuade people to believe claims about sex and race. However, there is the reasonable question of how much this actually impacts discussions of race and gender. There is, of course, the notion that the left has powerful machinery in place to silence dissent and suppress discussions of race and sex that deviate from their agenda. There is also the notion that this view is a straw man of the reality of the situation.

One point of reasonable concern is considering the distinction between views that can be legitimately regarded as warranting negative consequences (that is, a person gets what she deserves for saying such things) and views that should be seen as legitimate points of view, free of negative consequences. For example, if I say that you are an inferior being who is worthy only of being my servant and unworthy of the rights of a true human, then I should certainly expect negative consequences and would certainly deserve some of them.

Since I buy into freedom of expression, I do hold that people should be free to express views that would be regarded as sexist and racist. However, like J.S. Mill, I also hold that people are subject to the consequences of their actions. So, a person is free to tell us one more thing he knows about the Negro, but he should not expect that doing so will be free of consequences.

There is also the way in which such views are considered. For example, if I were to put forth a hypothesis about gender role for scientific consideration and was willing to accept the evidence for or against my hypothesis, then this would be rather different than just insisting that women are only fit for making babies and sandwiches. Since I believe in freedom of inquiry, I accept that even hypotheses that might be regarded as racist or sexist should be given due consideration if they are properly presented and tested according to rigorous standards. For example, some claim that women are more empathetic and even more ethical than men. While that might seem like a sexist view, it is a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can be tested and thus confirmed or disconfirmed. Likewise, the claim that men are better suited for leadership might seem like a sexist view, it is also a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can presumably be investigated. As a final example, inquiring whether or not men are being pushed out of higher education is also a matter of legitimate inquiry—and one I have pursued.

If someone is merely spewing hate and nonsense, I am not very concerned if he gets himself into trouble. After all, actions have consequences. However, I am concerned about the possibility that scare tactics might be used to limit freedom of expression in the context of discussions about race and sex. The challenge here is sorting between cases of legitimate discussion/inquiry and mere racism or sexism.

As noted above, I have written about the possibility of sexism against men in current academics—but I have never been threatened and no attempt has been made to silence me. This might well be because my work never caught the right (or wrong) eyes or it might be because my claims are made as a matter of inquiry and rationally argued. Because of my commitment to these values, I am quite willing to consider examples of cases where sensible and ethical people have attempted to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or inquiry in regards to race or sex and have been subject to attempts to silence them. I am sure there are examples and welcome their inclusion in the comments section.


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Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2010
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Currently, the United States does not use profiling in regards to airport security. True, there is a no fly list-a list that has included people who are obviously not terrorists (like American children and a well known CNN journalist) and has generally failed as  method of providing security.

It has been claimed that profiling is not used in the United States because of political correctness. While that might be true, some reasonable arguments can be given against profiling.

One argument is that profiling could be misused in order to target people for harassment on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, nationality and so on.  For example, suppose that Arabs were flagged as higher risk. This would allow security agents (like TSA folks) who do not like Arabs to harass them under the cover of these profiles (“I didn’t pull Abdul out for a special search because I hate Arabs, I did it because he fits the profile”).  This is, of course, the argument used against racial profiling by the police: it results in certain people being targeted more and also provides a cover for harassment.

This is a legitimate concern and is supported by the history of racial profiling in the United States.

Another argument is that  profiling is inherently unfair. After all, such profiles treat a person as a suspect based on factors such as ethnicity and religion rather than on the person’s actual actions. To, for example, pull all darker skinned people out of line for special screening because they have dark skin and let white folks go on through normally would be unfair. While profiling might result in increased security, it is no more justified than allowing the police to pull people over for DWB (Driving While Black).

While these arguments are well worth considering, there are also arguments in support of profiling.

In theory, it does seem possible for profiling to be an effective means of determining threats. After all, terrorists (and other threats) do not arise out of nothing. There are causal factors and other factors that would seem to be connected to such people. Also, there are factors that would tend to indicate that a person is not likely to be a terrorist or threat. To use an obvious example, an FBI agent travelling with her infant son is probably not going to try to take the plane down. In contrast, a young man from Saudi Arabia who is flying in from Yemen who spent a few years in Pakistan is more likely to pose a threat.

The profiling I will be arguing for is not just any sort of profiling. Rather, it is profiling based on proper research and statistical models. It also needs to be subject to rigorous assessment. I do consider the possibility that proper profiling might be beyond the capacity of today’s behavioral sciences and thus that at this time profiling might not be accurate enough to be justified as a security tool.

One argument in favor of profiling is that it enables a more effective use of resources. Rather than randomly pulling people out of line, people who are more likely to be threats can be subject to more attention. This would increase the likelihood that such threats would be caught. To use an analogy, rather than having the police just pull people over at random to check for drunk driving, it makes more sense to look for indicators of drunk driving, such as swerving about.

A second argument in favor of profiling is that it reduces the violation of rights and liberties. Under the current system, everyone is treated as a likely terrorist and subject to body scans or pat downs. With profiling, people who are more likely to be threats can be subjected to the more invasive means of checking.

It might be argued that singling people out would violate their rights. However, it can be countered that the current system is a greater violation. The current system is to treat everyone from the toddler to the grandpa as an equal threat. As such, if singling people out would be a violation, then it would seem that targeting everyone would be an even greater violation. To use an analogy, having the police randomly pull over any driver seems like a greater violation of rights than having the police pull over people who are most likely to be driving drunk.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is more unfair to single people out based on their being more likely to be a threat. After all, they are being treated differently than other people even though they might have actually done nothing to warrant such suspicion-that is, they meet the profile but are not actually a threat.

So, it seems to be a matter of whether it is better to treat everyone as an equal threat or to consider some people as greater threats based on profiling.

As noted above, there is also the open question about the effectiveness of specific profiling methods. It might be the case that the behavioral sciences are not up to the challenge of creating an effective system. It might also be the case that even an effective profile method might be misused enough or employed poorly enough to make it unjust or useless.

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Is There Such a Thing as Islamophobia?

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2010
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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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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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Race & The Doll Study: Experience

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2010
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In my previous blog, I discussed a bias in a new version of the classic doll study regarding race. In this blog, I will consider another concern about the study.

In the study, the children were asked questions such as “which child is bad?” and essentially directed to select a specific color. In addition to the bias inherent in not allowing “all” or “none” as clear options, there is also the matter of the basis on which the children made their selections.

One possibility is, of course, that racism is a factor in how the children made their choices. This is not to say that the children are consciously racists or were raised by people who are racists. Rather, the children could be influenced by various racist factors-such as how people are portrayed in the media or due to long standing stereotypes. Given that racism is still a factor in our society, it seems quite reasonable to accept this possibility. However, it is not the only possible factor.

Another possibility is that children are influenced by their experiences. So, when they pick a specific color it might not be a matter of racial bias but rather the result of positive or negative experiences. For example, if a child were bullied by a black child, he would tend to pick the black child on the card when asked “which child is mean?” As such, the choices made by some of the children might reflect specific experiences rather than a racial bias. However, there is the obvious question of how much these specific experiences are influencing the results and how much is the result of other factors (such as those that would be considered race based).

Suppose that people were asked “which person is in prison?” and were given a card showing people of various colors. Most people, I suspect, would pick the darker colors. Would this be evidence of racism? On one hand, it could be argued that is is racism-the people made the choice based on a racial bias against darker people. On the other hand, the choice could be based on the fact that black people are more likely to end up in prison than white people. Naturally, the fact that black people are more likely to be imprisoned than white people might be the result of racism, but being aware of this fact and making a choice based on it would not be racism.

To use another example, if people were asked “which person is employed?” they would tend to pick the lighter skinned people. This could be racism or merely knowledge that there is a disparity in employment along racial lines in the United States.

In the case of the study, some of the apparent positive bias towards whites and negative bias towards black might be the result of this factor. Take, for example, the question about who is smarter. Whites generally do better in school and on standardized tests. It is not unlikely that the children are aware of the performance of their classmates. As such, when asked something like “which child is smart?” they would tend to think of specific students they know who do well in school and these would generally tend to be white students. in this case, the choice would not be the result of racial bias on part of the child.

As such, it might be the case that some of the children who seem to be racially biased are actually not biased and are merely making their selection based on what they have experienced. These experiences might, of course, be caused by racism. For example, the lower performance of black students relative to white students can plausible be connected to racism. As such, it must be considered that some of the children might simply be aware of racism rather than being racist.

This is, of course, were the interviews with the children become especially important. They serve to provide some insight into why the children picked as they did. Of course, the fact that the media folks tend to sensationalize things must be taken into account as well. For example, the girl who said that she picked the black child as bad because the child is black is being used to advertise the story-as opposed to the children who presented rather enlightened views.

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Do Hate Crime Laws Protect?

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2009

President Obama recently signed a hate crime bill, making it into law. Roughly put, the law makes assaulting a person because of sexual orientation or gender identification a federal offense. It has been claimed that this law will help protect people.

Naturally enough, this raises the question whether such a law will help protect people. Presumably what is meant by “protect” is that the law will deter people from committing such assaults. This, of course, assumes that people who commit such crimes will be aware of the law and that the fear of the law will cause them to not engage in attacks they would otherwise conduct if the law did not exist.

On the one hand, people can be deterred by the threat of punishment-especially when the law is a federal law. People presumably have more fear of federal laws than they do of lesser laws because of the greater power of the federal government. As such, there is reason to believe that the law can deter-especially when a high profile case or two makes the law and its consequences widely known to the sort of folks who would be inclined to attack such people.

On the other hand, assaulting someone is already illegal and punishable by the law. Presumably the people who have been assaulting folks who are now protected by this law were aware of this fact, yet they acted anyway. Also, the sort of folks who would be engaging in hate crimes would seem to be the sort of people who are not rational calculators. That is, it seems unlikely that they weigh out the probabilities and consequences before acting. Presumably if they are committing hate crimes, they are driven by hate and would tend to just act on the basis of this emotion.

Of course, the same can be said of any law. When I was an undergrad, one of my professors pointed out that prisons did not really work as deterrents. After all, if they worked, then they would be empty. Of course, it can be replied that the law (and prisons) do not deter everyone, but they do have some deterrent value. As such, this law might deter those folks inclined towards hate crime who are capable of making rational assessments about punishment. Of course, those folks would probably be deterred by the laws relating to assault.

The law does, of course, provide a way to punish people more severely. While this does not necessarily enhance deterrence, it does give the law more retributive force-and perhaps that is part of the appeal.

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